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SXSW ‘21 Movie Review: “The Spine of Night” Brings An Ax To A Knife Fight

Tuesday, March 23, 2021 | Reviews


Starring Richard E. Grant, Lucy Lawless and Patton Oswalt
Written and Directed by Philip Gelatt and Morgan Galen King
Yellow Veil Pictures

Taking its cues from epic fantasies from our cinematic and mythological histories, THE SPINE OF NIGHT crafts an imaginative world without flinching or sparing the audience from trauma.

The story of the film functions nearly like an anthology, weaving together tales as they are told around the fire. When we first see Tzod (voiced by Lucy Lawless) she is naked, save for a few warrior adornments, climbing up a snowy mountain to find a giant skull atop. Within that skull, the Guardian (voiced by Richard E. Grant) is protecting the last glowing blossom that remains of their magical inheritance. The two start talking, each taking turns telling the story of how they came to arrive at that mountain top at that time. Their stories are connected and their legacies joined through this mountain and their mountainous mythology.

First up is Tzod telling her origin story. She comes from a nature-based religion where she led her people in peaceful times deep in the swamp, worshipping the glowing blue blossoms. When men come to destroy her family, burn the swamp, and take her as a trophy to the Lord (voiced by Patton Oswalt), it becomes clear that this will not be a happy story in any way. That’s a continuing trend throughout the rest of Tzod’s origin as well as the other three stories that make up the narrative of THE SPINE OF NIGHT. It is violent and gruesome, but, perhaps even worse, it is mean. The hand-rotoscoped animation does not shy away from showing all of this physical and intellectual violence. It shows flesh ripping and searing, pain slashing across faces, and life slowly draining from bodies. The vast majority of the film layers this animated style of human performances translated into illustrations over more textured and immersive backgrounds. Characters may be walking through a forest, but that forest will be what looks like a watercolor painting with these travelers layered on cells atop the painting. This makes for a style that is always engaging and never without adaptability. The one exception to this style is a sequence where mythological gods are shown fighting in heavy black, with only hints of light for movement. This looks more like dark paper cutouts than traditional animation and is a striking representation of elder gods and their wars.

Thematically, THE SPINE OF NIGHT takes on its philosophical battles with all the subtlety of battle among titans. As the stories progress, the fight quickly becomes more about the struggle between elitists and scholars, and the egalitarians who want to teach the masses. There are typical land and air skirmishes, but all of them come back to the war over knowledge and the great power it bestows. Mythology as a whole is not known for its delicacy and this film takes us back to that classic sledgehammer simile; to get its point across, THE SPINE OF NIGHT beats it into us (metaphorically) and its characters (literally). Animation should never be considered shorthand for “kid-friendly,” but because of that common misconception, THE SPINE OF NIGHT is bound to damage a generation of children with inattentive parents.

THE SPINE OF NIGHT takes itself quite seriously. With its incredible animation, impressive cast, and spanning narrative, it has every right to do so. If all of this sounds hamfisted and ultraviolet, it is. THE SPINE OF NIGHT nestles itself amongst other epic tales of right and wrong, knowledge and power, man and nature, in a way that shouts its arrival into the canon of beloved fictitious allegories like The Last Unicorn and Legend. The pain and suffering within is nothing new to these traumatic sorts of imagined worlds, and the sting it causes creates this space for reflection, digestion, and growth.

THE SPINE OF NIGHT has been acquired for sales by Yellow Veil Pictures. The film’s wide release date is pending.



Deirdre is a Chicago-based film critic and life-long horror fan. In addition to writing for RUE MORGUE, she also contributes to C-Ville Weekly,, and belongs to the Chicago Film Critics Association. She's got two black cats and wrote her Master's thesis on George Romero.