SXSW 2021: Mesmerizing Rotoscoped Parable 'The Spine of Night'
by Alex Billington
March 23, 2021
Holy gore hell. It's only March, and we already have at least two incredibly unique, extremely strange mind-fuck animated films that are definitely not for kids. Dash Shaw's Cryptozoo premiered at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival in January, and The Spine of Night just premiered at the SXSW Film Festival this month. (And let's not forget about that wacky puppet horror Frank & Zed from the Nightstream Film Festival last year.) These films are yet another reminder that animation is a medium, not just a genre, and can be used to tell any kind of story - including extremely violent, gory, not-for-kids stories that could only be realized with animation. Fresh from SXSW, The Spine of Night is an instant cult classic, find-it-on-VHS-anywhere-you-can-at-whichever-video-store-stocks-it, extra gnarly, mind-melting sensation. Just don't watch this sober.
Co-written & co-directed by Philip Gelatt (writer / director of The Bleeding House, They Remain previously) & Morgan Galen King, The Spine of Night is an epic fantasy film that takes place in another world, which has kind of a medieval vibe with swords as the main weapon. Set in a land of magic, the story follows various heroes from different eras and cultures battling a malevolent force. Their great power is derived from this strange blue flower, and much like Lord of the Rings, many are seduced by this power and fall prey to its magnificence and glory. Only a few can resist and use it for good instead of evil. One "intelligent" sage falls for it and becomes an all-powerful evil bastard, destroying anyone that stands in his way and using the other evil men from around the land to his advantage. One woman tries to stop him but it's a near impossible task. The most confusing part about the film is the range of strange characters that often appear out of nowhere.
The most impressive thing about the film is that despite all kinds of mega intense things going on, it's still rather coherent and the story is entrancing. It is another tale-as-old-as-time fable about the inescapable lust for power. And it's easy to see the film as a metaphor for anyone who thinks they can use knowledge to be better than others then end up seduced by power (like many billionaires these days). But there's much more to the film in the way of its myth and magic, offering us something unique despite its many clear references (including Indiana Jones and LOTR and very obviously Frank Frazetta). Honestly, I was expecting it to be more convoluted but it's not, though it is dense and relentlessly paced. It's quite easy to get lost on this jaw-dropping adventure with the magical blue flower. And best experienced high or on psychedelics, though be warned there is some seriously brutal and disgusting imagery that might give you a bad trip if not prepared.
The Spine of Night is 100% Heavy Metal reborn. Many have tried to live up to and honor that animated classic from 1981, but few have ever come close. This is perhaps the closest I've seen in terms of animated feature films. Extremely violent and bloody beyond all measure, shockingly brutal and frighteningly gross at times. But it's still oddly quite beautiful and enchanting anyway. The animation is actually hand-rotoscoped performances, which really messes with my mind because I am sure most of what I saw in this film was too spectacular to be real in any way. Yet apparently they filmed live actors and created the animation on top of their performances. Which makes it even more amazing. Behold the almighty glory and power of The Spine of Night, a mesmerizing magical adventure and reminder that power temps and tortures way too many men.