‘Spine of Night’ Comes to Shudder in its own Bloody, Freaky Glory
Philip Gelatt and Morgan Galen King’s animated sword & sorcery was set for a niche audience in mind, and during Fantasia Fest, it certainly has found it. In a rotoscoped animation style familiar to fans of Ralph Bakshi’s Heavy Metal, Wizards, Fire & Ice and Lord of the Rings, The Spine of Night is certainly an homage to Bakshi’s unique style. Forever instilled in the minds of moviegoers with a taste for the fantastical, Gelatt & King’s feature-length effort also ups the brutality for audiences who connected with any of Bakshi’s more adult-oriented films (whether or not they were part of the intended audience).
The film touts a stellar and varied voice cast with Lucy Lawless as Tzod, a witch whose community is torn apart before her eyes, becoming imprisoned by self-made ruler Pyrantin (Patton Oswalt). She recounts her struggles escaping imprisonment and fighting for others’ freedom in confiding with The Guardian (voiced by Richard E. Grant), her journey reaching to and beyond the very thresholds of death and rebirth.
The main issue to be called out against Spine of Night is that it attempts something that Bakshi’s body of work didn’t then, to a lesser degree of success. This recent addition to the subgenre portrays unwavering images of intense violence, blood, gore, and nudity — much like its predecessor, Heavy Metal. But where the latter doesn’t attempt to disguise its outward sexuality in favor of the male gaze, the former tries to refocus this desire for sexual spectacle (incidental or otherwise) towards the separate sociological issues that present themselves over the course of Tzod’s numerous struggles.
Unfortunately it ultimately fails to provide a meaningful commentary through the use of any authentic lens through which to attack issues left dormant in Bakshi’s work, of imposed sexuality, colonialism, or disenfranchisement. It opts to use these themes as a backdrop rather than any kind of analytic focus, robbing it of the depth they deserve, not to mention a dire need of re-contextualization. Spine of Night is very much something that will satisfy a specific audience based squarely on its depictions of violence and sexuality. In the way that it unapologetically embraces the visual style of Heavy Metal, so too does it also embrace its loose approach at story structure.
As the majority of the film is told in snippets of recollections by the witch Tzod, naturally it takes an episodic approach to story. Each scenario leads naturally into the next with an authenticity of voice, as she provides the details of these events, never is it questioned that any of it is false.
It successfully presents a series of events presented in an ever-increasing operatic scope, stretching out, even, towards the cosmos. It’s fair to divulge to those who haven’t seen the film yet that even the celestial bodies here are flagrantly unkind. The welfare of poor-souled individuals find themselves in the middle of the many frays mankind inflicts, mauled without a second thought. In this way The Spine of Night conquers one of its goals, as the feeling of doom grows ever palpable, hopeless to resist right up until the last.
The finer details that populate Spine of Night won’t stick with everyone. But the grand scheme of Tzod’s journey, hopes, and dreams make themselves known early on and are easily transferrable, framed by a sense of poignancy that viewers will no doubt identify with. Throughout Tzod’s episodic adventures this sadness grows ever stronger, not just through the simple unfulfilled wish of humankind to be a more tender force, but for it to be at the very least more aware of the consequences that come of conquest. The film’s inherent crutch of gendered and hetero-normative sexuality plays a part in perpetuating an unhealthy male gaze, which may frontload any conversations surrounding Spine of Night’s overt sexuality or sexual freedom in general. Some of the above dour themes make themselves well-known during the film and on reflection after it’s over, they continue to wriggle out, like tendrils behind an uncaring nebula in the far-off starry sky.
The Spine of Night makes its streaming debut on Shudder’s streaming service on Thursday, March 24th.