“Tremble before the immensity of the night…”
…This one piece of dialogue from The Spine of Night perfectly captures the experience of the film. You will tremble before the immensity of The Spine of Night, because it is glorious.
Having just made its World Premiere at SXSW, writers/directors Philip Gelatt and Galen King’s The Spine of Night is an animated epic horror fantasy that cuts open the veins of Heavy Metal (1981) and pays homage with its blood. Lots of it.
Set in a magical world, the film is an anthology of loosely collected tales bristling with violence and bathed in gore. We first meet swamp witch Tzod (Lucy Lawless), trekking up a wintery mountain where she finds The Guardian (Richard E. Grant), an ancient being guarding a magical flower known as the Bloom. Eager to hear Tzod’s story, she sits to tell him various tales starring a variety of characters from herself, to a hopeful scholar named Phae-Agura (Betty Gabriel) and a trio of soldiers in masquerade bird masks. Though all loosely connected, most feature the same enemy, a necromancer called Ghal-Sur (Jordan Douglas Smith), a man who has abused the power of the Bloom, and whom Tzod has set out to stop.
Let me save you some reading time and mention that The Spine of Night is aggressively in the Heavy Metal, violent-animated-fantasy-movie-that’s-practically-a-music-video camp, so if that isn’t your jam, you will not survive this movie.
As for the rest of you, well, you might not survive either, because there’s a good chance that The Spine of Night will melt your eyeballs.
Calmly drifting through space before settling on land, the film opens on what one would frankly expect it to: boobs. Tzod is in the middle of her trek to The Guardian, sporting only a skull headdress and nothing else. Hope you don’t mind cartoon nudity, because The Spine of Night lays many of its characters bare in more ways than one. In that sense, it’s exactly the horny teenage fantasy epic you’d first assume it is. But unlike Heavy Metal and others of the sort, The Spine of Night is at least an equal-opportunist when it comes to the nudity, so, not that you wanted it, but by the end you’ll have been exposed to all of the cartoon wangs and lady parts you can manage. The nudity is one hundred percent unnecessary—I checked, Tzod’s people do in fact at least wear loin-cloths—and god if I didn’t want to hand Tzod a towel or something so she didn’t have to walk up that snowy mountain in the nude, but once you get past the teenage horniness of it all, the film is everything it can and should be.
I have to mention it, because there might be—no, there is definitely—one cartoon butt too many in the film, to a point where I can’t not mention it. Needless to say, Sir Mix-a-Lot would love this film.
The Spine of Night gets the most important element of any animated film right, and that’s the voice cast. This cast is as epic as the film they play a role in. I already mentioned the legendary Lucy Lawless, who brings that warrior Xena power in her strong portrayal of Tzod. But then there’s Patton Oswalt as the sniveling evil slimeball, Lord Pyrantin, Joe Manganiello as Pyrantin’s henchmen, Mongrel, and even Larry Fessenden makes a cameo as the blind Prophet of Doom, doing his best Ralph from Friday the 13th impression, screaming about death curses and the like. It’s an impeccable cast, and everyone is on their A-game, helping to bring the somewhat stiffly animated characters to life.
The benefit of doing an animated film like this with a cast like that, is that the only limits are that of the imagination, and The Spine of Night consistently stretches the possibilities of the imagination. Led by Peter Scartabello’s triumphant score, this film whisks viewers away on adventures to an assortment of breathtaking settings, whether it’s deep in dark dungeons, high atop the tallest mountains on the planet, or at the feet of temples that will remind some of The Cave of Wonders from Disney’s Aladdin, all of it blended with classic medieval and steampunk architectures. While the animation is somewhat of an acquired taste, The Spine of Night swirls with colorful wonder.
It just so happens that a whole lot of color on the screen is red.
The Spine of Night is gratuitous in every way imaginable, especially in the gore department. Those embarking on this journey with the hopes of entertaining violence will have their appetite for blood whetted. Blood doesn’t rain in The Spine of Night, it pours. Heads are sliced open, guts are pulled out, bodies are cut down the middle…there is so much violence in this film, it might as well be called The Spine-Ripping of Night. There is even a literal river of blood in one scene that looks like one of the Hell levels from Doom. “Badass” may have escaped my lips once or twice.
All of that is great, but the one thing The Spine of Night is missing is a more engaging story. In that regard, there really isn’t much new or interesting here. Magic flower. Pure evil bad guy who wants to be a god and cackles a lot. And characters who are thinner than the blades they’re slicing through their enemies with. It doesn’t help that The Spine of Night is told in an anthology format without much focus on any one character. There are underlying themes of the ugliness of human beings and an elite class holding back wealth from the majority while allowing them to suffer (sound familiar?), but none of it is heavy enough to detract from the blood and bare butts with a little plot.
In that regard, The Spine of Night is your quintessential, basic fantasy epic with characters who are purely good, and those who are purely evil, with little room in-between, but that’s okay. The film has plenty of other means of engaging the audience.
Altogether, it’s a pure love letter to violent, animated fantasy epics of old that leads the viewer through a blood-drenched storm of senseless violence, freaky deaky necromancy, and tattoo-worthy imagery.
With the Bloom having a bit of a hallucinogenic effect on the characters, and therefore the viewer, I can only hope that someday, there will be that hormonal young adult who will be able to go to their local weed shop, purchase The Spine of Night inspired strain called the Blooming Night or whatever, and sit down for one hell of a trippy experience.
Tremble before The Spine of Night. It will blow your mind.
By Matt Konopka
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