spine of night poster art

The Spine of Night (2021) Review

IMDB description: “Ultra-violent, epic fantasy set in a land of magic follows heroes from a different eras and cultures battling against a malevolent force.”

Wikipedia description: ” Traces the centuries long journey of a magical plant that bestows terrible power upon the user, as it inspires despots, empires, and black magic.”

Why I took it off the list: There was a whole heap of offbeat, intriguing animation on show at the Sitges Film Festival in 2021, but I only got round to seeing one, the grotesque stop-motion feature Mad God. Also in the line-up was the animated fantasy epic The Spine of Night, which I sadly missed.

Now that it’s made its way to streaming, I remained eager to see it, and decided to finally check it out. So, let’s dig in to the review!

The Spine of Night Review

The Spine of Night is a throwback to 80’s fantasy cinema in a lot of different ways. Spun out to feature length from an 8-minute short called Exordium (2013), it’s rendered in a retro rotoscope animation style, but also features a somewhat episodic narrative structure that harks back to the anthology format of Heavy Metal (1981).

Like that earlier feature, the centuries-spanning story presented here is connected by an otherwoldly MacGuffin with magical properties that the various characters seek to either use for good or evil. The difference is that that The Spine of Night‘s narrative feels way more interconnected and satisfying than that of Heavy Metal.

For one, it all takes place in the same fantasy-tinged medieval world, and even though various protagonists take on the good fight as the action jumps forward across the decades, familiar heroes and villains pop back up again in time for the satisfying finale. It’s also all tied together by an engaging framing story that benefits from some awesome voice work from none other than Xena herself, Lucy Lawless, and the always-welcome Richard E. Grant.

Gorgeous, Eye-Popping Animation Style

The rest of the voice cast is also pretty impressive, including Patton Oswalt as a grotesquely cruel king, and Get Out‘s Betty Gabriel as a heroic warrior-librarian. Jordan Douglas Smith is also effective as the main villain Ghal-Sur, a seemingly meek scholar who becomes corrupted by immense power and turns into a terrifying warlord.

However, without question the real star of the film is the gorgeous animation. Although rendered in an admittedly outdated fashion, the characters are all well-drawn and recognizable as individuals, the backgrounds are all beautifully colored and detailed, and some of the fantastical effects are downright awe-inspiring.

Those with weak stomachs should probably be warned that The Spine of Night can often be graphically gory: it really leans into the hard fantasy genre and there is plenty of blood spilled, heads split in half, and intestines exposed. But, honestly, the most grisly kills are only marginally worse than some of the Horned King’s icky antics in Disney’s animated fantasy The Black Cauldron (1985).

The animation only falls down a bit in the scenes where the characters come together in hand-to-hand combat, which looks a little bit too clunky and slow-moving to totally convince. Other than these brief sequences, however, the old-school animation seriously impresses, and makes you wish more films were produced in this pleasingly retro style.

Final score: 7/10

Worth Checking Out?

Yes, if you are a fan of either the fantasy genre or beautiful animation, or both, then The Spine of Night is a must-watch.

The Spine of Night (2021)

Written and Directed by Philip Gelatt, Morgan Galen King

Cast: Richard E. Grant, Lucy Lawless, Patton Oswalt

Stay tuned for my next review, a return to the Double Feature format I had so much fun with during October!

Comments

  1. […] the Sitges Film Festival is also increasingly becoming a great showcase for animation, particularly offbeat animated films that might struggle to find an audience […]

  2. […] albeit one about an under-explored and often ignored experience, without its animation (that looks rotoscoped but is actually hand-drawn from scratch using filmed interviews as a reference for the present-day […]

  3. […] but the film is most definitely not for kids. As with the similarly 70’s animation-inspired The Spine of Night (2021), there is plenty of blood and sometimes graphic violence sprinkled throughout the film, and F-bombs […]

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