The Spine of Night 2021 cover photo

The Spine of Night (2021) is an ultra-violent, animated dark fantasy horror, written and directed by Philip Gelatt and Morgan Galen King. Following the history of a land that never was, this bloody tale observes an ambitious young man as he steals forbidden knowledge from a sacred plant and his descent into its darker temptations. In so doing, he unleashes ages of suffering onto mankind. As his power grows over the years, it falls to people of different ilk and cultures to attempt to stop him.

One of the key aspects that sets this film apart from other pieces of recent Western media is its feature of rotoscope animation or the act of tracing over motion picture footage frame by frame to create beautiful fluid movement and highly detailed characters. Films most notable for utilising this technique include Gerald Potterton’s Heavy Metal (1981), Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988) as well as A Scanner Darkly (2006) in a more recent display. However, The Spine of Night differs from these examples by featuring crisp, highly detailed CG backgrounds, choosing to focus on a hand-drawn rotoscope style as opposed to the more modern Interpolation Rotoscope technique that relies on computers to complete the frame by frame animation (the technique utilised in A Scanner Darkly).

In the Spine of Night

This style of animation may seem strange at first–projecting an uncanny valley feel–but soon provides a naturally graceful rapport to the characters. From their movement on screen to their complex facial expressions, the animation is archaic at first glance, but ultimately superior in its display of emotion compared to other styles.

The film features an amazing cast of talent to voice its various characters, including the incredible Lucy Lawless as well as Richard E. Grant, Betty Gabriel, Patton Oswalt, and Joe Manganiello just to name a few. No stranger to the fantasy genre, Lucy Lawless’ performance is outstanding as the Tribal witch Tzor. That isn’t to say her co-stars didn’t give an excellent performance for their respective characters, with each actor fully embracing the high fantasy genre, all delivering an appropriate level of enthusiasm to assist in bringing this world of sword and sorcery to life.

Undoubtedly, The Spine of Night’s driving force resides in the magnificent fantasy world crafted around its enthralling story. Though not explored in-depth, this landscape is certainly well-developed nonetheless; full of turmoil and hardships as the daily struggles of life are easy to discern. Along with comprehensive world history and mythological lore that feels purposely obscured by the main story, only ever being exposed to a tiny slither of what this incredibly detailed world holds.

Although, there within lies the one problem that seemed to stand out with The Spine of Night: its average 90-minute run time. Though it provides an unabridged story with a concise and satisfactory ending, certain aspects of the world would greatly benefit from a more thorough analysis. The stunning world and lore, though apparent, could be explored more in-depth, and an expansion of the character’s place in said world would have assisted in opening up this already detailed world into a living entity, free to be explored.

Despite this, the mediaeval setting fully reinforces its incredibly gritty depiction of violence. Bursting with disembowelings and dismembered limbs, violence is portrayed as incredibly realistic due to the rotoscope animation style, intertwined perfectly within its dark fantasy setting. Though these visceral visuals themselves are brought to life with the guttural use of noise accompanying them, the sound of steel slicing through muscle and bone along with the screams of anguish that follow bring forth an uncomfortably realistic depiction of violence actualised incredibly well.

The Spine of Night is available to stream on Shudder now.

Completely engrossing from start to finish, this elegantly brutal fantasy epic is one of the best pieces of Western animation I have seen. My only complaint would be the length, at only 93 minutes in length, where it could easily be elongated to 120 minutes or even its own short series. Though the story doesn’t feel rushed, with comprehensive exposition and a satisfying conclusion, I was left wanting more knowledge about this world and its lore. Nevertheless, The Spine of Night is, by far, one of the best pieces of Western animation I have seen this year and a must-watch for those who enjoy dark fantasy.

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