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TIFF 2017 Review: ‘Marrowbone’ Blends Sumptuous Visuals with Gothic Spooks

In his directorial debut, the screenwriter of The Orphanage delivers a suspenseful, twisty slow-burn horror.
By  · Published on September 18th, 2017

In his directorial debut, the screenwriter of The Orphanage delivers a suspenseful, twisty slow-burn horror.

Alfred Hitchcock once used a famous example to illustrate the difference between shock and suspense. If people are seated at a table and a bomb goes off, that is shock. If they are seated at a table, and you know there’s a bomb under the table attached to a ticking clock, but they continue to play cards—that’s suspense.

Marrowbone is an excellent example of why it’s scarier to anticipate something than it is to actually confront it. Predominantly, the film is an exercise in dread; in waiting, hands clasped, for something terrible to happen. And when the terrible things do happen, they’re all the more horrifying for being slowly, methodically set up. These are the kind of scares that tighten the greater tension of a film rather than defusing it; the kind of horrifying moments that not only infuse the rest of the film with unease but stay with you long after you’ve left the theatre.

This prioritization of lingering tension over cheap thrills is what makes Marrowbone such an effective piece of gothic horror. You can even clock it in a physical sense: that while more tangible threats exist within the walls of the Marrowbone estate, the house itself radiates an encompassing sense of foreboding. This, in spite of being more charming than spindly, more well-lit and inviting than your run of the mill haunted house. But rest assured: it is a manor with palpable rot; a progressive decay that is increasingly difficult to overlook as it becomes more and more narratively resonant. This is where Marrowbone shines: when we are left at the mercy of unwelcoming stairwells, towering mirrors, and unlit corridors. It’s a flavor of slow-burn in the tradition of Rosemary’s Baby, Seance on a Wet Afternoon, and The Other; films punctuated with tense and vivid set pieces where the best you can do is hold your breath and squirm.

The movie tells of four English siblings who are brought to an unnamed American coastal town by their mother (Nicola Harrison) who has spirited them away to her childhood home for a start fresh. They adopt her maiden name, Marrowbone, and swear to forget the past and begin life anew. Soon after the move, their mother falls ill and on her deathbed, making Jack (George MacKay), the eldest, promise to conceal her passing until he turns 21 so that he can inherit the estate and keep the family together. The children collectively agree to go into hiding, even from their new good friend and closest neighbor Allie (The VVitch and Split’s Anya Taylor-Joy).

But best-laid plans get complicated when a gunshot is fired through their window and the film jumps forward six months. When we rejoin the Marrowbone children there’s a mysterious stain on the ceiling, the mirrors have been covered, and the attic is out of bounds. And if the terrifying presence that now haunts them wasn’t enough of a threat there’s Tom (Kyle Soller), the nosy banker handling the estate who’s itching to expose their secrets.

The cast, almost all of it young talent, is absolutely phenomenal. In addition to MacKay’s beleaguered Jack, the Marrowbone siblings are rounded out by testy adolescent Billy (Charlie Heaton, of Stranger Things), and the very sweet domestic combo of Jane (A Cure for WellnessMia Goth) and Sam (Matthew Stagg). Together, they are completely believable as siblings. Also of note is Taylor-Joy’s aforementioned Allie, whose refusal to be merely a passive love interest is refreshing and left me wishing she had more to do.

Marrowbone is the directorial debut of Sergio G. Sánchez, who penned The Impossible and The Orphanage, both of which were directed by Marrowbone’s executive producer Juan Antonio Bayona. Photographed by Xavi Giménez and sumptuously dressed by production designer Patrick Salvador, Marrowbone has an uncanny way of evoking a tactile realism that hints at something more insidious: the kind of aching sweetness and quiet terror of dried flowers, white drapery, and the sad genius of Pet Sounds. At a post-screening talkback at TiFF, Sánchez spoke to the film’s aesthetic onus to famed regionalist painter Andrew Wyeth, whose work, like the film, is at once grounded and unnervingly affected. Something is always off, even, perhaps especially, if it feels too calm.

While set in the U.S., Marrowbone was filmed in Sánchez’ hometown in Spain. Relatedly the film is, according to Sánchez, very much about coming home; both in the sense of literal homecoming and the uncomfortable process of fighting for and carving out a family of one’s own. It is a matter of, to quote Sánchez: “finding what it is that no one can take away [from you].” This is what’s at stake in Marrowbone: the precipitous question of whether the bonds of family can be preserved in the face of violence, and to what degree those bonds can be forged anew.

I anticipate that there will be a debate, among general audiences and critics alike, as to whether the third act’s ornate storytelling stuck the landing. While it’s worth remembering that outlandishness and unraveling mystery are staples of the gothic genre, there are some story beats in Marrowbone’s final moments that don’t always pack the punch of earlier, more supernaturally-leaning set pieces. All that being said, it would be a mistake to overlook the film for this reason. Marrowbone remains an exceedingly watchable debut and a visually striking, atmospheric horror offering for those seeking a sensitive reprieve from cheap jump-scare fare.

Marrowbone is set to release in Spain on October 27th, 2017. The U.S. release date has yet to be announced.

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Based in the Pacific North West, Meg enjoys long scrambles on cliff faces and cozying up with a good piece of 1960s eurotrash. As a senior contributor at FSR, Meg's objective is to spread the good word about the best of sleaze, genre, and practical effects.