You’ll know if you’re down for The Spine of Night thirty seconds in. Maybe even after you read the short IMDb synopsis: “Ultra-violent, epic fantasy set in a land of magic, follows heroes from different eras and cultures battling against a malevolent force.” If you press on, you’ll encounter a totally nude woman (well, she does have some skeletal jewelry dangling from her neck and strapped to her forearms) trudging up a snowy mountain. At the top, the quivering traveler (Lucy Lawless) encounters a booming but aged guardian knight (Richard E. Grant). The dialogue shot between the two rattles off like Iron Maiden lyrics. Is your hand already clenched in the sign of the beast? Yes? Continue. No? The documentary section is two aisles over. Say hi to Errol Morris for me.
Written and directed by Philip Gelatt and Morgan Galen King, The Spine of Night is attempting to recreate a particular time, place, and vibe—when Ralph met Frank. As in, Ralph Bakshi, the notorious adult animator, and Frank Frazetta, the monumental illustrator who birthed Conan the Barbarian’s modern look and brought his Death Dealer to Molly Hatchet. In 1983, the two creators came together for Fire and Ice, an animated adventure populated with the worlds, characters, and anatomies celebrated in Frazetta’s paintings. The movie was raucous, violent, adolescent, deathly serious, and metal as hell. If you had a van and it wasn’t already rockin’ a Frzaetta mural on the side, it sure as hell was after watching Fire and Ice. If you didn’t have a van, you went out and got one.
The Spine of Night ticks all the boxes. Barbarians, sorcerers, gods, and demons. Boobs, you bet. Some dicks too. Plenty of butts. And god damn great gobs and swaths of blood. When the swords and axes come out, the heads and the limbs go off. Fire and Ice reveled in its aggressive gratuitousness, and The Spine of Night cranks its dial well beyond it. To what number? Oh, you know. Eleven!
Walking behind Bakshi and Frazetta means plunging into a rotoscoping subculture. The style requires animators to trace over live-action footage to produce a more “realistic” motion. You’ve seen it elsewhere in classic Disney flicks like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Sleeping Beauty, but also in the Richard Linklater flicks Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly.
Rotoscoping is where I learned the uncanny valley concept. There’s something not right here, folks. These characters are more human than human. They’re rad, but they’re weird.
The Spine of Night has this sensation in triplicate. The humanity clearly wobbles below the cells. There’s breath to these characters; a performance at war, deciding to break free or be contained. With some characters, like Lucy Lawless’ Tzod or Richard Grant’s Guardian, the voices feel naturally connected to the other actors providing the movements. In other cases, as with Patton Oswalt‘s tantrum tyrant, the voices sound detached. Your mind starts watching lips a little too closely when it should be tracking the stories within stories, plots within plots.
Thankfully, The Spine of Night is littered with guest-stars, and if one player appears off, they’re gone soon enough. Probably split in two with their guts making a longer-lasting impression than their motivation. These spectacular deaths often elicit a mighty “whoa” in either the key of Keanu or Wayne Campbell. Most excellent.
In taking an anthology-lite approach, where Tzod regales the Guardian with how she made her trek to his feet, The Spine of Night propels its already brisk 93-minute runtime. Each adventure bumps into a different fantasy arena. There are warring tribes, deadly cults festering within communities, ancient gods making way for new gods. Tying them together is a mystical blue flower that grants its caregiver magical abilities and the source of which connects to the man on the mountain top.
The Spine of Night never reaches above its homage, but if you made it past those first thirty seconds, you’re not really asking for anything new anyway. You want the old. You want the sensation you felt the first time your eyes locked with Darkwolf from Fire and Ice. Gelatt and King deliver. Their film is a balls-out heavy metal parade that would leave your parents shaking their heads and is destined to do the same for your kids. If ya don’t get it, ya don’t get it.