SXSW 2021: THE SPINE OF NIGHT Wrings Life From A Dead Art

A deep fantasy brought to life in beautiful hand drawn animation

“Tremble before the immensity of the night!”

Clocking in at just around 90 minutes, The Spine Of Night’s writer/directors Morgan Galen King and Philip Gelatt manage to build a dark fantasy universe that is bursting at the seams with wonder, bloodlust, and time-shattering magic. This rotoscoped work of art succeeds where so many of its ilk fail: by matching its uniquely gorgeous form with a sweeping tale of heroes and wicked god-kings so filled with wonder you’re engrossed from the first moment to the last.

A truly breathtaking accomplishment of hand drawn dedication in a marketplace that has no commercial space left for this time consuming process, The Spine Of Night is a giant middle finger to all things practical or grounded. This is pure high fantasy that takes itself deadly serious and is all the more powerful for doing so.

Coursing through this cursed world is a mysterious power known as The Bloom. When wielded by our narrator Tzod (Lucy Lawless), the power is respected and brims with hope. But when Ghal-Sur (Jordan Douglas Smith) spends centuries unlocking and gaining control of this power, he wields it with a never ending hunger that will destroy the entire world. As Tzod regales an ancient Guardian (Richard E. Grant) with the tales of the countless centuries of destruction and the rise and fall of nations, we come to understand that a final battle may very well be mounting for the fate of all things.

Never blinking from its vision for an instant, The Spine Of Night pulls viewers in with fantastical imagery that could absolutely never be shown to you in any other form outside of hand drawn animation. No computer generated imagery could ever evoke the wonder of the kingdoms, warriors, bizarre magic, and rituals dreamed up here by King and Gelatt. No live action film could quite get this very distinct flavor right. And so, King and Gelatt make the most of their chosen medium to handcraft a compelling world, and then populate it with a complex mythology that’s never anything less than intriguing. Then they bring in voice talent to populate this brimming world that blows one’s mind (including hitherto unmentioned Joe Manganiello, Patton Oswalt, and Get Out’s Betty Gabriel). Had the sweeping narrative been less coherent, the most obvious point of reference for The Spine Of Night would have been the Heavy Metal movie: beautifully evocative imagery that never coheres into anything more than the sum of its parts. Instead King and Gelatt evoke Howardian excitement more akin to Conan The Barbarian. Some may not agree with me that the story coheres as it is indeed broken into chapters that careen throughout time and space, giving us mythologies of giant gods and the humans who murdered their creators, winged, birdlike warriors facing down villains astride an airship, ancient evil erupting from the bowels of a centuries old library, and so on. There’s undoubtedly Tolkien-levels of detail behind each chapter, though viewers are left wanting to know much more than they’ll ever grasp for themselves. But what a wonderful feeling that is as a viewer, to be drawn into a story and to want to know more.

I absolutely adored The Spine Of Night. From its decidedly adult imagery filled naked bodies, horrific monsters, and the cleaving of every imaginable body part, to the nerdy and self-serious magic that appeals deeply to self-serious nerds such as myself, The Spine Of Night feels like an utterly singular creation driven by nothing less than the passion of its creators who dared to believe there was an audience out there who would appreciate the lengths they went to to create. And appreciate it I do. I don’t know what kind of audience The Spine Of Night will find, but if there’s any justice in this universe (or that of The Bloom), we’ll be seeing a lot more work from the brilliant minds of this creative team.

And I’m Out.

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