The Spine of Night: An Animated Fantasy Gorefest Heads to Shudder

The Spine of Night | Photo Credit: Shudder

Streaming exclusively on Shudder this week, the animated epic The Spine of Night comes from the minds of an extraordinary directing duo, Morgan Galen King and Philip Gelatt. While this is King’s first feature presentation, Gelatt is known for his Emmy Award-winning writing on Netflix’s Love, Death, and Robots and 2015’s multi-award-winning video game Rise of the Tomb Raider. The fantasy fable the two create in The Spine of Night is truly something to behold, filled with lore and mythology over brilliant rotoscoped animation. 

Immediately we’re told that this animated epic is not for children, as if being exclusive to Shudder wasn’t enough of a giveaway. The film begins with a nude witch ascending a mountain on a pilgrimage to speak with a Guardian of “The Bloom.” We’re uninformed as to why she’s undertaken this quest. Over the course of exchanged stories between the two, we come to understand the frightening capabilities the enchanting blue flower can have when it falls into the wrong hands. Gory violence awaits anyone in pursuit of the bloom.

Tzod summits the mountain with hair whipping in her face wearing a skull on her head in The Spine of Night
The Spine of Night | Photo Credit: Shudder

Tzod, the witch, seems a benevolent protector of The Bloom, but through the balanced perspective of The Spine of Night’s narrative, we watch as evil becomes the controlling force. It had this vague reminiscence of Star Wars, where years of Jedi rule gave way to a period of Empire control. We see Tzod fall and her apprentice opportunistically taking up the mantle early in the film. We’re left wondering if peace can prosper in a kingdom where absolute power corrupts absolutely for much of the story. 

There’s an almost campfire-like quality to the way Tzod and The Guardian tell their stories. Like folk tales, they’re filled with moral qualities and folk hero legends of those standing up to power. I don’t think a single tale ends happily, and the consequences from each story boil over into the next portion of the story. A Lord suffers a horrible fate after inviting a scholar to his village. The Scholar, Ghal-Sur (Jordan Smith), then find an opportunity in choosing when to make his moves toward power. Sometime later, The Scholar has returned to The Pantheon of knowledge, where a young explorer has discovered a book of dark magic that fuels his rise toward becoming more than a man, but a god walking on the Earth.

I’m a great fan of animated films, especially the adult animated kind, and The Spine of Night evokes the spirit of films ranging from Heavy Metal to just about everything done by Ralph Bakshi in the ‘80s. This ninety-three-minute film of exclusively hand-drawn animation, frame-by-frame over live-action footage, is without a doubt a labor of love for all involved. The film is a follow-up to King’s 2013 short Exordium, which serves as a prologue to The Spine of Night but is also encompassed in the film through The Guardian’s backstory.

Mongrel points his ax in the swamp in The Spine of Night
The Spine of Night | Photo Credit: Shudder

Ralph Bakshi made some uniquely animated films in the ‘70s and ‘80s, The Lord of The Rings, Wizards, and Fire and Ice among them. They are all medieval magic fantasy features with vast animated worlds whose scenes are certainly referenced on the cover of rock albums and your great uncle’s old van. These films over-sexualize their female characters. In Fire and Ice, there’s a whole scene of a character arousing her captors in order to escape. While nudity is prevalent throughout The Spine of Night, it reflects the empowerment of the characters. The characters that appear nude do so because they have no more earthly desires. Though they lie on opposing sides of the ideology, it suits the story. 

After watching The Spine of Night, I rewatched some of those old animated films. Heavy Metal seemed to provide the anthology template for setting up The Spine of Night. In Heavy Metal, a green-glowing orb is a link between several stories, and in The Spine of Night, it’s the blue flower known as The Bloom. Both magical objects are powerful when wielded, and I came to consider them through the lens of how some parents view technology as something to be feared. Living in the age where Facebook, a website originally intended for people to share statuses and pictures, was just put on trial for its part in allowing Russian cells to solicit lies to sway an election, The Spine of Night uses witchcraft and magic in the same vein, contending that it’s all in how we use it. In that, we see these two characters, one fighting for nature and the other for greed, and in the scope of it all, as if being viewed from a distant galaxy, what does it all mean anyway?

Maybe the best theme I took away from the movie was the infiniteness of the cosmos. Recurring from Exordium, The Spine of Night also shows us how small we are in the vastness of an ever-expanding universe. In an exclusive interview, Horror Obsessive’s Alix Turner asked King about that who replied: 

To me, what a lot of it is operating on is how elective a lot of our myth-making and power structures are; the authority we ground things in is often a product of the stories we tell each other. Tzod has her swamp visions, then the guy on the mountain is talking about other legends that inspired him to go there, and he had to gatekeep knowledge for his people because they couldn’t handle it. In a basic ‘knowledge is power’ sense, it’s about the restriction of knowledge and how the hierarchy of what is real or not real knowledge is used to support power structures; and that when you look at it all on a cosmic scale, that all seems very small and human and arbitrary, and that we have the power to change that.

Jordan Smith as Ghal-Sur getting carried away with his magical prowess in The Spine of Night

Tzod shares the good versus evil encounters over The Bloom, but she isn’t the main character of all tales. This allows for a great many actors to be a part of the process. And The Spine of Night does have a rather stellar cast lending their voices. Patton Oswalt was the first voice I noticed, but in venturing to the film’s IMDB page, it was clear to see the talent was heavy. Lucy Lawless really gives a fantastic voiceover performance as Tzod, while True Blood’s Joe Manganiello, Jakob’s Wife’s Larry Fessenden, Get Out’s Betty Gabriel, and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker’s Richard E. Grant became sweet discoveries.  

The characters’ stories are pulpy and interlock, though many characters never interact, making it an animated film that any fan of Game of Thrones will find something worth enjoying. The Spine of Night also has a very mystical flair throughout combined with enough medieval violence to satiate anyone’s bloodlust. And, trust me, it gets surprisingly visceral for an animated movie. For me, I was blown away by the impressive animation. Hand-drawn animation is an art form now seldom seen, which is truly a shame. The amazing animated films we all grew up with are a rarity and a beguiling oddity to the latest generation. However, The Spine of Night’s story builds up, only to bow out repeatedly. While there’s plenty to like, I found the downtime between action sequences to be too extended, and I really struggled when the film switched stories between Tzod and The Pantheon. Still, I think the film has an audience and one that will absolutely revere it. Medieval fantasies outside of Game of Thrones are a genre I’ve scarcely sought out, though The Spine of Night is one I can appreciate.

The Spine of Night is currently available to purchase on all VOD streamers and heads to Shudder this Thursday, March 24.  

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Written by Sean Parker

Living just outside of Boston, Sean has always been facinated by what horror can tell us about contemporary society. He started writing music reviews for a local newspaper in his twenties and found a love for the art of thematic and symbolic analysis. Sean joined Horror Obsessive at it's inception, and is currently the site's Creative Director. He produces and edits the weekly Horror Obsessive podcast for the site as well as his interviews with guests. He has recently started his foray into feature film production as well, his credits include Alice Maio Mackay's Bad Girl Boogey, Michelle Iannantuono's Livescreamers, and Ricky Glore's upcoming Troma picture, Sweet Meats.

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