Fans of adult animation of the 1970s and 1980s, like Heavy Metal and Fire and Ice, will feel right at home with The Spine of Night, a brutally violent fantasy epic from writer/directors Philip Gelatt and Morgan Galen King. Premiering in the Midnighters section at the 2021 SXSW Film Festival, it’s easy to see this becoming a cult classic that indie movie theaters will be playing in years to come at midnight showings to rapturous crowds who exclaim with pure joy at every single scene. This is a movie made for that kind of audience, one that even the filmmakers recognize as having a particular niche demographic who will be on its wavelength. If you’re in that niche, though, The Spine of Night is likely to satiate you in a way that you haven’t been in a long time, especially not in American animated films.
Fusing influences as varied as Greek mythology, Star Wars, and the Bible, the film tells a story that passes through many eras, following a sacred plant that grants power to those who possess it. When an evil man steals the plant and receives its gifts, he becomes a tyrannical ruler prepared to make the whole world quake in his ascent to supreme domination. We encounter many different characters throughout the years, including winged assassins, a group beautifully in touch with nature, star-crossed lovers, an undying guardian of the gift, and many more. Each character is presented in distinct, memorable fashion, as Gelatt and King’s script takes an episodic approach to sketching out this world through this connective tissue tracing the ruler’s reign of terror.
Inspired by the works of animators Ralph Bakshi and Frank Franzetta, Gelatt and King wear their influences on their sleeves, with some shots even appearing to be direct references to other works. At the same time, they’ve created something that feels entirely their own, with a world that you want to sink your teeth into even more after the credits roll. This seems like a universe ripe for extension through comic book spin-offs or an animated series on Adult Swim. It’s a testament to how effectively they have crafted this world that you feel so embedded in it by the end of the first act, and not ready to leave it by the time the movie ends.
Perhaps it was that rich world-building that drew such a marvelous voice cast to the project, including names like Lucy Lawless, Richard E. Grant, Patton Oswalt, Betty Gabriel, and Joe Manganiello. This starry cast brings gravitas and major personality to the parts that they take on, as do names perhaps less familiar to live-action audiences, such as Larry Fessenden and Rob McClure. There’s not a single character wasted in the film, which is rather impressive given just how epic of a scope it reaches. While the film is driven by its universe, it’s also very much one about storytelling itself, as we see characters passing down their journeys through tales to other characters, demonstrating how these legends and myths trickle down through generations.
The story and universe help the film land an impact, but The Spine of Night draws you in immediately with its absolutely breathtaking hand-rotoscoped animation. This is where Gelatt and King’s admiration of Bakshi and Franzetta first makes itself known, and it makes you wish we had been seeing animation like this every year for decades. From the character designs to the scenery, you can feel the amount of care and attention to detail that was put into animating this project, and it pays off handsomely. It makes the graphic nature of the story have even more impact, a refreshingly adult animated tale that pulls zero punches. Between the Sundance hit Cryptozoo and now this, it seems like we may be getting a resurgence in adult animation in American independent cinema, and if these two films are any indication that can only be a good thing.