Adult animation is something of a dying art. For so long cartoons have been considered solely the domain of family-friendly entertainment, rarely delving into anything more risqué than South Park. New from Shudder, The Spine of Night is as far from age-appropriate as it gets: a rotoscoped horror-cum-fantasy epic that spans eras and packs on the hand-drawn blood. It’s brutal, entrenched in lore, and very refreshing to see.
Set across hundreds of years, the one narrative constant in The Spine of Night is a blue herb that sparks burning flames and near-immortal despotism in the person controlling it. This ultimately falls to a power-crazed scholar who ravages the fantasy setting, including the swamp township of Batzal. Fortunately, one of its inhabitants, Lucy Lawless’ Tzod, isn’t willing to let this go unchallenged. Cue an epic display of three eras of heroes, all fighting to eliminate the plant for good.
Having been in development for seven years given the extensive depth of its rotoscoped animation and world design, it’s no surprise that The Spine of Night is drenched in lore. You’ll learn of scholars devoted to their craft like eunuchs, cyberpunk freedom fighters harnessing the power of flight, and hulking ancient gods ruling the earth. For those who love their fantasy rich and fleshed-out, you’ll definitely feel absorbed in the world here.
The same came can be said for the gorgeous rotoscope animation, that harkens back to the original Disney animated films with slick, life-like movement and depth. The Spine of Night isn’t quite as visually arresting as its 20th-century comparisons, but it’s a delightful film to look at nonetheless. Some of the faces occasionally move a little unnaturally, and the voice delivery is occasionally on the monotonous, robotic side, but it’s refreshing to see a film so brazenly dedicated to giving audiences something totally unique.
Thanks to its animated heritage, The Spine of Night is able to get away with being bloody brutal. The action is engrossing and devilishly violent, with sword fights and disembowelments that’ll remind you of the goriest moments from Game of Thrones. You’ll witness characters chopped in half, skin burned off from fire and magic, and a whole lot of bodily destruction. If you like your action gory, you’ll love The Spine of Night.
Its biggest problem is how much story, lore, and characterisation it tries to stuff into its 90-minute runtime. The film feels very functionally structured into three distinct stories, all told by Lawless’ Tzod to Richard E. Grant’s The Watcher. It’s a clunky and somewhat predictable way to tell your story, and The Spine of Night tries to cover so much time that it ends up skipping through such a detailed narrative too quickly. It hits the final act hardest, introducing a dictatorial world where cyberpunk-style freedom fighters try to destroy the plant once and for all. Unfortunately, you never get the chance to care about these new characters and their struggle, leaving the film feeling overstuffed.
It would’ve benefitted from an extra 30 minutes of runtime, but The Spine of Night is still a worthy watch for fantasy fans looking for an inflection of horror. The rotoscope animation is incredibly impressive, meaning even if you aren’t totally swept away by the narrative, you’ll always have something stunning to look at. Animation isn’t geared towards adults, but The Spine of Night is evidence that this needs to change.
The Spine of Night releases on October 24 on DVD, Blu-Ray, and digital.