SXSW 2021 Midnighters: A Throwback To Retro Adult Animation – ‘The Spine of Night’ Reviewed

by Gary Catig

Ralph Bakshi was a fantasy trailblazer in the late 70s and early 80s. In particular, his work in adult oriented animation and the use of the rotoscope technique influenced many viewers. Though he may have left the medium he is known for, Bakshi’s spirit lives on in the work of storytellers today. None more so than in the Midnighter section film, The Spine of Night, which premiered at SXSW.

The movie takes place in a distant land and revolves around a dark magic. When an ambitious man gains possession of the enchantment, he is corrupted by its power and is driven to conquer and enslave the world. He has a long reign and a diverse group of heroes from different time periods try to halt his evil campaign.

The narrative is predominantly told via flashback as the main protagonist, Tzod (Lucy Lawless), brings the protector of the magic, The Guardian (Richard E. Grant), up to speed. We are treated to a compelling voyage through various eras visiting critical points of the rise of evil and the perverting power of ambition.  It all culminates to a grand showdown in their present for the fate of humanity.

When CGI dominates the animation industry, it’s refreshing to watch a hand drawn feature. The primitive aesthetics fit with this ugly tale. The rotoscoping captures mannerisms perfectly and brings the motions a life like quality. Though at times they can come off clumsy, the action sequences are well choreographed, exciting and brutal. There is also a comic book quality with some imaginative worlds and character designs. The art style even switches as we receive a story within a story when we learn the origin of The Guardian and the magic.

The Spine of Night boasts a talented cast with each member well suited for their role. Lawless is the strong lead and civilizations last hope. Grant brings an aura of wisdom and experience but also vulnerability to The Guardian. Patton Oswalt plays Lord Pyrantin, a sniveling and opportunistic aristocrat who bullies those who he thinks beneath him. Joe Manganiello portrays Mongrel, Pyrantin’s eunuch enforcer.

However, the film can lean too much into the retro vibes that inspire it. Just because it pays tribute to the late ’70s and early ’80s, it doesn’t mean its sentiments should be from that time as well. Tzod is naked throughout the entire film but you already know its an adult film through the graphic violence. Her lack of clothing seems gratuitous.

The Spine of Night is an epic dark fantasy that tells a riveting generational story about the ascension of evil and the heroes who tried to fight back.

SXSW runs from March 16th-20th

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