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‘The Spine of Night’ Review: A Gnarly Throwback to the Ralph Bakshi Glory Days of Adult Animation

Lucy Lawless, Patton Oswalt, and Richard E. Grant lend their voices to this ultra-violent tribute to rotoscoped classics like "Heavy Metal."

“The Spine of Night”

An ultra-violent throwback to the halcyon days of hard fantasy, Morgan Galen King and Philip Gelatt’s “The Spine of Night” is nothing less than an orgiastic ode to Ralph Bakshi, Gerald Potterton, and the other god-kings of rotoscope animation whose adult cartoons glistened from behind the beaded doorways of America’s video stores like forbidden relics that would melt the faces of anyone who dared to gaze upon their taboo wonders. It’s nothing more than that, either, but there’s only so much you can ask of a movie in which Lucy Lawless voices a naked swamp witch who wears a human skull as a headdress and shouts things like “tremble before the immensity of the night!”

Even if “The Spine of Night” struggles to align its overarching story with the anthology-like shape that it takes, it’s still rare and rewarding to watch a film that makes so few bones about what it wants to be — all the more so when “what it wants to be” is a merciless blood-storm that feels like it was adapted from the most intense blacklight poster your best friend’s older brother used to hang in the basement of his mom’s house.

A simpering prince who loses all the skin from his face (Patton Oswalt), a reclusive mystic who lives atop a snowy mountain in order to keep watch over the world’s most dangerous weapon (Richard E. Grant), and a power-mad wizard with a giant blue eyeball in the center of his chest are just some of the many delightful characters you’ll meet in this gnarly saga about the corruption of mankind, which strings together several centuries’ worth of vignettes about a magic blue flower like different vertebrae that belong to the same body.

It begins, as all films should, with the bone witch Tzod (Lawless) scaling the frozen peak where Grant’s lonely Guardian protects the last buds. Tzod, it turns out, has a long and sordid history with the azure-colored weed, and she’s eager to regale her new friend with the various stories of savagery that fuse “The Spine of Night” together.

None of those stories are particularly compelling, but all of them go hard enough to make “Heavy Metal” seem like “The Secret of Nimh” by comparison. In the first, Tzod is forced to watch as the bog she calls home is burned to the ground after the scholar Ghal-Sur (Jordan Douglas Smith) falls under the spell of the flower’s dark magic. Later — in the film’s most cogent section — a Black librarian voiced by Betty Gabriel becomes the lone survivor of some very intense gate-keeping, and that chapter is followed by a cool but narratively chaotic episode in which a diverse trio of aerialists take to the skies with primitive wingsuits in order to fight another despot whose eyes glow blue with the soul-sucking thirst for power.

Through it all, that mysterious flower sparks carnage and God complexes wherever its seeds are spread. The small handful of stories that comprise “The Spine of Night” share a few overlapping characters (Tzod and Ghal-Sur in particular), but they’re more connected by the timeless precept that absolute power corrupts absolutely. If there’s a sense that Gellat and King are less interested in telling an epic dramatic saga than they are in sketching a history of the fantasyland where their film takes place, that history is shaped by a death loop of barbarism and the bloodshed that it invariably leaves behind. The details change, but the beheadings remain the same.

And there are so many beheadings, among other grievous wounds. There’s hardly a limb in this movie that doesn’t get hacked off, a face that isn’t cleaved in half, or a body that isn’t pulled apart from the belly. One dude gets shot with an arrow, rips it out of his chest, and uses the shaft to decapitate someone. Blue fire burns horseflesh off its bones until there’s nothing left but an army of galloping skeletons. Painstaking hours of animation were devoted to a throwaway shot in which one of the bad guys walks out of his way to obliterate a fallen soldier’s face off with a war hammer.

The violence is constant and insane but at the same time eerily casual, as if it occurred to people as naturally as breathing. In a film where all of the dialogue is a thick stew of maniacal laughter, indecipherable proper nouns, and ominous lamentations (“There is no mercy in the stars,” one character sighs, “no hope for man”), it’s only a matter of time before it no longer matters whom is butchering whom, or what sorcery the villains are using to coerce weak-willed people into serving their foul purpose.

“The Spine of Night” loses emphasis through repetition — diluting its scattered ideas about the delicate relationship between knowledge and power, or any sustained interest in the characters who perpetuate it — but each cycle reaffirms the madness at its core. The film itself relates to its forebearers in much the same way, as the medieval vulgarity of it all proves to be a roadworthy vehicle for the barbarism we’ve seen in our world during the 40 years since hard fantasy was a legitimate sub-genre of feature-length animation.

Ditto the Bakshi-perfect animation, which transports you back to a time when stuff like this still felt dangerous. Gallet and King’s broad attempts to update certain tropes for the modern world don’t infringe on that fidelity, as they maintain near-constant nudity amid stories that dismantle typical power structures and push back against the patriarchal gaziness once endemic to hard fantasy. The murkiness of those stories makes it hard for anything else about them to push through the movie’s pungent surface, but there’s something commendable about how “The Spine of Night” refuses to dilute its nostalgic delirium. At a time when so many films lack the courage of their convictions, it’s a treat to watch one that’s made out of nothing but backbone.

Grade: B-

RJLE Films will release “The Spine of Night” in theaters and on VOD on Friday, October 29.

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