From Philip Gelatt, the brain behind Love, Death & Robots and Europa Report, and short film artist Morgan Galen King, comes The Spine Of Night. A sprawling fantasy epic, that was entirely hand drawn in rotoscope. For those who aren't familiar, this technique involves filming your actors performing their scenes, and then drawing over them to produce the animation.
Rotoscoping creates a very particular, hyper-realistic look that you may recognise from Ralph Bakshi's animated version of The Lord of The Rings, and cult classic animation Heavy Metal. As techniques go, it's long winded and generally isn't done very often now. But the look of it is hugely appealing to certain generations of film fans, who grew up watching these films on VHS.
The Spine Of Night is an anthology horror fantasy. Telling a story that spreads across hundreds of years, centred around a queen, Todz (Lucy Lawless) and humanities connection and relationship with a magical flower.
We open with Todz climbing naked through the snow, up a mountain towards an enormous skull. Inside the skull is The Guardian (Richard E. Grant). They fight, but after a stalemate sit and share stories, both arguing their case for letting the final one of these mysterious flowers die or live on.
Each of their stories spells out the end of an era of civilisation. Variations on our world, but different. One character, Gull (Rob McClure) appears in each as a harbinger, his fascination with the power of the mythical blue flower leading him to spread destruction, either at his will or for others. He has a multitude of skills at his disposal, allowing him to make enormous manipulations of the world around him, from necromancy to floods.
A new technology gives the illusion of progress with each chapter. Be it metalwork, the written word or flight. But every time, mans inability to avoid corruption wins.
The flower itself could be interpreted to represent many things, from technology to money or just as a catalyst for progress and corruption. A prettier version of the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey perhaps.
Despite each section being produced in the same way, there is much stylistic variation throughout. The worlds are all distinct from each other in design and tone. Whilst musically Peter Scartabello's score defines them further, moving from acoustic guitar to post-modernist soundscapes and into Vangelis or Tangerine Dream style electronic melodies.
While the character animation may look simplistic and flat (until you know how it's done), the realistic movement of the characters draws you into the action. Plus, the backdrops are stunningly rendered in minute detail.
The performances too, bridge the gap between the retro and the modern. Lucy Lawless and Richard E. Grant are joined by brilliant vocal performances from Betty Gabriel (Get Out), Joe Manganiello (True Blood and professional nerd for ‘Dungeons & Dragons'), and Patton Oswalt (Happy!). The violence however is straight out of the exploitation era. We see in vivid detail vivisections, maiming, and decapitations.
The Spine Of Night may be a niche piece of work, but it's a glorious one. As much as it leans into the nostalgia of a time many of us are growing tired of. It does so in a gripping and entertaining way that never loses pace or ceases to throw more surprises at us. A must watch for any horror fan.
Sweeping fantasy animation, The Spine of Night, arrives on Shudder on March 24th