You will know if you are down The back of the night Perhaps even after reading the short IMDb recap: “Ultra-violent, epic fantasy in a land of magic follows heroes from different eras and cultures battling an evil power.” If you carry on, you will come across a completely naked woman (well, she has skeletal jewelry dangling from her neck and strapped to her forearms) trudging up a snow-covered mountain. Above the trembling traveler (Lucy Lawless) meets a booming but aged guard knight (Richard E. Grant). The dialogue between the two rattles like Iron Maiden texts. Is your hand already clenched in the sign of the beast? Yes? Continue. No? The documentary section is two aisles up. Say hello to Errol Morris for me.
Written and directed by Philip Gelatt and Morgan Galen KingThe Spine of Night tries to recreate a certain time, place and mood – when Ralph met Frank. Ralph Bakshi, the infamous adult animator, and Frank Frazetta, the monumental illustrator who created the modern look of Conan the Barbarian and brought his death dealer to Molly Hatchet. In 1983, the two creators came together for Fire and Ice, an animated adventure populated with the worlds, characters, and anatomies celebrated in Frazetta’s paintings. The film was loud, violent, youthful, deadly serious and as hellishly metallic. If you had a van and it wasn’t already rocking a Frzaetta mural on the side, it was damn safe after seeing fire and ice. If you didn’t have a van, you went out and got one.
The back of the night meets all the criteria. Barbarians, sorcerers, gods and demons. Boobs, you bet. Some tails too. Lots of asses. And damn big drops and clouds of blood. When the swords and axes come out, the heads and limbs come off. Fire and ice reveled in its aggressive gratuitousness, and The Spine of Night turns its dial way beyond that. Which number? Oh you know Eleven!
Going behind Bakshi and Frazetta means immersing yourself in a rotoscopic subculture. The style requires animators to trace live action footage to create more “realistic” movement. You’ve seen it elsewhere in classic Disney films like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Sleeping Beauty, but also in the Richard Linklater films Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly.
While rotoscoping I learned the creepy talk concept. Something’s wrong here folks. These characters are more human than human. They’re great, but they’re weird.
The spine of the night has this sensation in triplicate. Humanity is clearly wobbling beneath the cells. These characters have breath; a performance at war that decides to free itself or to be contained. With some characters like Lucy Lawless’ Tzod or Richard Grant’s Guardian, the voices naturally feel connected to the other actors who provide the movements. In other cases as with Patton OswaltTyrant’s tantrum, the voices sound detached. Your mind begins to watch the lips a little too closely if it is to follow the stories in stories, actions in actions.
Thankfully, The Spine of Night is littered with guest stars, and if a player fails, they’ll be gone soon enough. Probably split in two, with their guts making a longer lasting impression than their motivation. These spectacular deaths often trigger a powerful “whoa” in the key of Keanu or Wayne Campbell. Very best.
In an anthology-lite approach, in which Tzod spoils the Guardian with the way she got on her feet, The Spine of Night is pushing its already brisk 93-minute running time. Each adventure encounters a different fantasy arena. There are warring tribes, deadly cults festering in communities, old gods giving way to new gods. Tying them together is a mystical blue flower that gives magical abilities to its caregiver and the source of which connects with the man on the mountaintop.
The back of the night never extends beyond its homage, but if you’ve made it past those first thirty seconds, you’re not really asking for anything new anyway. You want the old one. You want the feeling you felt when your eyes were closed by fire and ice for the first time with Darkwolf. Gelatt and King deliver. Their film is a heavy metal parade where your parents are supposed to shake their heads and do the same for your children. If you don’t understand, you don’t understand.