In a crumbling old house, at the top of the stairs, a mother (Nicola Harrison) draws a line in the dusty floor and announces, “our story starts here”. As her four children step over the boundary, the audience also gets pulled into a narrative that’s inventive and original, but also bewildering and occasionally frustrating.
Former screenwriter of The Orphanage Sergio G. Sanchez shifts gear into the director’s chair, and his debut effort Marrowbone is similarly drenched in brutal human tragedies, unfortunate alignments and psychological horror. While the surface story is one of a family escaping their dark past, the Spanish director soon introduces the strains of human confinement and supernatural suspicions into the plot, adding layers of conflict and unease into Marrowbone.
This begins when the matriarch dies from a mysterious ailment early in the movie, and the eldest son Jack (George MacKay) rallies his second brother Billy (Charlie Heaton), only sister, Jane (Mia Goth) and his youngest sibling, Sam (Matthew Stagg). The group vows to be together forever, and we can already feel the ominous implications.
They agree to stay confined in the house to avoid discovery, at least until Jack turns 21 and can become legal custodian. But history has a habit of making its presence known. Their father whom they’re escaping from is a cruel person, and in shocking fashion, announces his arrival with a warning bullet through the window. At this point, the film fades away and we return to a seemingly normal routine, with parent oddly absent and some rather peculiar new behaviour from the children.
All would seem well, except a frightened Sam would often complain of ghostly noises, but a friendship with their charismatic and open-hearted neighbour Allie (Anya Taylor-Joy) lends some warmth to the going-ons.
When assigned lawyer Tom Porter (Kyle Soller) makes some discoveries, especially about the vicious history and hauntings, that’s when things spiral out of control for the family.
Marrowbone flits from topic to topic, and genre to genre, usually strongly handled with Sanchez’s deliberate pace and clues. However, the film does suffer from having too many balls in the air at times, which may annoy some audience members who prefer their stories linear. Remember the fade-to-black earlier after the jarring entrance of the father? The reveal only comes near to the end.
The movie serves up adequate payout, so will no doubt keep goers happy, but Marrowbone’s strongest play comes from the namesake cast.
MacKay holds the fort as he struggles to be the new guardian of the family, clearly sacrificing both physical and mental resources to keep the family safe from harm. Heaton’s Billy may be a little flat, but is luckily bolstered by Goth who comes on tenderly as a voice of reason for the brothers. But it is the unfiltered innocence of Stagg that steals the show.
Clearly this clique of Spanish horror film makers know a thing or two about casting young uns. In a film where all of the characters seem to be under a curse, Stagg’s Sam is disarmingly authentic and lovable. And it is this that makes for some of the film’s best scenes, when he comes face to face with the spectres of the house. With his glittering blue eyes and naive voice and questions, Sam’s lines felt incredibly unscripted, and played up the emotional investment when the family was in trouble.
The film’s luscious cinematography is also a clear treat. Coastal scenes and golden hues dominate the magical and few great outings, while colours, textures and sounds close in for a claustrophobic effect whenever we’re in the house.
Marrowbone clearly cuts a new path with its visual and story narrative, but can benefit with less deliberation and just a wee bit more scares. But Sanchez is definitely one to watch.
Gorgeous period horror mystery is laden with painful circumstances and a few calculated twists, but offers some refreshing narrative choices and performances to win the day.
First published: www.movieXclusive.com