Self-seriousness is indeed a pretty horrifying thing, but not for the reasons the director likely hopes.
Marrowbone is the latest in a relatively recent trend of Spanish horror movies, or at least horror movies directed by people from Spain, that focus more on atmosphere and mood than visceral shocks and thrills. Elegantly shot and brimming with intricate period detail, the film has a suitably creepy ambience, but Sergio G. Sánchez, a seasoned screenwriter making his directorial debut, has a hard time filling in the space beyond these surface pleasures, despite having plenty of script at his disposal. Mostly, his instinct is to rely on a litany of familiar references and aesthetic touches, and while that might be enough to sate the average genre appetite, the sense of squandered promise is ultimately the film’s most haunting aspect.
When discussing the narrative, knowing where to start isn’t easy. The story, set during 1969, follows a British family who relocates to America in an attempt to escape the man of the house’s violent influence. After the mother dies, siblings Jack (George MacKay), Jane (Mia Goth) and Billy (Charlie Heaton of “Stranger Things”) spend time looking after their five-year-old brother, Sam (Matthew Stagg), while maintaining a low profile in the expansive home that’s been in their family for nearly a century. The setup is simple enough, but it can’t sustain the deluge of subplots that follow. Each new scene seems to represent some sort of twist or turn, which not only undermines the elegiac atmosphere and ornate, Victorian-esque vibe, but also makes the film virtually impossible to describe in detail. To discuss a given scene with any sort of depth would be to risk backlash from the “spoiler-phobic,” this in spite of the fact that there isn’t much here to discuss, in general.
But then again, a certain amount of suspended disbelief can go a long way, especially in horror movies. When looking past the confusing plot and gaps in storytelling logic, Marrowbone offers up some truly suspenseful moments. Sánchez may not fully trust his own script, but he knows his way around a camera, particularly in the early going, when the creepiest moments are underlined by a profound sense of sadness, disillusionment and guilt. Such themes aren’t communicated simply by performance (the young cast, it should be said, acquits itself quite well, despite the shoddy material) but also by light, shadow and motion. Like his predecessors Andrés Muschietti (Mama) and J.A. Bayona (The Orphanage, a script Sánchez co-wrote), Sánchez is fully capable of filling a camera move with terror and dread. Like the best horror movies, Marrowbone often looks just as scary as it feels.
If only we knew what the director intended for us to fear in the first place. Is it a ghostly presence? A real-life threat? An overactive imagination? Sánchez allows us to consider each option without ever really offering up an answer either way, which probably read as enigmatic and intellectual on the page but comes across as mucked up and fairly arduous on screen. Indeed, for a guy who seems completely unwilling to say “no” to any trick of the screenwriting trade, he’s surprisingly averse to humor and melodrama, elements that may have alleviated the burdensome plotting. Marrowbone is almost incessantly ascetic, which tends to make its contrivances that much more laughable. Self-seriousness is indeed a pretty horrifying thing, but not for the reasons the director likely hopes.