Marrowbone (2018)

It’s difficult to gauge how wide of an appeal the straight-to-VOD sleeper Marrowbone might hold for a contemporary audience. As an obedient participation in the tropes of the Gothic horror genre as a cinematic tradition, the film starts off with a slight disadvantage in its aesthetic’s commercial appeal. As demonstrated by del Toro’s Crimson Peak, the modern Gothic horror is often dismissed & unacknowledged even when it’s done exactly right, so a much cheaper, small-scale production like Marrowbone doesn’t have much of a chance to make an impression. To make things harder on itself, the film also adopts a distinctly literary, romantic tone that invites more cynical audiences to not take its emotional core seriously, the exact same way the tragically undervalued Never Let Me Go undercut its own potential commercial appeal as a sci-fi genre picture. For fans of the Gothic horror as an onscreen tradition, Marrowbone offers a wonderful corrective to the year’s other major offering in that genre, Winchester (which I’m saying as the only person in the world who got a kick out of Winchester). It’s an oddly romantic, admirably deranged entry into the modern ghost story canon. It’s frustrating for the already-converted to know that the film’s unhinged charms will be met with more shrugs than enthusiasm on the contemporary pop culture landscape, but its choice of genre at least lends it to feeling somewhat timeless, even if not an instant modern hit.

Although it’s set in 1960s small-town America, it’d be understandable to mistake much of Marrowbone for 19th Century Europe. Its haunted house narrative and feral children aesthetic feels like the lore of 1800s peasants, which makes the occasional intrusion of recognizable modernity almost surreal. The most frequent representation of this modernity is a girl-next-door sweetheart played by Anya Taylor-Joy. In her introduction she’s teased to be a kind of woodland witch (appropriately enough), but it turns out she’s just a darling small-town librarian with an A+ 1960s wardrobe. Her calm provincial life is upturned by the arrival of a small English emigrant family (including familiar faces Charlie Heaton, George MacKay, and Mia Goth) who are obviously in the process of escaping a troubled past. This is one of those immigrant stories where American is framed as a cure-all reset button meant to heals old wounds in a battered family’s identity. The past continues to haunt them, though—at first figuratively, then literally in the form of a ghost that stalks the attic of their new home. As the hauntings worsen, the family becomes more reclusive, never leaving the house to venture into town. Only the sweetheart librarian and her petty, jealous suitor have any interest in the goings-on of the cursed home, the family’s mysterious past, and the well-being of the four children who’re left to face their demons alone within that insular space. It does not go well.

Because Marrowbone is so obedient to the tropes & rhythms of a long-familiar genre, most audiences will clue into the answers to its central mysteries long before they’re revealed. However, the details of those mysteries’ circumstances and the effect of their in-the-moment dread carry the movie through a consistently compelling continuation of a Gothic horror tradition. Creepy dolls, cursed money, miniatures, bricked-over doorways, a covered mirror, a menacing ghost, a pet raccoon named Scoundrel: Marrowbone excels in the odd specificity of its individual details and the deranged paths its story pushes to once the protective bubble of its central mystery is loudly popped. There’s also a delicately tragic sense of romance that guides the picture’s overall tone, both in the librarian’s love life and in the children-fending-for-themselves literary imagination. If you’re not especially in love with the atmospheric feel of the Gothic horror genre, these aesthetic details and the film’s bonkers third act might not be enough to carry you beyond the sense that we’ve seen this story told onscreen many times before. The tempered response to both Crimson Peak & Winchester suggest that will be the case for many viewers. More forgiving Gothic horror fans should find plenty of admirable specificity to this particular story, though, the kind of tangible detailing that allows the best ghost stories to stick to the memory despite their decades (if not centuries) of cultural familiarity. It’s a shame that tradition isn’t currently profitable, but we’ll eventually come back around to it as a culture and Marrowbone will still be oddly, wonderfully unhinged in its menacing details.

-Brandon Ledet

Razorback (1984)

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An Australian horror film about a supernaturally enormous wild boar, Razorback should not be worth much more than its value as an 80s creature feature, but there’s something oddly special about it, especially in its visual palette. Although it is by all means a run of the mill horror film, at least narratively speaking, it also excels in monster movie mayhem & dreamlike visual trickery. Its skeezy tale of big city folks from New York being tormented by dangerous, near-feral Outback locals is far from extraordinary in the context of its genre & can often be downright repugnant in its cruelty. Still, Razorback endures as a unique oddity. The true draw of the film, of course, is the titular razorback, a gigantic beast whose remarkably horrific screen presence makes for one of the best cinematic monsters I’ve seen in a good while, but there’s also a much stranger undercurrent of psychedelia backing the boar up with a beyond-ominous atmosphere that helps the film outshine its mundane dedication to the horror tropes of its era.

The wild boar star of Razorback is far from the kind of cinematic swine you’ll find in titles like Babe or Gordy. It’s a disgusting, vile monster of a beast, tearing apart homes & vehicles and snatching up babies & women with wild abandon, his menacing tusks threatening to gore everything in site. There’s a certain amount of typical low budget monster movie concealment that keeps the razorback in the dark, hiding him in shadows or depicting action from a boar cam that captures his POV, but whenever he’s afforded screen time he shines as a grotesque menace. Given the unlikability of most of the film’s local brutes, it’s almost tempting to sympathize with the boar in all of his horrific magnificence. There’s even a scene where the hideous bastard prevents a near-rape, almost shining as an unlikely hero, but that sentiment is severely undercut when he immediately devours the would-be victim.

Even the schlockiest of horror flicks rarely can survive on the strengths of their monsters alone & although Razorback boasts some surprisingly effective creature horror, it’s the movie’s general atmosphere that makes its special. The film has an otherworldly eye for Australian wilderness, illuminating the setting’s wide open landscapes with strangely colored lights, animated skeletons, and humanoid pig faces. Just as a dehydrated traveler would hallucinate in the Australian wild, Razorback‘s visual eye is a horrifically detached-from-reality trip through a dangerous landscape ruled by dangerous reprobates & and ripped apart by a supernaturally dangerous boar that ties the whole thing together in a neat little creature feature package. It’s an alarmingly wild film (especially considering its strict adherence to genre tropes) that’s definitely worth a look next time you want to take a trip into the more sordid, but oddly psychedelic depths of the natural horror genre.

-Brandon Ledet