By Preston Wilder
The trailer for Marrowbone is cut fast and scored for maximum dread. It does that thing where the music swells and stretches ominously over shots of people looking frightened, and that other thing where a single chord crashes down, with the awful finality of a bell tolling, over a caption reading ‘From the writer of The Orphanage’. “Sam has been to Mother’s room. He says he saw something in there,” one of the Marrowbone kids tells another, mysteriously. Four dolls are laid out on the floor, creepily. We don’t see much, it’s true – except perhaps a skeletal-looking hand emerging from behind a door – but imagination fills in the gaps. This is going to be scary.
That’s the trailer, anyway. The film is something else altogether, barely even horror (seldom has the ‘18’ rating been more misleading), more like a vaguely Gothic psychological drama piggybacking on horror conventions. The trailer isn’t quite false advertising but it does suggest a very different movie; I imagine some Harvey Weinstein type (or his Spanish equivalent, the film having been made with Spanish money) puffing thoughtfully on a big cigar after first-time director Sergio G. Sanchez screened his cut for the top brass. ‘Well, Sergio,’ this blunt-spoken money-man must’ve sighed, ‘I don’t know what half-baked, sluggish, would-be fairytale-like aberration you think you’ve made here, but don’t worry: I’m gonna market the hell out of it!’.
Mr Sanchez is indeed the writer of The Orphanage, another dark Spanish fairytale – but Marrowbone comes on more like the Narnia franchise, with four English siblings ranging in age from late teens to single figures. The setting is rural (an old house in the woods), the time the late 1960s (though in fact period detail is perfunctory). The Marrowbones move into their new home, consciously hoping to forget the past and make a new start – but Mother is already unwell and Father is absent, a dark spectre haunting the family. The plot lurches into Our Mother’s House, with the kids keeping Mum’s death a secret and hiding away from the world – but there’s also a supernatural angle. “The ghost is back,” says little Sam. “He’ll never leave us. I hate living with a ghost”. There are noises in the attic, and a spreading stain on the ceiling. And why does the house have no mirrors?
Some of this is intriguing, but the execution lets it down. The acting is often terrible, especially when ‘doing’ manic energy and teenage exuberance; a game of Risk is so overacted it feels like a drama-school exercise. The tone is heavily whimsical, with Morse-code messages, childish watercolours and a family box marked ‘Our Story’. The film feels stilted, unnatural. Maybe because Sanchez is working in English for the first time, many of the lines thud awkwardly. The clan’s first meeting with their new neighbour Allie (Anya Taylor-Joy) is cringe-inducingly wooden, with everyone playing games and dealing in metaphors (“Take these acorns…”). Above all, it’s increasingly clear that the film must be building to a twist – but the twist, when it comes, is both too-familiar and unconvincing. I won’t spoil it here, but let’s just say that the presence of Anya Taylor-Joy provides a clue. Connect the dots yourselves.
Marrowbone isn’t very scary, though that’s not necessarily fatal. There are bold ideas in the script, like the way it reverses the usual haunted-house structure; the ghost is invariably the punchline, but here the ghost is taken for granted. The film is also good to look at, with some striking images like a shot of the farmhouse with a small silhouette on the roof. But the plotting is increasingly dim, especially the whole sub-plot involving a lawyer who threatens to find out the truth. The lawyer comes closer while Jane (the splendidly-named Mia Goth) is struggling to forge Mother’s signature – but he’s hardly going to burst into what’s ostensibly an old woman’s bedroom, so the attempt at edge-of-your-seat suspense falls flat. The lawyer refuses £200 in cash, insisting on a cheque, which makes no sense except that the plot demands it. The lawyer gets a phone call so convenient it made me laugh out loud in the cinema. The lawyer is typical of Marrowbone’s weaknesses – but when you add the uncertain pace, stilted tone, silly twist and general lack of scariness, you’ve got a failure so complete it’s barely even honourable.
Any redeeming features? Well, maybe one. Ms Taylor-Joy, with her big eyes and elfin face, is a fascinating presence, and the way she moves is especially striking – both awkward and sinuously elegant, like an alien who’s recently learned how to human-walk. There are fleeting pleasures in between the missteps and plot-holes of Marrowbone – but mostly it’s just missteps and plot-holes. Our advice? Watch the trailer.
DIRECTED BY Sergio G. Sanchez
STARRING George MacKay, Anya Taylor-Joy, Charlie Heaton
Spain 2017 110 mins