IN CINEMAS NOW
RUNNING TIME: 110 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
1969: Rose and her four children Jack, Jane, Billy and Sam move from England to America to live in her childhood home Marrowbone House. Things start off well, and they make a new friend, a local girl named Allie whom Jack becomes keen on. However, the trip took a toll upon Rose’s poor health. As she lies on her death bed, she gives Jack some instructions: Rose is to be buried in the garden at a place she has already specified, Jack must do his best to keep the family secret and hidden until he turns 21, and to have a safe place in case “he”, from whom she took some money, finds them. Two unwanted visitors then turn up; lawyer Tom, and a spectral presence who also lives inside the house.…
I guess I am an idiot. All of us on HCF who sure Hereditary loved it, and I was so confident about it being the best horror film of the year that I rashly said that I’d give up booze if I saw a better one in 2018. Well along comes The Secret Of Marrowbone just a few weeks after and, while it seems that the critics have been a bit more divided on it, I found it to be – well, I can’t quite decide if it’s almost as impressive an achievement or genuinely just as good. Better? – maybe not, though it’s possible that I found it more rewarding personally. It shares with Hereditary an emphasis on atmosphere and tension over saying “BOO” over and over again, and fits in well with the broken family theme which is currently very prevalent in the genre and has produced some other fine chillers of late like The Babadook, but other than than it’s quite different. Hereditary devotes all its time to making you feel uncomfortable, a sense of dread, a feeling of evil, and does it very well. Frightening yet tear jerking, disturbing yet beautiful, The Secret Of Marrowbone casts its net wider in an attempt to move as much as chill, incorporating things such as romance, and with seemingly odd influences such as Enid Blyton and Where The Lillies Bloom. It even bravely attempts a rather positive look at mental illness. It seems that some aren’t even considering it to be much of a horror film because of the way it tries to do a whole lot of other things besides scare you, I overheard two morons saying this as I left the cinema, but this seems to me to be a very narrow view of what a horror film can be. And Sergio G. Sanchez’s directorial debut certainly scares when it needs to, while its gradually revealed story is certainly a nasty one. The fact that it’s taken nearly a year to get here from its release in Spain should not be held as an indication of a lack of quality.
The ‘lost summer’ feel of much of the piece is introduced right away, one immediately reminded of the likes of Stand By Me and Summer Of ‘42 with the idyllic outdoor images and the narration of Jack, reading from his diary. His family has been through some trauma, and they’re all damaged by it. However, Rose the mother draws a line in the dust on the floor and says to them that when they cross over this they leave their trouble and past behind, they move into their future, free of their history, and as part of that they change their family surname to match that of this old family home: Marrowbone. Their existence here seems fine for a while, especially for Jack who begins to experience the pangs of first love when the children meet Allie, who lives in the only other house that seems to be nearby though it’s a trek to get there [we never meet her parents nor venture inside her house, which is a slightly unsettling touch though unimportant to the narrative]. However, Rose soon dies and Jack now has to look after everyone and keep them hidden away until his 21st birthday. A bit extreme I suppose, but it’s pretty obvious that they’re hiding from someone, someone who [and this is made fairly clear quite early on so it’s not really a big spoiler] might just be the father of the family.
Somebody approaches the house with a gun and their peace is shattered forever by a bullet – and then the film moves forward to six months later. The device of not allowing us to see what are crucial happenings until in flashback near the end is in truth an extremely obvious way to make the story seem more complicated than it is, and I personally think that the film would still have worked well if it hadn’t have done this and shown some [but certainly not all] of these events in chronological order because the tale it tells is so strong and would possibly have been even more harrowing. Anyway, six months ahead is where we now go to and the house is somewhat different, what with things like mirrors covered up and something called The Fortress set up which is obviously a kind of sanctuary. It seems that they encountered a ghost and sent him away, but he may return. More pressing is when lawyer Tom comes round, but a bit of forging of signatures soon sends him on his way. Then, as the siblings play a game, the youngest of them Sam goes off to find and bring back some thrown dice and suddenly a mood of terror is upon us. While I don’t tend to read reviews in detail before I do my own, I did skim a few for this film and two of them complained that it was a quarter of the way through before we get our first scare which, considering that it was over a third of the way through Psycho when Janet Leigh took cinema’s most famous shower, is just ridiculous. Are people and even critics that impatient now? The influence of the supposed speed of life today grows ever more negative.
Anyway, Sanchez manages the frightening bits [which now begin in earnest] with the skill of a master. He’s clearly influenced by Alejandro Amenabar’s superb work on The Others which he scripted, from choice of shots to the colour scheme of most of the interiors which emphasis a golden brown and where shadows of dark and light gently do battle. He gives us the most edge of seat hand-going-into-dangerous-darkened-area moment since Flash Gordon and Prince Barin were made to perform that ritual in Flash Gordon – and it finishes with a brilliantly timed scare. There are a few jumps in this film, but they certainly don’t take over. It’s mainly the feeling of fear, often involving Sam seemingly because, as we know, younger children are often more receptive to spooks than people who are older. I loved one particular bit in which the person being frightened was actually the one wrapped in a white sheet like a ghost. Meanwhile Jack and Allie’s liking for each other appears to be growing, cinematographer Xavi Giménez gorgeously capturing moments like a kiss in a field and a run across a beach and imbuing them with a real sense of nostalgia. Tom, who’s becoming suspicious of the whole situation in Marrowbone, also takes an interest in Allie, though it’s not really a proper love triangle since Tom’s feeling aren’t returned, and Simon Fairbairn almost plays Tom as a kind of comic relief character. He’s given a rather stupid piece of storytelling when he throws a load of stuff in his office everywhere in anger, and ‘lo and behold’ spots an important news article that helps him put things together.
Truth be told, I guessed the first major revelation rather early on though of course there’s another twist in the tale that follows it. It’s not original, but does shift the emphasis of things in an interesting way. Unfortunately, when the film appears to be finishing on a satisfactory note, Sanchez then feels the need to wrap up every single detail in a succession of ‘endings’ that diminish in effectiveness – though he makes amends with his very final scene which is extremely moving if perhaps a little too positive for such a dark tale. He really does seem to think that love can conquer all and that’s very admirable, what with the honesty not to mention the bravery [we almost don’t really want one character to be cured of his/her serious condition] with which he’s portraying the situation, even if cynical old me failed to totally buy it – though not after he’d nearly shed a tear of course. Though it’s not very fashionable these days, Sanchez really does let the emotion flow throughout, allowing one to fully experience each character’s feelings, and is helped immensely by his excellent young cast members. Matthew Stagg is a revelation, he’ll break your heart whether he’s having to watch his two older brothers row, going into his dead mother’s bedroom and playing a recording of her singing a song, or showing delight at being shown how to communicate in Morse code with Allie. Of course viewers who’ve seen George MacKay and Mia Goth before won’t need reminding of the excellence of two of the best young performers today.
Backing up the proceedings is a superb score by Fernando Velázquez which matches his fine work on the likes of Mama and The Orphanage, full of lovely pieces that exude heartbreak, pain and differing forms of love, as well as the expected terror cues – though I wouldn’t be surprised if some reviewers have found the music excessive, especially when the prevailing trend for American horror films is to use a more ambient, less classical approach. The Secret Of Marrowbone may not be a ‘typical’ horror film but a horror film it still most certainly is while also being a movie of considerable richness and poignancy that I would have given 9/10 if it hadn’t have been for the flaws in the final act – but then if I’d done that I may well not have been able to enjoy the glass of wine that stands next to my PC – and that would have been a shame.