Spheres of supernatural and psychological horror collide in The Secret of Marrowbone. An English-language, Spanish-made chiller, the film is a hybrid creation both in production and conception, with much of its plot echoing stories that have been told many times before. It’s spooky, if not revolutionary.
Sergio G. Sánchez directs the film, a solo first, following years of collaboration with compatriot J. A. Bayona. Among their shared back catalogue is 2007 hit The Orphanage, a horror that it is hard not to be reminded of when watching Marrowbone. This is not least by virtue of the sense that Sánchez is recycling old ideas with the film, which shares, for instance, a significant plot point concerning a matching leap in time. Both feature characters who return to their setting after thirty years, both jump six months after a prologue. To reveal more of the narrative influences at play here would rather spoil the fun.
George MacKay – the talented young Brit from Sunshine on Leith and Captain Fantastic – plays Jack, the oldest of four siblings who are relocated from mid-twentieth-century Britain to a secluded home in America by their mother, Rose (Nicola Harrison). The house – Marrowbone – was Rose’s childhood home and is now the family’s sanctuary from some unknown threat of the past. ‘Our story begins here,’ she tells her children.
As befitting a gothic tale, Marrowbone is a suitably creepy abode, one totally devoid of colour and consumed by dust, and it’s not long before the family’s haven becomes their hell. Aided by cinematographer Xavi Giménez, Sánchez has no difficulty in seizing the macabre essence of his story. The film has been almost entirely shot on location in Spain – The Orphanage was a sound-stage production – and is captured using only natural light. By necessity, the cliche of nighttime terrors is thus avoided.
Whilst many horror tropes – dolls, damp et al – do find their way into the structure, Marrowbone is perhaps not the full blown scare-fest some will expect or hope for. As a syrupy score from Fernando Velázquez is quick to reveal, this is as much a familial drama as anything else. In one lovely scene, Jack reassures his youngest brother (Matthew Stagg) that they are not alone by communicating with their friend, who lives across the hill (an endearing Anya Taylor-Joy), via morse code. Few ‘horror’ films are so emotionally thoughtful.
Surprisingly, it is not these tonal shifts that cause the film to stumble. That concept is a strength here but proves to be a show of ambition not matched in the plot itself. The film ultimately frustrates due to the level of contrivance that thickets our way to a late reveal. Whilst the twist itself is powerfully done – albeit familiar – the stretch that follows is ruined by the aftertaste of convolution. The thrills and chills are spot on but the logic is increasingly awol.
Much of Marrowbone’s appeal spawns from its ability to draw intrigue and engagement from its central mysteries. The more Sánchez’s script pulls his viewers through the ringer, however, the less the resolution is able to satisfy. It doesn’t help that it is often as hard to pinpoint when the film is meant to be set as it is to comprehend why certain characters act as they do. Why use matches when you have a flashlight? Why arrange to meet someone without giving them a time? What are you people doing?
Were there not such a persistent sense that none of the film truly adds up, Marrowbone could have been genuinely brilliant. Indeed, once feelings of frustration die down, it becomes clear just how close Sánchez gets.