Truth be told, that title is a bit of a cheat.
Marrowbone, the directorial debut of Orphanage screenwriter Sergio D. Sanchez, is not really a horror film although it is being billed and marketed as such. Instead, it is much closer in tone and theme to Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak — especially in the way audiences looking for the kind of jump scares and cheap thrills that made Annabelle: Creation a hit are likely to be disappointed. Like Crimson Peak, Marrowbone is a Gothic horror story. Yes, it has ghosts and murders and creepy things afoot in the attic, but the horror of this film is not derived from the traditional language of scary movies. It is instead an intensely psychological film, drawing on how the ghosts of the past become trapped in the mind and rot and corrupt it with with guilt and fear and sorrow. These are all classic Gothic tropes, right down to the decaying old house that functions as a metaphor for the confused, ravaged labyrinth of a human mind.
The world of this film is very small. It takes place in a rural landed estate somewhere on the East Coast of the United States, where a displaced English family take up residence fleeing something from their past. Soon, the four siblings are left to take care of themselves in an old, disheveled house — and it quickly becomes apparent they are not alone in there. Two people from the local town are their only connection to the outside world. A family left alone in an isolated country home is hardly a new idea in the genre, but ultimately this is a ghost story where the demons are not so much literal as they are memories, trapped in the nightmare of history. The real drama is watching the small ensemble cast try to escape them.
That said, this film is utterly gorgeous to look at. It was filmed in Spain, as a stand-in for some place similar to Maine or New Hampshire. There are innumerable uses of natural lighting to give the film an ethereal intimacy, interspersed with occasional lush, breathtaking shots of the countryside and the desolate, pristine coastline. The film takes you on a visual tour of its tiny world in the beginning to establish the mise en scène, and it sucks you right in. There is one particular wide shot on a windswept beach as two impossibly tiny human figures cut their way languidly across the undulating sand that will live in my memory forever. The visual language of the film is incredibly seductive. The Hollywood Reporter noted in their review that it creates the kind of world that you wouldn’t mind staying in after the credits roll and Laura said something eerily similar. Once she had stopped crying.
Marrowbone is that kind of ghost story. The ghosts will scare you a bit, but they will also gut-punch you by the end, leaving you feeling bittersweet emotions about this decrepit house set in a beautifully rendered late 60s New England coastal region. This should come as no surprise of course. Sanchez is a long-time collaborator of J. A. Bayona (who produced the film). Bayona specializes in a type of magical realism that pushes deep into painful themes of life, death, guilt and remorse and the ways in which fragile human beings struggle, often in vain, to deal with these barbed emotions. A J. A. Bayona film is, almost by definition, one that will leave you in tears the way last year’s incredibly powerful and powerfully sad A Monster Calls did. So while Marrowbone has some moments where your breath will catch, it may also leave you wiping away tears.
This film has yet to have a North American release, or much of a release at all. As of today, it has been released in an impossibly weird hodgepodge of countries — Spain, Indonesia, Ukraine and Russia. I wonder if the US distributor is holding it back for December to strengthen its chances in awards seasons. Personally, I didn’t find the film quite good enough to warrant Best Picture buzz, but it is definitely a film worth seeing. Just remember to bring some tissues.