After writing the screenplays for J.A Bayona’s revered ghost horror The Orphanage and his follow-up tsunami thriller The Impossible, Sergio G. Sanchez makes his directorial debut with this inconsistent but creepy supernatural thriller about a sick mother and her four children who move into the dilapidated Marrowbone House in rural America. Soon after settling in, ghostly goings on shatter the family harmony and the Marrowbone inhabitants find themselves battling a malevolent spirit which may have ties to their past.
The Secret of Marrowbone succeeds in delivering bone-rattling frights and hair-whitening tension, which many modern horrors struggle to achieve without resorting to volume cranked jump scares, but sadly its drama is hampered by flunky dialogue, hack acting and galling characters.
Sanchez’s capacity to craft sharp shocks goes some way to compensate for TSOM’s deficiencies yet his script seems trite despite hitting pivotal plot points. These blemishes are mostly as a result of dissonant shoe-horned arcs, poorly extrapolated/ utilised character substance and a story that swerves in and out of sub-plots like a drunk junkie with sunstroke got shot in the head with a tranquiliser dart then collapsed behind the wheel of an inebriated Christine.
Histrionic performances hamper tangible, dramatic moments, but the supernatural sequences are so compelling, they rise above the defects. TSOM also looks magnificent which is partly due to Xavi Gimenez’s striking cinematography; capturing stunning landscapes and golden vistas. Along with its rustic late 60s setting/ backdrop of Nixon and the moon landing, TSOM evokes a comforting sense of nostalgia and family cosiness which make the horror even more heart-rattling when it finally arrives.
Eerie, ominous boarded up walls with protruding splinters like stiff hairs or beast teeth, dead-end stairwells coated in musky, dust petal dotted darkness, coupled with lush production values/visuals, knife-sharp editing, scary sound design and a Bernard Herrmann-like score, augment TSOMs knee-knocking moments, but Sanchez’s script could be tighter. It’s too small-talk loaded with flimsy exposition and abstruse back-stories which add little insight.
At times, TSOM dithers lost between genres, suffering something of an identity crisis. Where this balance was achieved impeccably in Alejandro Amenabar’s The Others, here it is merely attempted. Character conflicts/ dynamics are established but not utilised to strengthen the drama. Family squabbles and love triangles make for feeble subplots, but while mawkish moments may cripple Marrowbone, they do little to lessen the dread and jolts that Sanchez so expertly generates.
TSOM should have been 90 minutes instead of dragging on to 110 with a pinned on epilogue that is next to pathetic. It all feels a bit too close to The Others (and many more) to be truly inimitable, but, like The Others, it may (or may not) have a wicked crimp in it’s climax. You’ll have to see for yourself and keep an open mind.
At its best, TSOM is a tension yoking, anxiety whipping paranormal family thriller that has too many blunders to bud into a horror masterpiece, despite housing some of the scariest scenes to be seen on screen this year (so far). As well as shrewdly dodging clichés, TSOM features the most intense hand dipping in dark hole scene seen since Sam Jones’ and Timothy Dalton’s gaudy face-off in Flash Gordon. Sadly, like so many horror movies, the film’s vital components are cosmically botched, but Sanchez proves a dab hand at delivering the shocks on screen that he had only previously captured on paper.