The Secret of Marrowbone at EIFF: uninspired multiplex horror
Can somebody explain to me how The Secret of Marrowbone is actually a thing? Director Sergio G. Sánchez (writer of The Orphanage) has managed to draw in big horror stars Anya Taylor-Joy and Mia Goth for a film that should be an absolute knockout but is, in reality, a stuttering slog. Utterly forgettable, painfully cliched, and yet somehow still completely incomprehensible, Marrowbone is an enormous horror misfire that fails to scare in the slightest.
George MacKay stars as Jack, the figurehead of a family destroyed by a murderous father, and a mother who has perished from an unspecified disease. Together they live in isolation at Marrowbone house, secluding themselves from the rest of society for reasons unknown. They keep mirrors covered, and the top floor boarded up at all times – yet, when a lawyer begins to pressure Jack to hand over the money he’s owed for the purchase of the house, spirits of the past are awakened and threaten to overwhelm the family.
The first issue (of many) that we run into is the film’s pacing. Sánchez overloads his script with so many subplots that the film feels crowded and bloated. There’s no real sense of narrative momentum because every scene seems to add a new storyline without developing others. The plot only gets more and more complicated; climaxing in a scene that literally makes no sense. I may add, too, that the core ‘twist’ (if you can call it that), is now one of the most tiresome plot devices in the genre. It doesn’t help that the film seems to be going for thematic heft – beginning with an overwrought visual metaphor for how the deeds of our parents can seem to hang over our heads – yet frequently confuses its message, making any interpretation of potentially rich psychological imagery pointless.
More pressingly, it’s just not scary. After the refreshing terror of Hereditary, The Secret of Marrowbone feels like an unwelcome return to cheap, Blumhouse-helmed jump-scare horror. Sánchez fails in almost every respect to even create an atmosphere of horror. Sure, the (mostly) daytime setting is impressive, but there’s so little fear around the environment (even the jump-scares take place in the dark) that the whole film just ends up feeling quite safe. The four-or-five scenes aiming for all-out horror ape the same formula: a solitary character wanders into a dark, empty room, the soundtrack builds and cuts out, there’s a 5-10 second silence, then something (usually a hand) darts into the screen accompanied by a loud screeching noise. You’ve seen it a thousand times and don’t need to see it again: it’s truly tiresome that a group of people so talented could believe that this trash constitutes quality horror output.
Visually the film is a mixed bag. What it does – country houses, late-60’s period detail, rural villages – it does well; but, as a whole, Marrowbone feels uninspired and second-hand in the visuals department. Occasionally, tableaux featuring all the main characters provide an almost painterly visual splendour; but these are flashes of inspiration amidst the beige. It doesn’t help that Fernando Velázquez’s score is the kind of generic orchestral horror-drivel that fills out most multiplex horror – instantly forgettable, and only effective in a gimmicky ‘gotcha!’ sense.
We may be in a modern horror renaissance, with masterpieces such as Hereditary, mother!, and The Witch proving that there’s more to the genre than cheap thrills; but The Secret of Marrowbone is still stuck in the dark ages. This is multiplex horror at it’s worst: dull, uninspired, and cheap. Unlike, say, Truth or Dare however, its creators seem to have loftier pretensions.