Sergio G. Sánchez is best known as co-writer of The Orphanage, certainly one of the best horror films of recent years, with its gothic setting, and themes of past traumas haunting the present. In his feature directorial debut, he returns to some of these same themes and devices to great effect. Marrowbone
Siblings Jack, Billy, Jane, and Sam (George MacKay, Charlie Heaton, Mia Goth, and Matthew Stagg) have moved from England to an American coastal town with their mother Rose (Nicola Harrison) to escape an abusive father/husband. But Rose dies shortly after their arrival, and in order to make sure the children stay together, they must hide out for several months, until Jack turns 21 and can take legal guardianship of the family. Only Jack goes into town, to get supplies and meet with the siblings' new friend Allie (Anya Taylor-Joy). But the lawyer in charge of their house, Tom (Kyle Soller), gets suspicious, and there seems to be a ghost in the house with unfriendly intentions.
As much a drama with strong hints of the gothic supernatural than a straight-up horror film, no doubt viewers will still find a few moments that might have them hiding their eyes. Marrowbone does not lack for atmosphere, combining the production design, sound effects, and cinematography that has become a signature of similar Spanish films such as The Orphanage, The Others, and The Devil's Backbone. All these films also focus on the effect of the supernatural on children, though in this case the children have no adult supervision or protection; only each other.
A film such as this is only as good as the atmosphere created by characters and physical space. Luckily, the four young actors are great performers; they immediately feel like real siblings, with a deep love and attachment that comes not only through the familial, but through shared trauma and abuse. While they display some stereotypes of children their age (Jack is discovering love, Billy chafes at the confinement, Jane and Sam are happy with domestic life), they display the maturity that comes with their situation.
Sánchez uses a familiar but effect mix of visual and audio clues to offset the potent and realistic dilemma in which the siblings find themselves. There are the traditional creaking doors and floorboards; areas of the home that dare not be entered; a safe haven that isn't really safe except to a child's sensibility; and appropriately terrifying sound effects and music cues to make the audience hide their eyes or almost shout at the screen to stop the characters from their inevitably dangerous actions.
But while the film ahs the trappings of the expected gothic haunted house film, Sánchez is also careful to skew those expectations ever so slighty, partly through a more contemporary setting, and partly through the lack of adult supervision. While children (like women) are associated more with the supernatural, the story does not shy away from some very real and all-too-adult problems and troubles, ones that leave Jack especially vulnerable to his worsening emotional state.
A film that encourages multiple viewings in order to unpack its layers and secrets, Marrowbone asks its viewer to be as engaged as they are frightened, and almost become a part of this sibling group themselves, with twists and turns that sometimes predicted but never ineffective.
Marrowbone opens in the US on April 13th in theatres and on VOD.