Welcome to 'Marrowbone:' Sergio Sánchez's debut feature rewards fans of thoughtful horror fantasy

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Out this Friday from Magnet Releasing, Marrowbone is a little bit horror, a little bit fantasy, a little bit romance, a little bit family drama. Per its director, Sergio G. Sánchez, it’s a “Russian doll” of a film—one that slowly peels back its layers, trusting its audience to follow it along a path where information is doled out evenly, deliberately, “reveal[ing the film] as a different creature every time.” It’s a bold, meticulous jigsaw puzzle—and an admirable first-time feature from writer-director Sánchez.

Though Marrowbone is Sánchez’s first effort as a director, those familiar with the work of fellow Spanish filmmaker J.A. Bayona have no doubt seen his work. Sánchez wrote Bayona’s first two films, The Orphanage and The Impossible, both critically acclaimed. Marrowbone shares DNA with that first film: a haunted house, a family in peril, a dreamy countryside idyll that hides dark secrets behind its peaceful façade.

This time around, the family consists of a mother (Nicole Harrison) and four siblings—the eldest son, George (George MacKay), peacemaker Jane (Mia Goth), moody Billy (Charlie Heaton) and young Sam (Matthew Stagg)—who have moved to the remote Marrowbone manor as a way to escape some unspecified painful past. The mother dies soon after, leaving Billy responsible for keeping the family together. In order to do so, he must not let anyone outside the family—including sweet librarian Allie (Anya Taylor-Joy) and a suspicious real estate agent (Kyle Soller)—know that his mother has passed. Complicating matters is the presence (or possible presence, let’s say) of a supernatural presence.

Those are the basic building blocks of Marrowbone, but they in no way give an accurate sense of the whole film. It’s less your typical haunted house story than a Gothic fairytale, but even that implies a level of straightforwardness that isn’t there. Marrowbone rewards the patient, those viewers willing to let mysteries take them to unexpected places. “I like a slow boiler,” says Sánchez. “This movie’s a puzzle. And if you’re not given time in between events to try to solve the puzzle on your own, then it won’t make any sense, because it feels like somebody is driving you randomly through a story. You really need that time to soak in the mood and soak in this world and this magical house. It’s almost like a spiral, where each event comes quicker than the last,” all leading up to an explosive half-hour that rewards those who have fought through any lingering desire for instant gratification. “It starts with the family drama, then something strange happens that turns the film into a mystery, then into a ghost story… The whole image is like a broken mirror that you [the audience] have to restore. It’s only once you put all the pieces together and you realize what’s happened that the horror comes. It’s very subtle. It’s more like a dark fairytale than a horror movie.”

Like fairytales, Marrowbone is interested in that liminal area between childhood and adulthood. To say more would be to give too much away. But, suffice it to say, one of the movie’s key images involves that transition from one state of being into another. When the family first arrives in the Marrowbone house, the siblings' mother draws a line in the dust of the floor. Cross this line, she tells her children, and you leave the past behind you. You don’t think about it. You don’t talk about it. It’s gone. But is it? Can it be? “That’s meant to be symbolic of all the lines and frontiers this movie navigates,” Sánchez notes. “There’s the frontier between childhood and adulthood, between life and death, between fantasy and reality. And how, through fantasy, you can make sense of events that make no sense in real life, or that are too cruel or too horrifying. It’s in that world”—the world of fantasy, of grey areas, symbols and unreliable narrators—“that I’m most comfortable.”

In terms of inspiration, Sánchez cites some fitting authors: Henry James, whose The Turn of the Screw was the director’s “first exposure to horror,” and Shirley Jackson, whose seminal work We Have Always Lived in the Castle shares with Marrowbone an interest in bringing out “the horror in the most ordinary circumstances—in broad daylight, with sunlight and seemingly perfect, harmless environments.” Despite its Gothic roots, Marrowbone is devoid of “dark and stormy night” storytelling. Only one scene, Sánchez points out, even takes place in the dark. And, like in The Turn of the Screw, We Have Always Lived in the Castle and Jackson’s most famous work, The Lottery, most of the what we would deem horror takes place off-screen. It’s a bold gambit from a storyteller with a distinct, assured vision—one who wants to embrace the magic of film, not wash it out in harsh shades of unambiguous black and white. Notes Sánchez: “Film is a perfect medium for fantasy.” It’s almost like a ghost itself—“something that’s not tangible, not real. It’s a creature made of light and sound that comes to you to provoke emotion, and maybe to carry a message. I think it’s maybe the most perfect medium to tell a story like this.”