Old houses carry an intrinsic eeriness, but the horrors we conjure up in our own imagination are often far more terrifying than whatever the dull truth turns out to be. With recycled set pieces and plot beats, Marrowbone commits the grave sin of familiarity, without enough deviation from its aesthetic ilk to be remarkable. First-time director Sergio G. Sánchez (screenwriter of the far superior films The Orphanage and The Impossible) has decided to craft a debut that would satiate viewers who thought Crimson Peak was too subtle.
In order to protect her children from their murderous, abusive father, Rose (Nicola Harrison) uproots her life in England and travels with her family to her secluded, dilapidated childhood home in America. It isn’t long before Rose falls ill and dies, leaving 20-year-old Jack (George MacKay) in charge of his younger siblings (Mia Goth, Charlie Heaton, and Matthew Stagg). Cooped up in an eerie house with a twisted past, the kids’ only communication with the outside world comes from their friendship with local librarian Allie (Anya Taylor-Joy, who between Split and Morgan is no stranger to being the most fascinating aspect of a lackluster movie).
Between this and The Orphanage, it is becoming increasingly clear that Sergio G. Sánchez is bent on making a name for himself a faithful disciple of 1970s Spanish cinema, but here there isn’t enough of a dexterous spin on the films to which he is paying tribute. It just feels like a soulless carbon copy. To make matters worse, the film is caught in a mishmash of period details resulting in a setting that never really existed. Sánchez carries over Victorian Gothic elements into the Nixon era, and unfortunately it shrouds his narrative in an aura of crippling inauthenticity, calling to mind the timeless hodgepodge that worked wonders for Napoleon Dynamite but doesn’t carry the same weight when played completely straight.
Marrowbone banks on the mystery at the center of its oversimplified plot, but it falls victim to predictability to the point of tedium. The script leaves a trail of breadcrumbs without providing enough intrigue for the viewer to choose to follow them. It is consistently unconvincing as it casually drops red herrings, and when it finally spells out its juiciest reveals, they’re obvious and unnecessary. The film lacks artistic courage; it constantly takes the easy way out. Sánchez will pull the curtain back and peer into the darkness, only to immediately turn away and attempt to wrap everything up with a neat, little bow.
While the film markets itself as a horror flick, any sense of creepiness feels forced and superficial, failing to evoke much of a response from the viewer. Marrowbone is laughably self-serious, and it expects the audience to lift it onto the pedestal it’s constructed for itself. Sadly, none of the film’s ideas are presented with even a shred of grace. Instead of a compelling ghost story, we’re left with a community theatre melodrama that mistakes plot twists for creative depth.
Often bogged down with barely-remembered subplots, Marrowbone would have benefited from a minimalist eye. Or, at the very least, someone who knew a thing or two about rousing campfire frights. While there are a handful of moments that display competence – a glimpse into a cohesive family unit or the beginnings of a morality debate – they quickly get lost in the shuffle of a film that doesn’t feel the need to flesh out any of its hasty ideas. Sánchez clings to a cheap gimmick, rather than seeking out anything of substance.