Chances are if you add the subtitle of ‘a ghost story’ to anything my ears will perk up at the sight of it. The classically-gothic nature of a well-told ghostly tale is enough to catch my attention at any time of the day, and if there’s a word to describe Marrowbone (or El secreto de Marrowbone ‘The Secret of Marrowbone’), the directorial debut of writer Sergio G. Sánchez (2007’s The Orphanage and 2010’s The Impossible) it would definitely be ‘traditional’. Whilst its sense of atmosphere and tone are always clear and well executed, there’s an air of familiarity to the film that renders any development mute, and sadly doesn’t make the film stand out from the writer’s other work.
Set in 1969, Marrowbone follows a terrified English family who escape to the States in order to escape their treacherous and terrifying past, adopting the new family name of ‘Marrowbone’ after the house they take residence in. Jack (George MacKay), Billy (Stranger Things’ Charlie Heaton), Jane (the aptly-named Mia Goth) and young Sam (Matthew Stagg) follow their ill mother to the new house in the middle of nowhere, with instructions to wait until Jack’s upcoming twenty-first birthday before they enter society as then they can be legally kept safe from the horrors that follow them. As time goes on however, they discover a dark secret about the house, as things go bump within the walls and mirrors shatter, Sam tells tales of a monster who lives in the bricked-off attic above them and the family is constantly in fear of their past which could catch up with them at any moment.
That of course sounds very vague, but one of Marrowbone’s greatest strengths comes from its opening. The prologue to proceedings sets the tone up perfectly for what’s to come, and the presence of the title card had my mind hooked thanks to some sharp editing and great, minimal sound design. Aesthetically, cinematographer Xavi Giménez makes the film pleasant enough, though a lot of time the Marrowbone house itself seems like it could have been used to greater effect. Large doorways and small windows each with various cracks and scrapes is a ghost’s dream, yet here aside from some (albeit impactful) moments, Sánchez never utilizes the tools at his disposal. The same goes for the cast too, whilst MacKay does the majority of the heavy lifting and Heaton is able to get engaged within a small number of scenes, the likes of The Witch‘s Anya Taylor-Joy are left with nothing but a middling side-plot which distracts from the more interesting events inside the house. It’s a wonder why more focus wasn’t put on the central premise, and why Taylor-Joy wasn’t made a Marrowbone is a true mystery as the moments with her and the siblings are strong and filled with chemistry. Kyle Soller plays a disgruntled banker entirely devised to push the plot forward and provide a love triangle between Jack and Taylor-Joy’s Allie. It’s a wasted role and Soller often seems as though he can’t seem to decide whether or not he’s taking it seriously whilst everyone around him is constantly faced with dread.
It’s sadly become common of recent years to advertise a film as a horror if it includes any remotely frightening scenes (for example, It Comes at Night). Whilst Marrowbone isn’t horrifically scary, it does arguably work better as a dramatic piece of filmmaking. The relationship between the siblings, whilst forced at the start with faux-pleasant voiceovers and tales of childlike whimsy, hinges on the performance of MacKay, who is mostly up for the challenge despite some falters with a strange tonal shift towards the film’s final act.
That’s not to say that the horror elements of the film aren’t effective. Executive producer J.A. Bayona‘s markings are all over the film, from the watercolour artwork to the soft lighting. What few jumpscares there are don’t feel necessarily cheap, and there’s one sequence at the midway point which made me feel ill with dread. It just made me want the rest of the film to be as successful. The film’s choice to dive head-on into a certain plot-thread as the film heads towards its climax is tonally jarring, and it’s this hurdle where MacKay sadly begins to falter. It’s also here where the similarities between two other films (The Others and the aforementioned The Orphanage) become too difficult to ignore, and if the films in question weren’t considered masterworks within their genre then maybe Marrowbone would have stood out as something special.
Sánchez keeps his camerwork to a minimum, not really offering much variety in the way the film is presented, which is a shame because some excellent direction could have upped the tension during multiple scenes and would have made Marrowbone a far more memorable experience. It’s funny however because the scenes in which the film’s pace ramps up (during a particularly frightening scene within the loft) show a talent for frantic presentation to the point where I could see him excelling at something more commercial within the horror genre, perhaps even taking a note from James Wan with The Conjuring. The lavish corridors and staircases of the Marrowbone house offer up such a playground for visuals that it’s disappointing to see Sánchez not indulge himself in it. There’s clearly talent on display, both on and offscreen, but it’s a clear lack of heart that makes the lasting impression.
Marrowbone will offer something that feels vaguely fresh if you’re not familiar with Sánchez’s earlier work, but if you are then it’s sadly just a less-impactful retread of the same themes and ideas, even down to setting and story beats. It would have been nice to see Sánchez tackle a different genre, perhaps even a script he didn’t write, but for now Marrowbone offers a familiar-feeling and unremarkably-told ghost story that, if you buy into it, could leave you with just a modicum of warmth.