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Non-Review Review: The Secret of Marrowbone

The Secret of Marrowbone is an interesting premise, albeit one told in the clumsiest manner possible.

The basic story is sound. The film has all the trappings of a gothic eastern seaboard horror, even borrowing several of its cues from the work of Edgar Allan Poe. There is a secretive family living in a rundown house, with a dark secret involving betrayal and violence. The central family, with the delightfully gothic name of “Marrowbone” have journeyed from England to the United States in the hope of a clean break, a fresh start. “No more memories,” the characters repeatedly assure one another. However, this is a ghost story. What are ghost stories but stories about memory?

Putting their secrets to bed.

However, the execution is severely underwhelming. The Secret of Marrowbone is a film with an incredibly tonal dissonance. Writer and director Sergio G. Sánchez veers wildly from gothic Jungian horror to exaggerated fifties melodrama and back again, the whiplash heightened by Fernando Velázquez’s heavy-handed score and Xavi Giménez’s inconsitantly saturated cinematography. The Secret of Marrowbone is half a semi-competent horror movie and half an overwrought trashy soap opera, neither element meshing cleanly with the other.

The result is dizzying and disorienting, but probably not in the way that Sánchez intended.

All Jacked up with nowhere to go.

There is a lot to like here, in terms of simple narrative elements. The film has an intriguing hook, with a family on the run retreating to a dilapidated and derelict house. Naturally, the geography of the house reflects the psychology of its inhabitants; musky, decaying, full of holes, and defined by shadows. It is very clear early on that the Marrowbone family are hiding a dark secret, one from which they long to escape. However, the past cannot be erased and some stains cannot be painted over.

The Secret of Marrowbone understands all the core motivators of ghost stories, the idea that ghost haunt us from the past as reminders of horrific misdeeds and long-buried injustices. There is something slightly wry in the way that Sánchez frames the story from the perspective of the Marrowbone family, as they live alone in the wilderness. The house creaks beneath them. They are responsible for the echoes in the cavernous halls. They even cough in the darkness. The Secret of Marrowbone is almost a ghost story from the perspective of the ghosts.

Ghost’s stories.

Unfortunately, The Secret of Marrowbone can’t quite deliver on this premise. Part of the problem is down to Sánchez as director, who never manages to set a proper tone for the story that he is telling. The coastal setting of the story tends to vary dramatically from one shot to the next, pastoral in one scene and foreboding in the next, without a clear pivot point in terms on narrative. Sometimes the grass is green and alive, sometimes it is grey and dead. There is little elegance in the transitions, as if the movie is absent-mindedly flitting between genres.

This is reinforced through both the cinematography and the soundtrack. It often feels like The Secret of Marrowbone is two separate stories. The first story is a gothic horror about a bunch of children alone in a creepy house. The second story is about a family with a weirdly convoluted secret, who might be undone by a romance between their eldest child, Jack, and a local girl named Ellie. The movie is shot and scored like two different films. There is no care taken in piecing these elements together into a cohesive or satisfying whole.

Doll’s house.

This perhaps hints at the problems that can by laid at the feet of Sánchez as writer. The Secret of Marrowbone has a decidedly literary quality, to the point that it is surprising that the film never originated in prose. Certainly, several of the film’s plot developments would make more sense of the page than they do on the screen. There are a lot of extended monologues that serve as exposition dumps, often overlaid with montages as a way to impart necessary plot information in the bluntest manner possible.

For a genre that relies so heavily on mood, there is a severe inelegance in the writing of The Secret of Marrowbone, both in terms of plotting and dialogue. Characters don’t talk like regular people, or even like the inhabitants of a ghost story, they act as exposition-delivery mechanisms. “Did Jack ever tell you about his father?” Tom asks Allie at one point in the film. This is shortly followed by Allie bluntly stating to Jack, “You’ve never told me about your father.” Characters provide very pretty booklets to inform one another of their back story.

Picture this.

The issues apply as much to the pacing of the film as to the finer massaging of the plot. The film opens with an appreciable time skip after a shocking cliffhanger, which naturally leaves all sorts of questions hanging in the air. These questions haunt the next hour or so of the film, until the answers are revealed. The answers are revealed not through teasing or development, but instead through an awkward exposition dump in which one character bluntly states information that everybody else in the scene knows, but which the audience only suspects.

To be fair, this issue might be less frustrating if the basic plot of The Secret of Marrowbone wasn’t highly predictable. It is too much to suggest that the entire plot can be predicted from the opening scene, but the story hinges on a number of core concepts that it signposts heavily and frequently. As a result, most viewers will have figured out the shell game about a half-an-hour before the film chooses to play its hand. To be fair, there is one possible surprise at the climax, a detail that is played surprisingly straight, but which no actual sense.

Oh, sheet…

Within the story of The Secret of Marrowbone, all of the characters feel like pawns being moved around the board. When the film needs Tom to do something horrific in order to move the plot along, it features a scene in which he receives a phone call that rather bluntly dumps some character motivation in his lap. There is no set-up and pay-off here, there is very little elegance. There is a hand winding up a toy in order to move the plot along.

This is a shame, because there is some interesting material. There is a confrontation with a ghost early in the film that is ironically set to Pet Sounds, in which feels like a wry subversion of a stock gothic set up. There are moments when the desaturated gothic colour scheme looks almost like an etching, with the human figures fading into the landscape or blending into the shadows. These moments are fleeting, but they are effective.

Chilled to the Marrow.

More than that, the basic ingredients of the story are sound. There are points at which The Secret of Marrowbone feels like a deranged horror mad lib, drawing on everything from Charlotte Brontë to Edgar Allan Poe, with even a dash of Hitchcock thrown in for good measure. There are sequences that seem tailor-made for proper suspense film-making, particularly involving the family’s confrontations with the local lawyer who might uncover their secrets. Unfortunately, these aspects of the film simply never gel.

Sadly, The Secret of Marrowbone is not a story improved in the telling.

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