The Secret of Marrowbone (2017)
★★★ / ★★★★
Here is a horror film that is more interested in telling a story than scaring the wits out of its viewers. Those familiar with the name Sergio G. Sánchez will not be surprised by this claim considering he was the screenwriter of “El orfanato,” another horror film in which the scares are byproducts of the mythos to be told. This time, putting on the shoes of writer-director, he helms “Marrowbone” like a drama that just so happens to have a secret at its center. Sánchez intends for the viewer to care about the characters first and foremost so that revelations during the final minutes make sense and the emotions that come with them are earned.
For the most part, the risky experiment works. Although apparently not for a typical modern audience who wishes to encounter jump scares every five minutes, those willing to peer closer into the mystery will be rewarded by a beautiful-looking picture, so atmospheric even during daytime when it is supposed to be safe. Notice the way Sánchez captures the open landscapes—meadows, seashores, a small town—and how he uses their majesty as contrast against the cramp indoors in which underaged siblings (George MacKay, Charlie Heaton, Mia Goth, Matthew Stagg) must hide themselves after the death of their mother (Nicola Harrison). All they have to do is wait for the eldest, Jack (MacKay), to turn twenty-one so authorities would no longer have the legal power to separate them.
There is a convincing romantic subplot between the eldest sibling and a librarian (Anya Taylor-Joy). It is handled with care, simplicity, and authenticity. Not once does it get in the way of the core story. In fact, the relationship between Jack and Allie serves as a beacon of hope in an otherwise increasingly dark material in which the threat of being found out looms over like having to exhale eventually. In a story like this, we know it is only a matter of time until the siblings’ secret is found out. A jealous porter (Kyle Soller), for instance, who takes a special interest in Allie cannot help to put his nose in places where it doesn’t belong.
A wonderful chemistry is shared among the siblings. Although they do not share numerous dramatic moments, plenty is communicated, for example, when they play board games, frolic along the beach, or decide what to do with the aforementioned porter who wishes to collect the two hundred dollars in addition to the deceased mother’s signature. Money is a problem… but actually acquiring signature from a dead person is another matter entirely. We watch in careful anticipation as the siblings attempt to extricate themselves from tricky situations. Meanwhile, the youngest, Sam, is convinced there is a supernatural force in their mother’s childhood home. Noises can be heard from the attic.
I admire “The Secret of Marrowbone” for its bold vision and confident execution. While most horror filmmakers are out to terrorize their viewers, Sánchez wishes to envelop us in a creepy atmosphere and build a strong sense of place. To me, it is a superior approach because the strategy requires some level of specificity, an emotional investment. By contrast, in order for jump scares to work most of time, all that has to happen is to suddenly show a figure in front of the camera accompanied by the breaking of silence with a deafening noise. The result is evanescent. In this film, on the other hand, we cannot help but think about what we had just seen or experienced as the credits roll.