There’s a great melodrama lurking at the heart of The Secret of Marrowbone, Yet, it never emerges. Instead cheap scares, a poor script and an over-reliance on twists form the shoddy skeleton of this film, ruining its potential. Considering this came from the producers of The Orphanage and Pan’s Labyrinth, you would expect better efforts at tailoring the screenplay closer towards the rich Gothic atmosphere these films have so well established. Instead it’s just a remix of The Others with none of the reward or emotional heft.
British woman Rose Marrowbone brings her children back to the American house she was born to escape their dark past. She soon dies leaving twenty-year-old Jack (George MacKay, Captain Fantastic) to look after Billy (Charlie Heaton, Stranger Things), Jane (Mia Goth) and Sam (Mathew Stagg). Six months on they live in fear of a mysterious ghost and are waiting on Jack’s twenty-first birthday so that he can take custody of them. Outside pressure comes from blackmailing lawyer Tom Porter (Kyle Soller) and Jack’s concerned girlfriend Allie (Anya-Taylor Joy, The Witch).
The Secret of Marrowbone has potential as a combined thriller/melodrama but focuses too much on its barely-there horror to work out. Its themes of mental illness come too late to be properly explored whereas the obviously present economic strain is resolved too quickly. Tom Porter, supposedly the villain for much of the film, never truly gets his Michael Shannon in Revolutionary Road moment. Instead he’s a mere plot device. The film ends where it should begin. Perhaps, its greatest crime.
The Spanish Gothic genre of horror and fantasy films has done well over the last decade or so. Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone, Alejandro Amenábar’s The Others and J.A Bayona’s The Orphanage are the best well known and all share a deep commitment to what they are. However, The Secret of Marrowbone can’t decide if it wants to be a Gothic horror or a melodramatic Gothic romance. It has the trappings of both. Yet, not the stomach or heart for either.
Writer-director Sergio G. Sánchez’s script falls flat in many places. The dialogue often feels awkward and forced even by such naturally gifted actors as Heaton and Joy. Arguments in the film amount to repeated phrases or words that lose all meaning on their third utterance. The scares borrow a lot from Blumhouse stablemates Insidious and Sinister. Swelling and screeching strings accompany a contorted, stick-thin monster with a grey skin tone that scuttles and darts without ever being fully revealed. Sánchez shores up his screenplays many flaws with a decadent amount of twists and red herrings. Despite an inspired sheet ghost moment and an armrest-gripping attic scene Sánchez’s direction is as uninspired as his script.
I didn’t walk into The Secret of Marrowbone wanting a call back to the classical Douglas Sirk Hollywood melodrama. I left wanting one though. It was obvious how well George MacKay and Anya-Taylor Joy are suited to such a film especially considering their mostly unexplored but bubbling chemistry. I walked into this film wanting to be scared and I was. Yet, I didn’t expect to leave unsatisfied and wanting something else.