If there’s one thing that should make us all appreciate just how difficult a high-wire act is pulled off in films like “The Others,” “The Devil’s Backbone” or indeed J.A. Bayona‘s peerless “The Orphanage,” it may well be watching “Marrowbone,” the directorial debut from “The Orphanage” screenwriter, Sergio G. Sanchez. Handsomely shot, evocatively designed, solidly cast and terribly daft, it also presents your friendly neighborhood reviewer with something of a challenge. With what seems like almost premeditated skill, it saves its worst instincts for the backend of its convoluted and barely credible narrative, a good arm-and-a-half’s-length beyond the impassible “spoiler wall.”
So I can tell you that it’s not good, but I can’t tell you exactly how it’s not good, or compare it to any of the many films it references in that terminally overstuffed last act, because to do so would rob you all of the dubious pleasure of discovering just how silly it can get all by yourself. Instead, we’ll have to make do with this rough analogy: for the first hour or so, “Marrowbone” lobs so many brightly-colored narrative balls and feathery doodads in the air — Noises in the attic! Stains on the ceiling! Covered mirrors! Serial killers! Possible incest! Love triangles! Concealed deaths! Boxes of money! Mysterious scarring! Peculiar rock formations! — that it’s genuinely intriguing, and you wonder how on earth it will catch them all. And then it doesn’t, and the denouement is all of them splatting down around so randomly it makes you feel a little bad for the ambitious but sadly underskilled juggler.
It starts with the kind of house that you’d frankly want your money back on if you found it wasn’t haunted: a huge, remote rambling pile behind big iron gates and a wall that encloses wild overgrown gardens. It’s called Marrowbone, and as the birthplace of their mother, it becomes a transatlantic refuge for the English Fairbairn children, Jack (George MacKay), Billy (Charlie Heaton), Jane (Mia Goth) and little Sam (Matthew Stagg). They have come to America with Mom to escape some towering shame at home involving the father of whom they are all still clearly terrified. Their mother draws a line in the dust at the top of the stairs and announces unconvincingly that as soon as they cross it, their lives will begin anew and they will have no memory of the horrors they left behind.
Fresh horror, however, lies in store after a brief halcyon period during which they befriend their neighbor Allie, played by Anya Taylor-Joy, whose sharp-featured, shark-eyed ‘Witch‘-iness makes her a peculiar casting choice for the role of the sensible librarian with whom Jack, the eldest, quickly falls in love. Whatever normalcy this oddly Edwardian-seeming family achieves (it’s with a jolt that Allie’s more modern clothes and some TV footage of astronauts makes us realize this is actually the 1960s), it’s shattered by Mom’s death, then pulverized by the menacing return of their father, who announces himself by shooting at Jane through a window. In an ungraceful time-swallowing jump, it’s suddenly 6 months later, the attic is bricked up, there’s a spreading black stain on the ceiling and their father is nowhere to be seen, though Billy has taken to sitting on the mansion’s rooftop in silhouette at night, gloweringly carving the word “Dad” into a bullet.
Obeying their mother’s deathbed exhortation to stick together no matter what, Jack hides his siblings away from the world, pretending Mom is alive but incapacitated and waiting out the clock until he turns 21 and the house becomes officially his or something. But the actual reason the kids have to be hidden from sight, like the reason the family has no phone, leaving Allie and Jack communicate in Morse code, is that the contorted concept needs these contrivances to keep chugging jerkily along.
All of Jack’s subterfuges seem to be going well until a local lawyer (Kyle Soller) who is also a rival for Allie’s affection starts to suspect that all is not right in Marrowbone, and it really isn’t. There are an ever-multiplying plethora of mysterious occurrences — sheets falling off mirrors, noises in the walls, a friendly raccoon meeting a grisly end — all of which seem to emanate either from the attic or a little metal lockbox that contains a small fortune in crinkled pound notes. And Jack seems to fall asleep at the most inopportune moments.
Suspending disbelief is easy up to a point. We’re all well trained enough in horror narratives to go along with some early logic lapses, having faith that it will all make some sort of sense in the end. And very loosely speaking, “Marrowbone” does explain itself by its conclusion. But with so many moving parts to be accounted for, the explanation, when it comes, was always going to be more “huh?” than “a-ha!” For all that can be sorted into some sort of what-really-happened order after the film’s ending (and incidentally it ends about five separate times), there are a lot of irritating bits left over, like those useless metals discs you find rattling around after you’ve built your IKEA dresser.
Sanchez, who must be largely responsible for one of the best-plotted and most satisfying ghost story narratives of this century with the screenplay for “The Orphanage,” seems to have really lost the run of himself with the overly busy scripting here, and as a director, he displays no desire to reel it in. There are time shifts, multiple narrators, intrusive scoring cues, jarring cross-cuts between periods, and a constantly changing perspective which feels increasingly less like clever storytelling and more like a gimmicky way to obscure certain pertinent facts and highlight red herrings and jump scare opportunities. In the end, all the creaky floorboards, rough-hewn dolls, pillow fortresses, yellowing newspaper clippings, homemade storybooks and crackly old-vinyl recordings of 1940s ballads in the world, can’t obscure the fact that the most haunting things about “Marrowbone” are the ghosts of all the better movies it fleetingly resembles. [C]