• Brad Gullickson

'The Spine of Night' Maintains that Ferocious Frank Frazetta Magic

We chat with directors Philip Gelatt and Morgan Galen King about their rotoscoped Heavy Metal adventure.

Have you ever watched a film and thought, "This was made just for me." And then, you talk to a few other folks who happened to see it, and they have the audacity to think the same thing. Yep, that's The Spine of Night for this weirdo click-clacking away at his keyboard. It's a movie I can't imagine anyone else enjoying as much as I do, but then, I found a few fellow deviant eccentrics, and in that discovery, I've made some new friends. Bonus! None of us are as alone in our obsessions as we think.


Filmmakers Philip Gelatt and Morgan Galen King reach into their souls and yank out a perfect jewel comprised of their childhood passion for ultra-violent fantasy animation. The Spine of Night celebrates gory delights like Heavy Metal and Fire and Ice, rotoscoped adventures from the nineteen eighties inspired by illustrators like Frank Frazetta. If you're already familiar with his work, and his cinematic partnership with Ralph Bakshi, then watching The Spine of Night is your opportunity to be a pig in shit, reveling in all that sloppy goodness. If they're strangers to you, then The Spine of Night is your gateway drug, and you're going to hit it hard. This spice will flow.


I first caught the film earlier this year at SXSW, and I was instantaneously smitten. For Film School Rejects, I wrote the review, and if you watch the trailer below, you can see a quote of mine pop up at a particularly spooky moment (a first for me, only making me fall deeper, and more madly in love with this film - so, yeah, you should be aware of my giddy fanaticism before partaking in this interview - I may squeal once or twice).

Philip Gelatt and Morgan Galen King spent seven years (and some change) creating The Spine of Night. Animation always takes a toll, but filming live-action actors and then animating on top of them, with only a handful of animators at their disposal, yeah, that's gonna demand some blood as well as that time spent. This movie is not just a movie; The Spine of Night is their life. And that's evident in every frame.


The film is populated with numerous voices you'll recognize: Patton Oswalt, Lucy Lawless, Richard E. Grant, Joe Manganiello, Larry Fessenden, Betty Gabriel, etc. Each one brings a tremendous weight to these already weighty characters, and to hear Gelatt and King tell it, all were incredibly willing to throw themselves into such a dementedly compelling hellscape. Game recognizes game.


As far as the plot is concerned, the trailer provides plenty. Witches, warlocks, and warriors clash in bloody combat while a malevolent force feasts on their turmoil. I want to say that the film is not for everybody, but as I've already stated, it's for a whole lot more than I previously thought. The Spine of Night simply does not look or feel like any other film available at this moment, and that is ridiculously exciting.


Chatting with Philip and Morgan about their film was enchanting. We discuss their first experiences with Frank Frazetta and Ralph Bakshi, their fandom for this tasty, meaty stuff, and the responsibility they feel toward the makers they're homaging.


This conversation was edited for length and clarity.

Brad: I am a diehard Frank Frazetta fan. You can't see it right now, but I have a Death Dealer Randy Bowen statue above my head. So, when I was scrolling through SXSW, and looking at all the movies that were premiering, and I saw a rotoscoped ultra violent fantasy film, I lost my mind. I was amazed that such a thing could exist. So, I need to hear your Ralph Bakshi/Frank Frazetta origin story.


Morgan: Oh, man. Well, if we want to go back to the early beginnings for me, my mom was the head of the library in our very small town in Southwest Virginia, and it was during the era before you could easily buy a VCR. So, they had a single VCR that the whole town could rent. And one of the budget limitations was the only movies they were allowed to buy, because they didn't want it to turn into everything, had to be films based on books. And so what that meant was Bakshi's Lord of the Rings, and the Rankin/Bass Hobbit movies, and I was just the exact age to just ingest all of that into my brain. So that was immediate eye-opening moment. And then once you've seen Lord of the Rings, Bakshi's Fire and Ice is the next logical step, which was the first exposure to the worlds of Frazetta.


Philip: For me, that's a really good question. My earliest memories of Frazetta are tied in my head to my earliest memories of Heavy Metal, the magazine, even though Frazetta's work never really appeared in Heavy Metal, at least to my knowledge. I mean it must have at some point. There was a small comic book shop in my small town in Wisconsin, and I remember going into it, and it was Marvel stuff and DC, and there was just a shelf that was the other stuff. And I was like what is this other stuff? And as a kid, it just felt untamed in a way that everything else felt tame, and that has always appealed to me. I don't remember the first time I saw Heavy Metal, to be honest. I remember the first time I saw Frazetta, and I didn't particularly like it as a kid, but he grew on me as time went on.

Brad: Yeah, for me, I remember seeing a Frazetta painting in Wizard magazine. And you know, the title to the Frazetta documentary is Painting with Fire, and I remember seeing that painting, one of his Conans, and I wouldn't have described it as painting with fire at the time, but I felt the heat and the emotion of his brush in a way that I wasn't seeing in Spawn, or Youngblood, or whatever comics I was excited about at the time.


And that heated emotion led me to watching the animated movies, Heavy Metal, and Fire and Ice. I'd like to continue exploring your emotions regarding those animated films, and the rotoscoping style of those films, and what you saw in didn't see elsewhere.


Morgan: I saw Heavy Metal really not that many years later after Fire and Ice, it was back when it was out of print, but it was being bootlegged on VHS all over the place. I had already seen He-Man and all that. I had less use for cartooning at a young age but then moving forward, I just was like oh, well I didn't realize there's a whole other adult level of animation. It was that era where rotoscoping was just everywhere. I mean there's the Take on Me video, and I mean all the peak Bakshi stuff.


It was a great era for rotoscoping, and it felt like a movement that was coming up with, and then it just disappeared for the remainder of my life. But I think just there's something about really human characters, where the limitations of humanity are removed. But also, if the characters get hurt, they get hurt. It's not like when a cartoon bounces right back after it's run over by a steamroller. So I think that always appealed to me, and I mean certainly as a young boy, the physicality of proportioned women, like in Heavy Metal and Fire and Ice, there's a primal eroticism, I suppose.


Brad: And Phil, for you.


Philip: Oh, I can't remember the question. I was so caught up in Morgan's answer. [Laughter] It's funny, like I said, I came to a lot of this stuff a little bit later than Morgan did, so my recollection, now that I'm thinking about it, I didn't see Heavy Metal when it was in bootleg. But I remember seeing Frazetta, and a set of fantasy trading cards. And, yeah, I guess primal eroticism was part of it, because I was a 13 or 14-year-old boy. It was gripping in a way that no other art that I saw was, absolutely.


Brad: Just looking into your rooms, over your shoulders, like a creeper, I see a Heavy Metal Mondo poster [behind Morgan], I see a Conan [behind Philip], I think that's a book cover, right?


Philip: Actually, it is a Hungarian Conan poster that I bought from this website Posteritati, just because I thought it was so awesome.


Brad: I mean it's rad.


Morgan: [Pointing to another framed piece of art] That's actually one of the Bakshi's seven keyframes from the Lord of the Rings.


Brad: Oh man.


Morgan: Yeah, all the original hand-drawn letters.

Brad: That's so incredible. From my point of view, I see The Spine of Night as keeping the fire lit for what they, Bakshi and Frazetta started, and also for rotoscoping, this lost art form. Do you feel that responsibility?


Morgan: I mean, I think it's interesting, we'll see if anybody connects with it in that way. Those are such big shoes to fill. I don't know, I don't feel it's responsibility yet. Maybe someday.


Philip: It feels more like a responsibility to me, I think. It's like a responsibility that you don't realize that you've taken on until you've already taken it on. There is no way that we were going to make this and not be compared to those things. Inevitably, there's a little bit of keeping that torch alive, and hopefully, other people will continue to keep it alive. I mean, I guess I would say, I think a big motivation for both of us in terms of making this movie, to extend that fire metaphor, is that it was a fire that was out.


In no place in American pop culture today was there rotoscope, nobody was making movies like this from an animation standpoint and nobody was making movies like this from a fantasy genre standpoint. I mean you have Tolkien fantasy and you have Game of Thrones fantasy, but neither of those are really what this movie is. They all broadly fit into the same genre, but this breed of fantasy I think is different to me than either of those things and, at least from my perspective, a big reason for taking it on was to try to bring to the screen this type of fantasy that wasn't there in the same way that rotoscope wasn't there.


Brad: I do feel like when I've talked to people about The Spine of Night, to my fellow film freaks, my fellow comics freaks, that it is opening a door backward. Back to watching Fire and Ice, to watching Heavy Metal, to observing Frazetta paintings and the other artists that inspired those films, and so I do feel like you are achieving something there. And I think when you watch The Spine of Night, it's obvious that this style is unlike anything else that is being presented to audiences right now.


Morgan: Yeah well, I hope it feels nostalgic but updated for older fans who have grown up with it, and I hope it is something that young people just haven't seen before. I don't know. I can't imagine there's a lot of 16-year-olds really excited by Fire and Ice in 2021.


Philip: Well, maybe they will be now.


Morgan: I mean I'd love it if this could turn people onto all of that, because it's all stuff I love and have always loved to share with people. So that would be awesome.

Whether you're a longtime Frazetta fanatic/rotoscope maniac or a newbie curious by what you read here, we think you'll really dig The Spine of Night. The film premieres in select theaters, On Demand, and in Digital HD on October 29th. Support indie animation and seek it out!