A ghost story rife with plot twists and loud things going bump in the night, writer-director Sergio G. Sánchez’s Marrowbone is a forgettable hodgepodge of familiar thematic and aesthetics trappings. A mother and her children step into the darkened foyer of a dilapidated house, the vibrant green of the outside world almost seeming to encroach upon them. “It’s not how I remember it,” the mother (Nicolas Harrison) says. It’s a house culled from the pages of a Victorian ghost story. The walls have the hue of gangrenous flesh, the wooden floors creak, and the doors that line the halls are the color of old teeth. “From now on, our last name will be Marrowbone, just like this house,” the mother says. She soon dies, and her last wish is that the family remains together. The children (played by George MacKay, Charlie Heaton, Mia Goth, and Matthew Stagg) are left on their own, so when an outsider (Anya Taylor-Joy) enters their lives, you know new horrors will soon follow.
One early scene brings to mind Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock, as the children climb along rocks in the woods, and the story shares more than a few similarities with Ian McEwan’s unnerving novella The Cement Garden. The work of Shirley Jackson also haunts Marrowbone, namely her brilliant We Have Always Lived in the Castle, a slender novel about a murderous young girl and her older sister, both sequestered in their looming old home on a hill above a town that’s shunned them. Sánchez’s film draws from Jackson’s sense of distrust, her drive to reflect the instability of the mind in a house’s aching old architecture, and her sense of the ostracized seeking solace and finding instead more hardship inside such a house. But whereas Jackson used the eerie and hermetic mood of horror to expound on cultural issues, to exhume personal pains through genre conventions, Marrowbone’s every twist, every moment, seems to only exist to push a convoluted plot forward.
An incessant deluge of subplots drowns what could have been a sparse and beautiful ghost story. New twists and turns are introduced as the film progresses, undermining the elegiac atmosphere conjured by the first 20 or so minutes. Sanchez seems determined to explain every mystery, and this need to tie up loose threads and answer questions saps Marrowbone of suspense. In Juan Antonio Bayona’s The Orphanage, which Sanchez wrote, the reveals—which are neither gimmicky nor gimcrack enough to be labeled “twists”—come with a natural fluidity, with precise but unforced timing and rhythm, and, most importantly, with credibility. The reveals in The Orphanage undermine our assumptions about the nature of the film’s ghosts and disclose a tragic undercurrent of which we weren’t aware. Here, the twists—because they are gimmicky and gimcrack—serve only their own purported cleverness.