If anything defines the Gothic genre, it’s the secrets. Dark, forbidding castles and bleak, windswept moors certainly have their place in the canon, and so do threats of death and hints of the supernatural. But it’s certainly possible to tell an effective, chilling Gothic story in broad daylight if there are enough secrets that suggest darkness and danger. Sergio G. Sánchez’s Gothic horror movie Marrowbone is perfect proof. The story, about four siblings trapped in a decaying country mansion with an unseen malevolent force, zigzags across genres and teases viewers with the various ways the story could go. And it mostly takes place in sun-bathed rooms and outdoors on bright summer days. That never stops it from being unsettlingly spooky. And whether it comes across as a haunted romantic drama or a straight-up ghost story, it always feels like it belongs in the Gothic realm. Its particular flavor of elaborate, genteel nightmare is unusual, but it’s as effective as any jump-scare-laden, blood-spattered slasher.
George MacKay (How I Live Now) stars as Jack, the eldest sibling and the one most heavily burdened by the responsibility of keeping the rest safe. As the story starts, their mother (Nicola Harrison) has spirited them out of England, following an initially undescribed event with their father (Tom Fisher) that’s left the whole family traumatized and obsessed with the possibility that he’ll find them.
Their mother hopes they’ll be safe in the family home she left 30 years ago, a handsome but poorly maintained old house somewhere on the American coastline, near a small town. But the trip and the stress have worn on her, and she becomes sick and dies, leaving Jack, his sister Jane (Mia Goth), and his brothers Billy (Stranger Things’ Charlie Heaton) and Sam (Matthew Stagg) to fend for themselves. Jack is 20, and his mother orders him to bury her in the garden and keep her death secret until his 21st birthday when he can legally claim the house and become his siblings’ guardian. And so they start an elaborate game of pretense with the local town, holing up and claiming they’re still looking after their convalescing mother.
Her death is one secret for the family, but the audience is in on it, and all the tension and danger of discovery it brings. The rest of the reveals are more complicated. Suddenly, the film leaps forward six months, and everything changes. Jack has a deep, healing gash on his head, the mirrors in the house are all covered or hidden away, and Sam can’t stop talking about the ghost that’s haunting the house and trying to get at them. The whole family has found an ally in a local girl, Allie (Anya Taylor-Joy, The Witch, Morgan, and Split), who’s engaged in a gentle romance with Jack, and defends the family against suspicious outsiders. But Billy is jealous and volatile about their relationship, Jane is fearful about some of the family’s decisions, and Sam is worried about the ghost, but still driven to push the boundaries of his older siblings’ control. Viewers are encouraged to guess at what happened during the story’s six-month gap, but the details pile up carefully and deliberately, building the mystery before anything is revealed.
Sánchez is the screenwriter of the excellent, terrifying Spanish horror film The Orphanage, and his Marrowbone script follows some of the same ideas: a woman returning to her childhood home looking for comfort, a horrifying ghost that haunts her, a guardian that can’t be trusted, and a tone that veers between frightening and melancholy. But in his directorial debut, Sánchez makes a lot of specific, distinctive choices of his own.
The look of the film is particularly marvelous — not just its luminous, sunny quality, which draws heavily on natural light, but its sharpness and muted color, which makes it look like a Vermeer painting. And the decomposing house offers plenty of starkly beautiful settings, through rooms where the wallpaper is warping and the ceiling is slowly peeling downward, one board at a time. The metaphor in all this decay and disintegration is clear: the family is coming apart under the weight of their past, both the choices they’ve made and the ones made for them. But the way Sánchez’s camera moves around the house, giving an impression of echoing space and haunted rooms, is just as important.
And so is the fantastic cast. MacKay is particularly key. As the oldest of the group, Jack tries to be an adult for them. But he still comes across as painfully young, and not fully up to playing the man of the house or dealing with obstacles like Tom Porter (Kyle Soller), an insinuating but-I’m-a-nice-guy type who’s pursuing Allie. MacKay’s role is complicated. Jack is cocky one moment and terrified the next, and he’s constantly operating from a projected confidence he doesn’t really feel. MacKay ably and naturally brings across all his inner conflicts without being showy about it. Heaton also gets some strong moments as the headstrong second son, the one who pushes himself forward in physical conflicts and takes the lead when something unnerving needs to be done.
Taylor-Joy and Goth get less to do. Goth, in particular, is somewhat reduced to playing the family’s nagging conscience, which puts her in the unenviable place of either complaining or offering I-told-you-sos. And Allie is a bit of a problem for the film, with an inconsistent character who forces Taylor-Joy to be quick-thinking and bold with Jack’s family, but awkwardly reticent around Tom in a way that causes serious problems for everyone. More than anyone in the story, she’s a plot device that changes from scene to scene to fit the story’s latest needs. But Taylor-Joy gives her a shy, appealing warmth that mostly compensates. The cast generally works comfortably together, through a script that demands a lot of closeness and a lot of contention.
Marrowbone does rely heavily on narrative contrivances. In Britain and Spain, it’s being released as The Secret of Marrowbone, which suggests just how important the unfolding reveals are to the story, and Sánchez’s attempts to hide information from the audience can be a little clunky, especially in that abrupt six-month jump. But otherwise, his script is impeccably constructed, the kind of story where every detail is carefully considered and planned to pay off somewhere down the line. The film plays clearly and with plenty of shocks the first time through. Like The Orphanage, this is an intelligent, psychological horror, but it’s not at all above a few wicked jump-scares.
It’s also the kind of film that plays even better the second time when viewers can track all the tiny details that contribute to the storytelling and see how fairly Sánchez played out his mystery. Too many films that rely on secrets stop being compelling once those secrets emerge. Marrowbone just becomes more compelling. It’s one of the year’s most immaculately crafted movies, and it’s the kind of story that keeps dodging convention right up to the final shot. It fits neatly into the Gothic genre, but it innovates within it at the same time. Given what a minimal release it’s gotten, and how little notice critics have given it, the movie itself feels like a well-kept secret. It’s just one that deserves to be much more widely known.
Marrowbone is currently playing a limited theatrical run and is available on VOD and in streaming release.