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EIFF Review: The Secret of Marrowbone – “A deliciously atmospheric, chilling drama”

This is the directorial debut of Sergio G Sánchez, but I am sure many film-lovers, especially horror fans, will already be familiar with his name as he penned the delightfully creepy The Orphanage. Here he both writes and directs in a strong, emotional story which combines thriller, family drama and horror elements. An ill mother (Nicola Harrison) brings her four children, Jack (George MacKay), Billy (Charlie Heaton), Jane (Mia Goth) and Sam (Matthew Stagg) back to her isolated and dilapidated family home, near a small town in rural America. The home has lain empty for decades, but it is as if it was “waiting for them” as the voice-over comments. It’s clear the family has been through some trauma, they are all damaged and marked by it, but their mother draws a line in the dust on the floor and declares to them that when they cross over this they leave their troubles and past behind them, they move into their future, free of their history, and as part of that they change their family surname to match that of the old family home: Marrowbone.

At first, it seems they are doing well – they keep themselves to themselves for the most part, apart from meeting free spirit Allie (Anya Taylor-Joy) from a nearby farmhouse at the wonderfully Gothic “skull rock”. As the young people bond and play in the country and the nearby beach the light is golden, the feeling is warm, it almost evokes the air of some old Enid Blyton style story of plucky youngsters and their games and adventures away from the supervision of adults. Of course, it can’t last, it wouldn’t be much of a drama if it did. The mother is very ill, she knows she is dying. She also knows that they must conceal this from the authorities until her eldest son Jack reaches his maturity at 21. Then he can legally be the guardian of his family and their home – if anyone discovers before that point that she has passed away then the authorities will take them all into care, splitting them up. He vows he will never let his family be broken up.

But there are whisperings: the nosy lawyer wonders why the mother is always too ill to see him, there is talk about the horrible event in the family’s past, an awful, violent series of events involving their father, who it seems was a true monster to them and to other victims, hence why they are hiding, changing their name, trying to rebuild a new life far from those events back across the ocean in Britain. We all know simply saying you have moved on rarely frees any of us, however, the past always knocks on the door of the present, and the terror of being found out as they count the months towards Jack’s 21st birthday slowly builds tension and conflict. It isn’t helped by hints that although the monstrous father is supposedly dead his presence, or the threat of it, hangs over the house. Then there are the noises, the sounds – the soundscape here is remarkably evocative, Sánchez taking full advantage of the large, decayed old house to use every creak of a floorboard, wind through a hole in a window, the sound of a huge mirror, cracked and now covered with a dustcover, which somehow seems to slip off by itself… And what is this ghost that little Sam talks about in the middle of the night?

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An awful lot of recent horror seems to replace building actual scares and chills with cheap “jump scares” which, to my mind are not the same thing, that’s just a reflex action. Sánchez takes time and layers on tension and an ever building sensation of a life and a place that is disturbed, simply wrong. In that element it shares something with the recent Hereditary, building an atmosphere where even when nothing obviously bad is happening you have a strong sensation of wrongness. Unlike those cheap jump scares this is the kind of horror that permeates your being, starts to chill you with each creak and shadow. What is the real secret of this old home, what did the father do and what happened to him? Why are all the mirrors removed from every room, save a couple which are too large and instead covered up? What are those noises, this ghost they mention? Is there something truly supernatural going on here or is it in their heads, a product of guilt and trauma?

Sánchez was at the Edinburgh International Film Festival (EIFF) screening along with several of his cast, and among the things he mentioned in his short talk before the film, was that he never set out to be a film writer originally, (I’m glad that he did become one though!), and that he and his regular film-making partner had been looking for a project like this for some years to be his directorial debut. Sánchez also praised his young cast, and they are all very young to be carrying almost the entire weight of the film, but they all acquit themselves extremely well, especially little Matthew Stagg, just a wee boy but playing his role perfectly, alternating from childish joy at playing with Anya Taylor-Joy’s Allie, or being taught by Jack how to send her a morse letter by flashing a light at night to her nearby farm, to the terror of a young child who knows something is wrong and is terrified and also grief-stricken. This is a film which trusts its audience to have patience, to invest their time into the movie and let it slowly build its web around them until you feel as if you too are in that old, creaking house with them, and takes its time, very satisfyingly, to start giving up its secrets. A deliciously atmospheric, chilling drama. The festival audience gave a hearty round of applause at the end, which in my book is always a sign of a good film at the festival.

The Secret of Marrowbone hits UK cinemas on 13th July 2018. It is released on DVD on 19th November 2018.

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