A family crosses an ocean, a town, and overgrown fields to eventually arrive at a rambling old house. “Our story begins here,” says the Marrowbone matriarch to her four children. Stories, especially the ones people tell themselves, emerge as a theme for this old-fashioned gothic horror.
The Marrowbones, consisting of a young man, Jack, two teens and a young boy, are keeping a low profile. Their mother coughs frequently, which in Movieland means she’s not long for this world. After she dies, they might become separated in foster care.
It’s up to the Jack (George MacKay, Pride) to hold things together until his 21st birthday, when he can become a guardian. “Nothing, no one ever, will separate us,” he promises his mother, his brothers Billy and Sam, and his sister Jane. Movie promises are made to be broken, of course.
The family faces threats from the real world and (apparently) the supernatural one. Marrowbone House creaks, taps and groans ominously. Little Sam (like many horror movie kids) thinks he sees things that aren’t quite right. And a local young lawyer has designs on Jack’s girlfriend Allie (Anya Taylor Joy) and suspicions about the house.
Writer/director Sergio G. Sanchez also wrote The Orphanage, a fabulous horror in the same, sincere vein. And it’s produced by the team who brought us Pan’s Labyrinth, another film that mixed magic realism with the horrors that the real world can wreak. Perhaps consequently, The Secret of Marrowbone has both the strengths and flaws that you might expect: It’s free of gimmicks and treats its characters with compassion. It’s also a little too familiar and – at times – hokey.
There are still things to enjoy in this film: The performances are uniformly effective, with George MacKay and Anya Taylor Joy (a rising star of the genre) acquitting themselves especially well. First-time director Sanchez crafts some neat set pieces – one involving a signature forged in a race against the clock, another involving a boy investigating his mother’s things.
Its over-familiar tropes hinder, though, as does its increasingly shlocky plot. The Secret of Marrowbone has good intentions, but is ultimately a story that’s simultaneously hokey and deadly earnest.