In 1969, a family of immigrants takes up residence in an abandoned mansion, leaving their names and their old lives behind. Shortly thereafter the mother dies, though not before making the eldest son Jack (George MacKay) promise to keep the family together. Collectively the grieving children make the decision to stay ferreted away in the house until Jack inherits the house at age 21, refusing to venture into town where they would have to answer questions. Their only friend is a neighbor, Allie (The Witch‘s Anya Taylor-Joy), with whom Jack falls in love. But everything changes the day that a gun is fired through their window, after which the title card appears and the film jumps forward six months.
This is how Marrowbone opens and it’s a compelling start to a period ghost film. Or at least that’s what it appears to be. When we meet back up with the Marrowbone family, all of the mirrors have been covered or locked away, there’s a mysterious stain in the ceiling and tension among the siblings is high. 5-year-old Sam (Matthew Stagg) is afraid of the ghost in the house and some of the film’s best set pieces involve the boy and the covered mirrors. In one scene a game of Risk and a pair of misplaced dice lead to terror; in another, a step ladder and an old record. These scenes, when director Sergio G. Sánchez plays up the supernatural elements of the house, are Marrowbone‘s best because the mansion is so wonderfully full of character. The set decoration is marvelous and evocative – a slow descent into rot that metaphorically complements the secret behind the family’s escape from England and that day with the gunshot.
Unfortunately, Marrowbone can’t stop introducing new angles to its story. What begins as a haunted house film expands to include a love triangle between Jack, Allie and an ambitious local lawyer (Kyle Soller). Then a murder mystery is introduced, along with a subplot involving the lawyer’s promising new job in New York and a lingering question about why Jane (Mia Goth), Billy (Charlie Heaton) and Sam are forced to stay in the house. All of the loose ends do come together in the end, but an unsurprising twist that any horror fan worth their salt will see coming a mile away doesn’t stick the landing, resulting in a mildly unsatisfying resolution. It’s not a deal breaker, but it is problematic enough to give pause.
On the whole Marrowbone is worth a watch for its atmosphere, set design and some pretty decent set pieces, including a nifty one involving a dark attic and a limited number of matches. While Sánchez’s screenplay could have done with fewer subplots, his directorial debut remains eminently watchable. Just ensure that you’re going in looking for more than a ghost story.