Horror rarely makes a pretense of telling an entirely original story, and that’s part of its fun and freedom from pretension. But Marrowbone, a 1960s-set melodrama directed by Sergio G. Sánchez, digs up some familiar treasures (monsters in the attic, dust-clogged rooms in a sprawling house, an isolated family with many secrets) only to rebury them in a nonsensical plot with one of the most disappointing twists since M. Night Shyamalan first started his decline.
Marrowbone follows the eponymous British family, who’s fled some unknown danger in England and hunkered down in the mother’s secluded mansion in America. When the mother falls terminally ill, she makes her children swear to keep her death a secret so they won’t be separated. Then a man with a gun arrives, something happens that the film refuses to show us, and we’re whisked to a scene several months later, when the siblings are busy baking cakes, playing games, and jumping at sounds in the bricked-up attic. The eldest lad, Jack (George MacKay), schemes to keep a suspicious American lawyer away from his family while wooing a sympathetic librarian. Slowly—very slowly—we discover the sinister reasons why the Marrowbones were forced to leave their home country.
One mystery does intrigue me: Why on earth you would cast Anya Taylor-Joy as a perfectly ordinary American love interest? As the title character in The Witch, Taylor-Joy seemed to embody what can be so beautiful about horror: the proximity of beauty to grotesquerie, the wicked magic lurking in the most innocent host. Here, she has no contradictions to play with—she's only required to be sweet.
Characterization seems to be the problem overall. A few jump scares aside, it’s hard to feel frightened for the family when they have one or two personality traits each. The first major twist, explaining the presence of the ghost, lands with a muffled thud, as no one appeared to be in much danger in the first place. With the exception of Mia Goth’s sensitive, nervous performance as Jack’s sister, everything about the film feels lackadaisical. About the second and final plot surprise, I can only say that it partially explains this dearth of tension. The haunting of the Marrowbone manse seems half-hearted indeed.