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QUEEN OF BONES Review: A Spellbinding Yet Flawed Folk Horror Journey


A family portrait lit by an orange glow
Queen of Bones | Image courtesy of Keri Anderson

By Amylou Ahava


In the enchanted landscape of QUEEN OF BONES (where the wind whispers ancient secrets and the moon casts eerie shadows on the forest floor), audiences are beckoned into a spellbinding narrative that delves deep into the realm of folk horror.


Folk horror (a subgenre that explores the intersection of folklore, superstition, and the supernatural) often transports viewers to remote settings where the veil between the natural and the otherworldly is thin, and the past holds sway over the present. At its core, folk horror seeks to explore the darker aspects of human nature, often through the lens of ancient rituals, occult practices, and the supernatural. It is a genre that taps into primal fears and anxieties, drawing upon age-old myths and legends to create an atmosphere of dread and uncertainty.


In this particular bewitching realm, witches and witchcraft exist on the periphery of the bucolic setting, and while not a large part of everyday life, there is an occultist presence looming large over the lives of the characters who inhabit it.


Directed by Robert Budreau, QUEEN OF BONES promises a journey through the mystical forests of the Great Depression era, where the lives of teenagers Sam and Lily intertwine with eerie visions, buried truths, and the weight of their father's authoritarian rule.


At the heart of the tale are the twins, Lily and Sam, portrayed with depth and nuance by Julia Butters and Jacob Tremblay, respectively. Butters shines as Lily, her portrayal capturing the tumultuous journey from innocence to awakening as she grapples with the onset of womanhood and the strange visions that plague her. Tremblay, meanwhile, brings a brooding intensity to Sam, whose simmering rebellion against his father's authority drives much of the narrative tension.


As the twins' 14th birthday approaches, cracks begin to appear in their father Malcolm's facade of control. Malcolm (played with a mix of sternness and vulnerability by Martin Freeman (The Hobbit, Black Panther) is a man haunted by grief and consumed by the need to protect his children at all costs. Yet, his efforts to shield them from the harsh realities of the outside world only serve to deepen the rifts within the family, setting the stage for a confrontation that will reshape their lives forever.


As the twins reach a coming-of-age moment, they realize the story of their late mother might hold more secrets than originally believed, and soon the forest starts unveiling some of these mysteries.


From the outset, the film immerses audiences in its meticulously crafted world, where every detail (from the period costumes to the rustic set design) contributes to the haunting atmosphere. The Depression-era backdrop serves as a rich tapestry upon which the story unfolds and grounds the supernatural elements in a gritty realism that lends credibility to the unfolding narrative.


The film's strengths lie in its atmospheric visuals and evocative sound design, which combine to create a sense of foreboding that permeates every frame. From the eerie whispers of the wind to the ominous creaking of the trees, every sound serves to ratchet up the tension and keeps viewers on the edge of their seats as the mystery unfolds.


At its core, the film is a meditation on the nature of grief, the power of family, and the secrets that bind us together even as they tear us apart. It is a story of loss and redemption, of darkness and light, and of the thin line that separates the mundane from the magical.


However, for all its atmospheric prowess, QUEEN OF BONES is not without its flaws. The pacing (at times) feels uneven with certain plot points rushing by while others linger too long, all of which leaves the narrative feeling disjointed and unsatisfying. Similarly, while the performances are uniformly strong (particularly from Freeman and Taylor Schilling as Malcolm's former in-law) there are moments where the characters feel underdeveloped, their motivations murky, and their actions inexplicable. So, despite its rich thematic potential, QUEEN OF BONES ultimately fails to cast a truly captivating spell.


While the premise holds the promise of a chilling tale of family secrets and dark magic, the execution falls flat, with clichéd plot twists and predictable character arcs undermining the film's overall impact. Instead of delving deep into the psychological depths of its characters or exploring the intricacies of its supernatural mythology, QUEEN OF BONES settles for surface-level scares and tired tropes, which leaves some audiences with little more than a sense of disappointment and missed opportunities.


In the end, QUEEN OF BONES serves as a reminder of the delicate balance between magic and mediocrity. While its atmospheric visuals and haunting score may momentarily captivate, they ultimately fail to compensate for the film's lackluster storytelling and underdeveloped characters. As the credits roll and the echoes of the forest fade into the night, viewers are left with a lingering sense of unfulfilled potential, a feeling that (much like the mysterious queen herself) remains forever just out of reach.


QUEEN OF BONES had its U.S. Premiere at the 2024 Santa Barbara International Film Festival.


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