Mad God - Monstrous Visuals, Hellish Writing

22/05/2023

Darcy McBrinn reviews Phil Tippet's horrific stop motion horror film, three decades in the making

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Image by IMDb

By Darcy McBrinn

Often an undervalued artform, stop motion is on a steady rise – Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs, as well as Guillermo del Toro’s recent Oscar winning Pinocchio adaption, are both recent examples which have enjoyed great critical acclaim – and Phil Tippett’s debut film Mad God is a welcome new entry to the genre. First releasing on Shudder in 2022, Mad God is an abstract horror film three decades in the making. Tippett has enjoyed a forty-four year long career in animation, spanning everything from Star Wars and Jurassic Park to The Spiderwick Chronicles and the Twilight franchise, and this catalogue of experience shines in every aspect of his new film’s production. Meticulously crafted models, elaborate creature designs, and complex landscapes, Tippett’s hellish world is intricate and characterful. Featuring a journey through a hellscape lifted straight from Dante’s Inferno, the film offers an enticing blend of gory body horror and uncanny surrealism that allows Tippett to fully utilise his prolific history within the special effects industry.

At every moment the animation is swift and fluid, to such an extent that I often had to remind myself this is in fact hand-animated stop motion and not simply CGI. The pacing of the film is also quick and snappy, with Tippett choosing to rapidly hop between his startling monstrosities before allowing the audience to become comfortable and settled, which creates a constant feeling of curious unease that lingers for the majority of the film’s runtime. The clear passion of the film can be summed up concisely in the almost excessive attention to detail throughout the backgrounds and vistas of Tippett’s world. Almost every shot is uniquely characterised with charm and endearing references to Tippett’s earlier works and inspirations. The palpable strength of these landscapes is brought to life largely through Tippett’s routine tinkering with scale and magnitude, a jostling that consistently leaves the audience in awe of the film’s grandeur. The director’s clear infatuation for art, animation, and design instils a genuine sense of worldbuilding through Mad God, and its universe is an alluring one.

So, halfway through this review you’re probably wondering what Mad God is even about, and about halfway through watching the film myself I was wondering exactly the same thing – this ultimately represents the biggest issue with the film, the lack of any real plot. Essentially, the story follows an unnamed character (credited as the Assassin) who descends into a nightmarish world to plant an explosive briefcase in a chasm of identical briefcases. And that’s all I can really tell you because that’s all we’re given. There is a titanic system of industry fuelled by torture and maintained by husklike creatures which are seemingly ruled by a mass of screens speaking in baby babble. Foetal creatures are transfigured into gold dust at the behest of a Death like spectre. We are given a brief glimpse into a lab giving sentience to apes and puppets. Mad God repeatedly offers these – admittedly very gripping – set pieces, but barely provides any throughline or context to fully engage the viewer.

Eventually the novelty wears off and we’re left wondering what we’re even looking at. Why is there a surgery performed in a theatre? Or a trio of map making witches? We simply never find out! The film is clearly concerned with religious allegory, at least to some extent. The film opens with a depiction of the Tower of Babel’s destruction followed by a lengthy biblical quote from Leviticus, and the Assassin’s descent from an above world positions the film’s horrific setting neatly as Hell. Even the title itself alludes to some twisted divine premise. But unfortunately, this is largely as far as the film goes as far as context. Its plot is hollow, leaving the audience to simply get more impatient the longer it lasts. Of course Mad God is a film that naturally thrives on a sense of mystery, the intrigue of the hellish imagery is palpable throughout the film, and in general horror as a genre is one that more than any other needs to keep an oppressive sense of suspense over its audience. But Mad God’s absolute reliance upon suspense ultimately lacks weight, and the payoff for its slow burn is never delivered.

Mad God is undoubtedly an impressive directorial debut, the technicality of which is not only welcome within stop motion, but also elevates it. The film is a distinctly haunting tour of Tippett’s skill in both the realms of animation and worldbuilding – only a mad special effects god with the experience of Tippett being able to truly realise such a monumental vision. The film concisely proves that Tippett is a gifted special effects artist, but unfortunately it in tandem shows that he is not as skilled as a writer. Now that he’s displayed his directorial ability, I hope he will expand upon his narratives to fully weave his expertise into a cohesive and well-rounded project. But regardless of the lacking plot, this film is tantalising for anyone with a taste for the strange and the macabre, and I’m excited to see what Tippett has to offer next. Let’s just hope it doesn’t take another 30 years this time.