The work of a genius though not quite a genius work, Mad God is a crazy phantasmagorical ride into a hellish underworld, a stop-motion encylopaedia of styles, some newly minted, others borrowed, which took 30 years to finally finish by its creator, Phil Tippett.
If you don’t know Tippett, he’s an animator who’s won Oscars for both old-school stop-motion work and for computer-generated stuff he did after stop-motion fell out of favour. He was head of animation at Industrial Light and Magic in 1978, aged 27, worked on the original Star Wars movies, Honey I Shrunk the Kids, Robocop and Starship Troopers. It was while working on the original Jurassic Park that he realised CG had finally come of age and that stop-motion was now old hat. Much as he loved the work of Ray Harryhausen (a friend and mentor), he realised he had to move on.
And so he paused in the making of this magnum opus he’d started about three years before in 1990. It was only via a Kickstarter campaign launched around 20 years later that Mad God went back into production, helped enormously by co-workers at his studio, plus crowds of student film-makers and volunteers.
So much for the background. On to the story itself, which opens with a super-epic, silent-era Cecil B De Mille cavalcade of vainglorious bombast before settling down (relative term) to a wild rush of loosely connected events, an immersive journey through a hellish Hades into which a man/automaton descends in the opening moments of the film and through which he journeys for the rest of it, coming upon one grotesque tableau after another.
A feast of rotten magnificence is what he is subjected to – a monster with what looks like human teeth, an ape strapped to a (vivisection?) trolley struggling to get free, a pair of surgeons who rip open a man’s chest cavity with bare hands and start rummaging around inside. An army being forged from waste materials, the members of which either end up being melted down again or being put through a meat grinder. A pretty doll masturbating. Another ape – this one appears to be corralling some girls in an alleyway. Creatures built out of old scrap metal being electrocuted back into action, with penises that become semi engorged with each jolt. A newborn baby put into a hydraulic press. All this plus cult film-maker Alex Cox, the only human in it, as the Last Man.
Imagine a scrap yard also full of offal and you’ve about got the tone of it. The influence of other animators is obvious. There’s the fairytale grotesque of Jan Švankmajer. The tech paranoia of Shin’ya Tsukamoto. The raunch of Terry Gilliam. The eccentricity of Nick Park (those boggly eyes). The fascination with fighting men of Ray Harryhausen.
Tippett welds them all together with a lurid palette – he loves the colour red – and stark lighting, while doing things with his camera that puts him technically in a league of his own. The painstaking work of making a stop-motion film is usually done with a static camera. Tippett’s moves. Must have been done in post-production, surely?
Another technical effects genius, Douglas Trumbull, comes to mind, the guy behind the effects in 2001: A Space Odyssey who went on to complete his passion project, Silent Running. If this is self-consciously Tippett’s Silent Running, perhaps his closing sequences nods towards Trumbull, when a baby is turned into some kind of cosmic glitter by what looks like a medieval plague doctor, complete with beak mask, and the storyline appears to start aping the Stargate sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Hang on to the moments of obvious storyline because they are few and far between. There is the sense that you could step out for chunks of this movie and not really have missed anything connective. You would have missed boggling monstrous visions though, and a new arrival in a genre you might at a pinch called medievalist sci-fi (see Aleksey German’s Hard to Be a God for further details). Hieronymous Bosch just woke up in the 21st century.
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© Steve Morrissey 2022