On recently at Edinburgh International Film Festival, Ren Zelen watched Mad God...
Writer/Director: Phil Tippett
Starring: Alex Cox, Niketa Roman, Satish Ratakonda
Written and directed by legendary visual effects and stop-motion craftsman Phil Tippett, Mad God is his meticulously constructed account of survival in a grim and vicious netherworld. It’s a work which delves into the most horrifying depths of human psyche, verging on madness.
Although it has been near to thirty years in the making, it might even be considered as timely and be interpreted as a projection of the escalating fears and anxieties in the current climate of political corruption, conflict, and social disintegration.
Phil Tippett is a legendary Hollywood special-effects specialist, a two-time Oscar winner and a devotee of the work of Ray Harryhausen. Tippett’s expertise has been seen in groundbreaking films such as the original Star Wars, Robocop, Jurassic Park, and Starship Troopers, but for the past three decades, he has been doggedly working on his own project, Mad God, a world of stop-motion Miltonian horror. The project was predominantly funded by micro-donations to a Kickstarter campaign, which raised over $120,000 - more than triple the initial goal.
So finally Mad God has been unveiled and proves to be grotesquely fascinating. The film opens with a quote from Leviticus, 26:27-30 which describes the terrible punishments the vengeful god will inflict upon his people for their disobedience (and they are imaginatively grisly).
We then follow a character called ‘The Assassin’ as he is lowered ever further down into depths forged from the most primordial horrors of the subconscious mind. Rubber suited, he resembles an old-school miner in a tin helmet and gas mask as he trapses through a dank, muddy landscape of ever-changing nightmares - a steampunk world of wretched souls and ghastly monstrosities, where faceless zombie-like drones are created by excrement from giants in electric chairs, only to be randomly mown down or crushed, and then endlessly replaced.
As the journey continues, Tippett introduces live-action performers into his stop motion environment, such as ‘The Last Man’ (played by Alex Cox). There is no dialogue as such, just the sound of pounding machinery, the breaths of The Assassin through his gas mask and occasional gibberish piped through loudspeakers to the faceless unfortunates who inhabit this particular realm of hell.
Tippett cited the hellish paintings of Hieronymus Bosch as an influence for his stop-motion world, and indeed, each frame reveals a new outlandish vision – insects with human skulls, lumpy mutants, rolling bloodshot eyes which observe the tortures vested upon them and countless permutations of grimy machine parts grafted onto animal hosts.
We see nods to other seminal fantasy and sci-fi creations, including the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey, the robot from Forbidden Planet, and shattered droids which look like R2-D2.
Tippett has created a cursed, grisly world using biblical motifs, grotesque creature design, jittery 12 FPS motion and distressingly gory imagery, some of which will make even the most hardened viewer curl his lip in disgust. Be warned, Aardman it ain’t - it’s strictly adult viewing and should be avoided by children and those with sensitive or impressionable constitutions. It’s as far as is possible to get from ‘feel good’ cinema.
One might imagine that for Phil Tippett Mad God may be some form of catharsis or therapy, whereas for the viewer it may be an allegory that never fully satisfies or reveals itself. There is much to absorb — from the unique character design to the melding of a range of animation techniques, including pixilation, puppeteering, and stop-motion. Tippett himself said he did not intend Mad God to adhere to any strict narrative structure, so it’s best to observe the workmanship of the detailed visuals and extract your own meaning from the journey.
It is best, I think, to approach his film as a unique viewing experience - an extraordinary cinematic combination of persistence and skill, and a macabre tribute to a cinematic art form that Tippett has shown still has much to offer by way of inventiveness and imagination.
Copyright R.H. Zelen – ©RenZelen 2021 All rights reserved.
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The 74th edition of EIFF runs from 18 – 25 August 2021. The full programme is available on www.edfilmfest.org.uk
Image - Courtesy of Tippett Studio