By the time Phil Tippett’s stop-motion freak show Mad God closed this year’s Overlook Film Festival, it was up against a towering wall of anticipation – not just from over the weekend but from decades of production delay. The finished product was very divisive in the room. It was my favorite movie I saw all festival, while the lovely chap I was chatting with in line on the way in said it was his absolute worst. Teasing out his reasons for despising it, it sounded like he experienced Mad God purely as a for-its-own sake immersion in scatological mayhem, with no meaning or emotion behind its non-stop, nonsensical gore gags. He also had no idea what the movie was about or how it was made before the screening started, other than it was one of the more hyped titles on the program. Knowing Mad God’s backstory as an abandoned project from the early 90s that was recently completed through horror nerd crowdfunding on Kickstarter, I found it to be an oddly touching reflection on the creative process, the indifference of time, and the cruelty of everything. We’re probably both at least a little bit right.
There’s no spoken dialogue in Mad God, nor is there a discernible narrative. It’s a movie built entirely on nightmare logic, where one bizarre event mutates into another with no strict reasoning behind the progression. It’s mostly an animated experiment in scale. A faceless soldier with no discernible personality or inner life follows his mysterious master’s marching orders to explore a post-apocalyptic hellscape populated by specimen-jar freaks of all shapes & sizes. It’s like the unexplained, awesomely scaled Space Jockey reveal in 1979’s Alien repeated over & over again as our faceless, soulless protagonist explores dank hellpits populated by grotesque monstrosities big & small. The scale of these hideous creatures’ violence also varies wildly, from petty squabbles over who has to shovel the shit of the bigger monsters that tower above them to real-life footage of nuclear blasts. Phil Tippett did not work on the special effects for Alien, but he did work on other beloved genre classics like Star Wars, Robocop, and Starship Troopers. If Mad God is “about” anything in particular, it’s about displaying the full dark magic of what his stop-motion wizardry can do on-screen. The clay soldier is more of a starting point than a proper protagonist, as the movie has more to say about Tippett’s adventures in the industry than it does that disposable, replaceable explorer.
The story goes that Tippett began working on Mad God while doing the animated effects for Robocop 2 in the early 90s. When he was subsequently hired for special effects work on Jurassic Park, he was convinced that the stop-motion medium was an inevitable dead end, soon to be replaced by animatronic sculpture & CGI. The project was then shelved for three decades until younger collaborators in love with his traditionalist techniques convinced Tippett to complete the abandoned project. Smartly, he appears to have left the original, shot-on-film footage from the project’s early days mostly untouched. The first half is like a lost artifact from an era when artists like Dave McKean, the Quay Brothers, and Jan Švankmajer ruled over a steampunk hellworld that’s since been paved over by brightly lit computer graphics. The original footage ends with the clay explorer being decommissioned & dismantled, and we cut to modern digital footage of fellow genre filmmaker Alex Cox (as a wizardly Tippett surrogate) plucking an identical, soulless soldier from his vast, unanimated supply to send on another mission in new dank hellpits with new grotesque monsters haunting them – now in crisp HD. Tippett marks the passage of time between these bifurcated segments with repeated images of clocks, candles, death, and rebirth. In the tension between its two parts, it becomes a self-reflective story about the resilience of personal creativity. As an artist he has no choice but to keep sending his little soldiers out into the cruel world, hoping one of them one day completes their mission.
Mad God is meticulously designed to either delight or irritate. It’s especially grating in its soundtrack’s relentless use of crying babies & ticking clocks, making a large contingent of the audience wish the term “Silent Cinema” was literal. You can count me among the awed freaks in the room who never wanted the nightmare to end, though, especially since I doubt I’ll ever have the chance to see it projected on the big screen again. Catching Mad God at Overlook was vital, even though it will soon be streaming on Shudder in a more accessible, affordable presentation. I don’t know that I’d have the mental willpower to watch the entire runtime without glancing at my phone when it’s available to stream at home, but in that theater I was outright mesmerized. It’s a spell that doesn’t work on everyone, but it’s a powerful source of creative dark magic if you can open yourself up to it. Knowing the backstory of how it was made might be an essential part of that receptiveness, but it’s a stunning work of visual art no matter the context.