Connect with us

Movie Reviews

Mad God ★★★★★



Director: Phil Tippett

Cast: Alex Cox, Niketa Roman, Satish Ratakonda

Released: Edinburgh International Film Festival 2021

Phil Tippett’s Mad God, a Miltonian descent into the deepest, darkest depths of mankind and monstrosity is, to put it plainly, an unhinged work of almost certain lunacy. Unspooling itself as if committing to celluloid 60 years of twisted dreams, this stop-motion animation – 30 years in the making – is a visceral reminder of the unlimited potential and sheer creative exhilaration of animation as an artform of its own. It is at times almost dauntingly incomprehensible – it is also at all times impossible to look away from.

Tippett’s infernal odyssey begins on the image of a Babel-like tower set against a blood-red sun. As dark clouds gather, engulfing the biblical master shot and crackling with lashes of thunder and lightning, composer Dan Wood’s apocalyptic score swells and swells until the title card is branded across the screen – MAD GOD. From there, a wrathful passage of text from Leviticus scrolls past our eyes until we are left to reckon with the suffering wrought by deificatory (and defecatory) fury. As a diving bell capsule descends from the sky into a deep, dark pit adorned with creepy skulls and spitting fire, it feels as though we are entering the circles of Hell itself – the reality is, frankly, far more disturbing than the relatively well-documented domain of the Devil.

Tippett’s story, as much as a narrative framework can apply to a procession of nightmare conjurings dredged up from the director’s subconscious and gooily, grimly slopped into tangible forms on a screen, centres on an explorer. Dressed with gasmask and a bowler hat, our cyberpunkish protagonist wielding a battered map traverses an increasingly odious landscape of monstrous machines, Cronenbergian creatures hewn together like reckless surgical experiments, and relentless visages of – and vessels for – destruction. There are Slender Man like beings with abyssal eyes, warring minotaurs with fried phalluses, skulls mounted on spikes, shit spewed by electrified giants, caterwauling baby cries emanating for wraith-like phantom figures, and scenes of bodily mutilation that are so dank and depraved your own insides are likely to feel fit to churn themselves out. There is no clear course through this Boschian realm other than onwards, an ambiguity that will – along with the aforementioned shit spewing and baby cries – may alienate some viewers, but in its relentless displays of cruelty and carnage Mad God achieves something with the sense of purposeful despair and appallment at humanity’s vices which you may align with the works of geniuses like Pasolini and Haneke. The further down this especially twisted rabbit hole we go, the more of our species’ most base inclinations are confronted unflinchingly.

It also must be said that whilst the content of Tippett’s film is rancid, and deliberately so, there is no mistaking the sheer level of craft on display, which makes the perversion of the scenes ring with an inexplicable, almost indescribable beauty. In the opening act of the film Tippett introduces us to this nightmarish landscape with real aplomb, offering a Gilliam reminiscent display of world awareness and commitment to locating the viewer within the space of his work – this results in sweeping camera moves and in-frame effects that catch the eye time and again as we begin to puzzle out our protagonist’s grim surroundings. As the film progresses, Tippett invokes European stop-motion masters like Jan Švankmajer and Jiří Barta, impressing not only with surrealist visual flourishes – a brief respite from darkness sees us in a luminescent fantasia that stuns – but also with subtleties of movement and sound that entrench us in the scene, making for an experience that is in no way natural but in its own way believable. Toward’s the film’s climax we get Tippett’s version of Kubrick’s stargate sequence in 2001, with liquid ooze and overflowing madness complimenting a metric ton of monolith-like projectiles and an approach to light and sound design that suggests the grotesqueries that have come before may have actually begun to erode the very film Mad God was shot on.

The fingerprints of VFX titan Ray Harryhausen are also keenly felt all over Tippett’s impressively skincrawling creatures too, no more clearly than in the battling minotaurs who move with the simultaneous fluidity and Frankensteinian weightiness that immortalised Harryhausen’s work, only now with added swinging appendages. Elsewhere, the use of mixed materials to construct many of these monstrosities is pure Brothers Quay, with a “screwed off doll’s head placed on mechanical spider” sense of sadistic invention driving us forwards and farther into a film that its own creator credits with catalysing a nervous breakdown. The overall outcome however feels uniquely Tippett’s own, and the experience is all the gnarlier for that.

Mad God is a putrid, painstaking work of avant-garde stop-motion animation that, regardless of its narrative knots and occasional, distracting diversions into live-action is a phenomenal piece of work. One of the most infuriating aspects of our subconscious selves is our inability to lucidly capture them in our waking moments – with Mad God however it does feel as if Phil Tippett found a way to carry him across the divide, like Charon ferrying the dead across the River Styx. The result of that fearless voyage is one of the most ambitious, long-gestating, memorable, and masterful works of stop-motion animation we now have. By the time the wild-eyed pink cuckoo cries, waking us all from the sweat-sodden fever dream, we are left in no doubt that this is Phil Tippett’s magnum opus. And what a malevolent masterwork Tippett has made.

A simple guy. Loves film. Watches film. Writes about film. Talks about film. Then the cycle repeats.

Just For You