Director – Phil Tippett – 1987-2021 – US – 83m
A man in a gas mask descends into a dark, dangerous world on a mysterious mission, encountering strange creatures, humanoids and societal constructs along the way – stop-frame epic 34 years in the making is out on Shudder in both the UK and the US on Thursday, June 16th
My immediate reaction after watching this was two-fold. On the one hand, wow!!! On the other, how on earth do I put the experience of watching this into words? Mad God definitely has a structure, yet what’s amazing about it is the visuals, the animation, the effects. Even though I’m familiar with the work of its director Phil Tippett (as one of the heirs apparent to stop-motion maestro Ray Harryhausen in the world of visual effects – career highlights include RoboCop, 1987; Jurassic Park, 1993, Starship Troopers, 1997) this film is something altogether different (even if its roots can be seen in his VFX work).
Following the destruction of a tower resembling Babel in a black cloud, and a lengthy quotation purporting to be from Leviticus 26, a man in gas mask and protective clothing descends into the bowels of the world on a mission, the exact nature of which is never revealed. For the viewer, the fascination lies in his journey, the bizarre sights he will see, the terrifying perils he must encounter.
Eventually he will be cut open on an operating table by medics and from his stomach will be taken something like a cross between a human foetus and a baby maggot (so perhaps this is not a man after all but a woman… or perhaps it’s a man, impossible to tell). This constantly mewling infant will be carried to its fate which will silence its mewling forever by an ethereal delivery being with large, distinctive hands reminiscent of an H.R.Giger design.
Somehow, the gas mask man / woman’s quest will continue until the controlling supernatural power, bored with all this, hits reset, sends the surface world into self-destruction and rebuilds the Tower Of Babel (or whatever it is) all over again… and another man in a gas mask begins the same descent into the depths.
On the initial descent, vistas include industrial structures shrouded in the fog of pollution, a rock valley full of upright statues of monsters, deities and other legendary types, and even a rock face resembling a giant human skull. When gas mask’s craft is lowered, bathyscaphe-like, so far that it finally touches bottom, gas mask himself gets out and trudges along the ground, remarkable close up shots of his legs and feet conveying a real sense of volume and weight. (It’s possible these might be real human legs and feet stop-framed, but I’m guessing that they’re a puppet. The nurse who appears for the surgical operation later on appears to be a real human actor rather than a puppet or model.)
It’s a cruel, brutal world in which all creatures feed on one another, often when they or you least expect it. Occasionally they defecate or masturbate. At one point, humanoids are created only for some to walk to their destruction in a fiery pit while others work on constructions that flatten them via steam roller or by slabs falling onto them like dominoes.
At another, brightly coloured creatures frolic in what appears to be a paradise until predators turn up to suck them into orifices which serve as mouths.
The groundbreaking artistry is flawless, making great use of accident in the construction of the stop-frame models and their environments. These creatures are light years away from Ray Harryhausen puppetry with its clear sense of line and edge, the stark definition of Tippett’s work being much more amorphous and slimy. Blood and gore is used sparingly, yet Tippett doesn’t shirk from showing gruesome detail when his story warrants it. The sense of gas mask’s quest (to save the world? to find out what exactly is going on?) is relentless even if its purpose is not entirely clear. This mysterious world of shadows begs far more questions than it ever answers.
To this hardened critic, it didn’t however feel as bloody, gory or unsettling as I’d been led to believe. It is nevertheless dark, disturbing and deeply compelling, a film to return to time and again. While it’s a shame no UK distributor has been bold enough to furnish this with the proper, big screen release it deserves beforehand – it can be found in cinemas Stateside, apparently – I welcome its appearance on Shudder and am delighted audiences will have a chance to track it down and see it. A UK Blu-ray release would also be a good idea in due course.
Mad God is out on Shudder in both the UK and US on Thursday, June 16th.
If you use promo code “DINOSUPERVISOR” you can get a 30-day free trial on the site / app.