The special effects master behind Star Wars and Jurassic Park unleashes hell in this stop-motion horror film
A lone figure descends into the depths. Down they go, lower and lower, until light is but a distant memory. The figure is known only as The Assassin, sent on a mission from someplace far above. They’re not the first and won’t be the last. Their boots finally touch the bottom of the vast chasm they’ve ventured into. Nothing good will come of this. Here there be monsters.
Dressed like a combination of a miner, a deep sea diver, and a gas-mask wearing soldier in the trenches of World War I, The Assassin carefully makes their way to the heart of the strange dark land. Their only guide is a rapidly deteriorating map. Their only weapon is a single bomb, meant to be set off wherever the final destination may be. Hell awaits, perhaps literally.
This is the most discernible bit of story or narrative that you’ll be able to pry out of Mad God, a film that plays more like a collected stream of conscious (and unconscious) thoughts and images more than anything else. Our protagonist stumbles upon nightmarish scene after nightmarish scene throughout their journey – the world they’re exploring, much like our own, is a cruel, desolate and insane place filled with terrors beyond imagination and comprehension.
Mad God comes from the mind and hands of special effects artist / stop-motion master / Hollywood legend Phil Tippet. His work in creature design and animation has been instrumental in the world-changing and culture-dominating films he’s been involved with, from the original Star Wars trilogy to Jurassic Park to RoboCop to Starship Troopers. Tippet has become an icon of movie magic in the same way that his predecessor and own inspiration Ray Harryhausen was, working alongside legendary filmmakers to bring fantastical creations to life up on the big screen.
Tippet has been toiling away on Mad God for over three decades now, weathering the various changes of an industry that he’s always had issues with, shelving the project only to bring it back out before shelving it again, and eventually having a full-on mental breakdown due to the stress of putting it together. Upon witnessing the groundbreaking digital effects of Jurassic Park during production, Tippet infamously confessed to feeling like his artistry had just gone the way of the dinosaur. Yet Mad God, his magnum opus of painstaking, handcrafted creativity, is one the greatest arguments for keeping it alive.
Stop motion takes an enormous amount of time and effort to complete, especially for such an ambitious feature-length picture like Mad God. While studios like Laika have entire productions teams for their films, Tippett’s only assistance was a handful of young and largely inexperienced volunteers passing through his studio throughout the years. Tippett Studio is still going strong in the digital age (they’ve been providing effects for the latest Star Wars and Marvel projects among other things) but its founder still insists on personally doing things the old school way.
The world of the film is filled with monsters and machines of varying shapes and sizes, their features often hideous but fantastically inspired. The terror of Mad God is appropriately biblical in both scale and design, as if Tippett is exorcising his own cosmic issues and observations and visions onto the screen. In one sequence, faceless workers drones literally drudge along to their deaths at a giant factory, either by meeting their end in the furnace or merely getting rolled over by various machinery. You can probably decide for yourself what meaning to draw from it.
The film’s abstract structure and moments of jaw-dropping ghoulishness will likely test the patience and tolerance of some viewers; at times its commitment to whatever new nightmare its come up with can threaten to lose you. But something in this film’s dense tapestry of horror always manages to pull you back in, or rather, back down. Mad God is a rich and awe-inspiring display of relentless labor; an unfiltered, furious, despairing view of a wicked and uncaring world. There’s a macabre sense of beauty to be found within the nightmare.
‘Mad God’ is now streaming on Shudder.