TEN TERRIBLE GHASTLY CREATURES FROM "MAD GOD"
As an effects artist, creature designer, sculptor and animator, Phil Tippett is responsible for some of the most famous figures in cinema from Star Wars aliens to the initial animation work for Jurassic Park...but it was also during the production of Jurassic Park that Tippett nearly threw in the towel, believing computer animation would render stop motion obsolete for good and shelving a personal project indefinitely.
Twenty years later, the world had changed enough that a sizable audience not only existed for "old fashioned" techniques, but could go above the rigorous filter of Hollywood to fund projects independently, and online crowdfunding would save Tippett's Mad God from oblivion.
I was lucky enough to be able to see the finished movie at a local theater, and it certainly felt special to be able to see a case of brand new, feature-length stop motion horror on the big screen for the first time in my life. The last time anybody could have said this combination of words, anywhere in the world, might have been the limited release of Jan Svankmajer's "Alice" in 1988!
The setting of the film is intentionally vague, but assumed by most audiences to be some vision of hell or a hellish future Earth. It's a multi-level abyss of rotting cities, toxic factories, endless trash heaps and burning wastelands riddled with bloodthirsty monsters, flaming explosions and thundering military machines engaged in a perpetual orgy of such extreme violence, it's more a world "of" war than a world "at" war.
It's obviously not for everyone, loaded with bleak, hopeless imagery, putrid gross-outs and graphic mutilation with an abstract story and no dialog, but we're going to look at a handful of my favorite "entities" in micro-size clips, and you can make of them what you will:
HAIR DOLLSIf you haven't seen this film, I hope you'll enjoy reading the following sequence of words as much as I enjoyed writing them:
As we follow a gas-masked protagonist down through the depths of the hellscape, we see a collection of gigantic human figures perpetually convulsing as they're fried in equally gigantic electric chairs. They evidently never die, but they continuously void their apparently infinite-capacity bowels, and the collective waste is uncontrollably ingested by a huge, rotting, cybernetic face. It then passes through a series of fleshy sacs whose bloodshot, pleading eyes indicate a tortured sentience, and pumped into a machine that presses the filth into spindly humanoids held together by mostly what appears to be hair.
As you can see from my little micro-size clip, these unfortunate homonculi are not terribly bright. Those that don't wander off and get themselves killed are forced by monstrous taskmasters - too obscene for me to show you - to toil away at the endless construction or deconstruction of various machinery and architecture, which all certainly lends some credit to the "literal hell" theories.
GRUB WHALESThe sewage and hair guys are shown engaging in a lot of strange tasks, but none as dramatic as the processing of these squirming, squealing livestock. They're about the size and shape of whales, with toothless mouths and flapping, stubby arms, looking right between the anatomy of a fat beetle grub and a distorted human being. We see several of their butchered carcasses, picked clean to the bone, as a fresh one is loaded onto a platform and a gigantic set of syringes are plunged into its bulbous cranium.
If hell really is involved in this setting, it's likely these and most other creatures are forms taken by human souls, but I personally lean towards a more science-fiction interpretion or a Warhammer-esque mixing of the two. Much of what we see is interpretable as mutation and biotechnology, albeit warped and corrupt enough that the difference means very little to its inhabitants.
THE CEOI'm giving these things my own names, but what else do you call this one? We've spent most of the first act watching an army of mass produced slave-creatures engaged in endless, torturous labor as they're whipped by sharting breast monsters (told you I can't show them), when suddenly the whole deranged workforce stops in its tracks and listens intently to infantile babble echoing through their decrepit city. The source is a towering, rotating conglomerate of television monitors displaying eyes and mouths as it gibbers nonsense in a human baby's voice, but it's clear that its role is more or less the "boss" of the whole operation. A boss that appears to be spouting pure nonsense and probably is, given that so many of the tasks it oversees are a waste of time. Its workers erect stone slabs that only topple like dominoes, or drive steamrollers to flatten absolutely nothing but dozens of their own co-workers, and it's all so resource intensive that entire sentient beings exist entirely to be part of the system that creates these doomed beings for what looks an awful lot like a net zero gain.
JUNK MONSTERThe silent, gas-masked figure we mentioned earlier is referred to in the script as "The Assassin," apparently tasked with planting a single bomb in a remote location of unclear significance. The number of bombs already left there tells us that this mission has already failed hundreds of times before, and we don't know if exactly the same fate befell every predecessor, but "our" bomber is caught by a hulking, crawling, slithering mass of tangled metal and bone with at least one skull-like head on its long scrap-metal neck.
Designs like this are why I opted for 3-4 second clips rather than just screenshots: a still image of this monster looks like nothing. A meaningless pile of refuse. It's only in motion that the convoluted heap is a more obvious "being" with a clearer anatomy. It has a pretty interesting head, too; like a human skull with needle-sharp teeth, and the whole skull encircled by four large talons that flare open as it strikes.
WORM BABYOnce the assassin is dragged off by the trash creature, we get the most uncomfortable sequence in the film: an extended combination of animation and live action as his conscious body is operated on by a filth-caked surgeon. The doctor sloppily pulls gore and viscera from the victim's cavity...and then, for some reason, gold coins. And diamonds, and pearls, and more blood-caked treasure, much more than a human body should be able to contain, in a sequence that allegedly symbolizes torturing a prisoner for military secrets.
The final thing pulled from the body? A wailing baby shaped like a hairy maggot with human teeth, hastily collected by a nurse who delivers it to a mysterious, shadowy angel-like entity we also saw in the film's opening shot.
WARPHAGESFollowing the assassin's capture, operation and apparent reincarnation, or whatever it was, we see the live action priest of an eerie, demonic looking temple send down another assassin on another identical mission, and we watch this one begin his journey in the ruins of an Earthly-looking city where, among other things, the corpse-like inhabitants fall victim to skyscraper-sized bacteriophages. These huge viruses float down from the sky only to begin stabbing denizens with their needle-tipped tails, their victims actually bursting into sparks and disintegrating in the process.
Whether taken literally or symbolically, the sequence is an obvious reference to germ warfare. If we do choose to take what we're seeing at face value, then the hopelessness communicated by their very existence is impressive. Again, the line between supernatural and technological, man-made or demonic, is a useless distinction in Mad God's world. By the time giant viruses are falling from the sky to explode people to death, those are all functionally the same thing and the only outcome is more suffering.
THE "REJECT" BABYWhen we return to that shadowy entity and the worm-baby creature, we watch the figure float through fantastic ruins strewn with broken idols, chimeric skeletons and more broken-down machinery, during which it is very briefly pursued by a giant, crawling, near-skeletal fetus. This creature reaches out to the "angel" just the way a human baby would beg for attention, but it's ignored altogether and unable to keep up for long. You get the distinct impression that it could have or should have been something similar to the crying worm still clutched in the "angel's" bony fingers, but for whatever reason, it lacked some special quality the entity was looking for.
EXOTIC PETSI won't discuss the rest of the movie's events in much detail, but important to its final stretch is a troll-like alchemist with a laboratory full of interesting curiosities. One of these is a sort of terrarium filled with bright, colorful flora and at least two of these rubbery, polka-dotted humanoids with tentacular, boneless arms, eyeless mallet-shaped head and simple, round suckers for mouths. They stick out as the most visually palatable, most benign entities we've seen, and part of that is just how alien they look. Compared to the uncanny, distorted demihumans we've seen up to this point, these blind mollusk-like characters are simply adorable. The sequence is the most peaceful and cheerful in the movie's runtime as the "alchemist" feeds mealworms to these funny little pals. But then...
THE "SPIDER"For whatever reason, the alchemist flips a switch to release another creature into that psychedelic enclosure. A spiny, hairy arthropod consisting mostly of a multi-eyed head with ghoulish jaws and several sharp, spidery legs. I love its color scheme, nearly pitch black with yellow cheetah-like spots that glow under the UV lighting of the terrarium sequence. It walks sideways like a crab, heads straight for the defenseless tentacle-beings and slaughters the smaller, presumably younger one in what is somehow still the movie's most lighthearted moment - the way the surviving being responds to the situation got an actual big laugh out of the theater audience, who up to that point had spent most of the experience in what sounded like a mix of silent awe and squirming nausea.
CARD-PLAYING FLEASThe final "punchline" of the terrarium scene are a couple of quasihumanoid fleas, beautifully detailed with lifelike siphonapteran anatomy, barely looking up from their game of cards as the spider crawls back to its lair with its prey. On the surface it's a moment of "nonsense humor" with a real Lewis Carroll vibe, overused as that comparison may be, but you can easily read more into it if you're so inclined; it is after all a couple of "parasites" looking on with ambivalence as something tragic unfold rights in front of them, and they even have what appears to be a gun standing by on a tripod. They could have stopped the arachnoid with virtually no effort, but they didn't find reason to care.
We're ending our look at Mad God's creatures and characters on that note, especially because the terrarium scene is so close to the end of the film and I feel like I've spoiled more enough of it already, even if it might be difficult to define a "spoiler" for a movie whose every moment can be taken multiple ways. Interpret its events literally, and it's a dark sci-fi fantasy epic about a future, and it's a dark sci-fi fantasy epic about a future so bleak, all anyone can do is hope to put it out of its misery, a world punished by its god far beyond all sense of justice. Think of it more symbolically, as you're typically supposed to with these kinds of films, and it satirizes the sheer hopeless futility of war and violence in general.
My personal takeaway, before I read anyone else's reviews or even Tippett's own word, was that a lack of clear meaning to its wanton carnage IS the meaning; that no conceivable reasoning could ever justify the cruelty on display and no final goal could be worth so much suffering. There's no need to contextualize this violence with a backstory because it's simply no longer possible to provide one that matters anymore, and that's precisely how violence has always felt to the people on its receiving end.
Maybe that's a little too on-the-nose for some tastes, blunt enough to even be eye-rolling, but as the real world continues to descend into increasingly senseless misery, maybe this symbolism still isn't blunt enough? It's already packed with images of war, torture, genocide, murder, pollution, decay, abuse and extinction with a pervasive emphasis on the wastefulness and pettiness of it all, but I've still seen wildly conflicting takes on this film that seek to unravel the "true" or "hidden" plot, and I think that's exactly the opposite of the point. To an outside observer, our species has done things in the name of war already as hideous and senseless as any of the shrieking, cannibalistic ass demons Tippett has so lovingly brought to life here.
It's a movie about a world only a "mad god" could create...and maybe it's also about the unfortunate fact that, sometimes, that might be the world we're stuck living in already.
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