Mad God was reviewed out of the Fantasia International Film Festival.
You may not know the name Phil Tippett, but you definitely know his work. He’s an acclaimed creature designer, who has built the incredible critters found in films like Piranha, Star Wars: Return of the Jedi, RoboCop, and Jurassic Park. When Hollywood moved away from practical effects to computer graphics, Tippett adapted, but his heart has always belonged to stop-motion animation. So, for the last 30 years, this Oscar-winning visual effects artist has worked on a passion project, which fans can finally see on the festival circuit. But be warned: Tippett’s Mad God is darker, stranger, and much more of a mindf*ck that you could possibly dream. While impressive in its decadence, all that style might leave you craving more substance.
Written and directed by Tippett, Mad God is a furious rebellion against the Hollywood films that built his reputation. Blending stop-motion animation and sprinklings of live-action performances, he has created an experimental film that has no dialogue, no named characters, and no real plot to speak of. So, his directorial feature debut is not a narrative movie but a tour through the darkest corners of his imagination.
Our guide on this journey is a mysterious figure, whose countenance is hidden behind a gasmask. No facial expression will give away his emotions at any point. However, his wardrobe, a cyberpunk mélange of metal, rubber, and leather that covers him head to toe, warns us that the world around him is toxic. Descending in a rusted diving bell, he plunges deeper and deeper into a hellscape bursting with depravity, violence, monsters, and muck. Incongruent with the unnamed hero’s heavy protective gear is his tightly clutched briefcase, which suggests he is a man on a mission. Frustratingly, this mission goes from unclear to utterly unimportant in the blink of an eye. From there, Mad God shuttles haphazardly through a kingdom of horrors.
A barrage of vignettes presents brief but brutal glances into a world that is narratively devoid, yet lush in details. Scenes of domestic slaughter are played out in shadow puppetry. A merciless food chain is unfurled with creatures, who look like they’ve escaped from totally different genre films, only to become meat. Monsters are bedecked with pulsing boils, pendulous breasts, and spurting buttholes. Altogether, this wretched world seems populated by every bizarre sketch Tippett ever saw rejected by a studio exec or deemed too shocking for mainstream movie audiences.
Mad God provides a feast for the eyes, but a putrid one. Surfaces glisten with slime. Creatures are spiky with hair, wiry and unwashed. Blood and gore hit not in sprays, but in gloppy explosions. This grungy world is so layered with texture that it feels like you could reach out and run your fingers through it. Though with such a dedicatedly grimy and unwelcoming production design (also by Tippett), who would want to?
Though willfully disgusting, the animation within this is an astonishing celebration of stop-motion. Tippett and his team have expertly executed the physicality of these critters. Whether they lumber, scurry, or slither, each has a sense of weight to their motions that makes even the most surreal beast feel real onscreen. So much so, that when live human actors begin to creep into the mix, you might well do a double-take to check if they’re a person or a puppet.
Bolstering this revolting visual smorgasbord is an unnerving sound design. No characters speak in the traditional sense. Plenty will wail, gasp, gurgle, or coo. Much of the soundscape is guttural or feral. Yet the recurring babble and squeal of a human baby might be the most haunting sound, considering its hellish context. Meanwhile, the swollen score feels plucked from an ‘80s horror movie, where choral voices sing spookily while a piano and percussion clatter into ominous cacophony. All this culminates into a suitable soundtrack for nightmare fuel.
The repulsiveness of Mad God is intended. In an interview with Variety, Tippett bragged about walkouts at a preview screening, where viewers complained the film had given them “an anxiety attack.” But what is the message of his masterwork? I’m not convinced he has one. Mad God isn’t interested in coherence as much as it is experience. What you take away from this bog of carnage and creation is up to you. Tippett seems content to spill his subconscious onto the screen and call it a day. Though, for what it’s worth, he advised in the same interview that certain substances might be an aid in getting on his wavelength: “I would recommend either taking a gummy, smoking some marijuana, drinking a bottle of wine, or bringing a vomit bag to watch it.”
Full Disclosure: I did not take this advice and kind of wish I had. Though technically remarkable, Mad God left me emotionally cold. Sure, it’s eye-poppingly gross and garish. But without a story to follow or even faces to connect to, I found myself lost in the muck and hankering for a sensation beyond nausea and confusion.