It’s taken some 35 years for legendary visual effects artist Phil Tippett to bring this Mad God to life, but his wondrously wild and wicked world springs into being this month in theaters and the streaming service Shudder. The project began in 1987, when Tippett began fabricating the inhabitants of a nightmarish surreal world with dozens of environments and hundreds of puppets based on thousands of sketches and storyboards. Long after these sat dormant, a group of animators discovered boxes of shelved puppets, as if stumbling upon the lifeless victims of an apocalyptic event; they and Tippett worked together to fuse extant footage with Kickstarter funding into the final project, a fully practical stop-motion classic of bizarre monsters and mad scientists.
Mad God follows no conventional narrative paradigm. It begins with a thunderous prologue enveloping the Tower of Babel in smoke and fire, followed by a decidedly punitive passage from Leviticus about infidels who are consigned to eat the flesh of their sons and daughters. A shadowy, gas-masked, trench-coated character known only as The Assassin rappels silently through a long, Dante-esque descent into a fiery hellscape populated by bizarre, monstrous souls. Carrying some kind of bomb, The Assassin seems intent on detonating the city.
But despite his grim, silent determination, The Assassin’s intentions are foiled by the rogue’s gallery of weird creatures who live there and conduct their merciless experiments. Tippett’s vision of a nightmarish world teeming with accursed, bizarre creatures is a dark delight. Many are featureless figures, little more than effigies, who toil at Sisyphean tasks in the depths, oblivious to their impending doom. Some ooze greasy pus from unfathomable orifices. Some poke and prod with crustacean claws. Others sport spikes and horns like semi-prehistoric dinosaurs. Still others’ faces bulge with bulbous growths and boils. Danger abounds everywhere in this unimaginably unique and compellingly dark world.
For most of his career, Tippett has contributed special effects to established hit films, having created the sinister Imperial Walkers and the alien tauntauns in The Empire Strikes Back and the creature gallery in Return of the Jedi before doing similar work for Robocop, Starship Troopers, and Jurassic Park, among others. But here in Mad God, the effects-master’s own vision is, simply, the star of the show, and its is a wondrously wicked world he’s created.
The stop-motion animation lends a quirky, childlike tone to the sets, calling attention to their elaborate constructedness, the animation ever-so-slightly herky-jerky and the figurines and props obviously miniaturized. The goal is less realism than a meticulously crafted, blissfully artificial, darkly surreal, and wondrously unique hellscape of lost souls and queer creatures. Tippett’s world may be like no other, but one can surely spot influences, from the creatures of Ray Harryhausen and the complex visual puns of Jacques Tati to the sculpture of Alberto Giacometti, the surrealism of David Lynch, or the characters of Pink Floyd’s The Wall. Steampunk concoctions meet medieval plague doctors. Minotaurs and she-devils copulate; a lonely mannequin masturbates. Despite the array of influences and imagery, the film nonetheless manages a mise-en-scene that is coherent and memorable. A couple of human (esque?) characters contrast starkly with Tippett’s animated puppets.
While the plight and eventual transformation of the The Assassin offer a slim thread stitching together separate sequences, Mad God is a film to be experienced, not so much followed. Tippett’s vision is a creation that took decades to rediscover and animate, and it’s one to wallow in and enjoy.
Grotesque, beautiful, and complex, Mad God may not register much in an industry so focused on big-budget blockbusters and longform streaming sagas, but I am especially thankful that a film like this exists. It’s a unique artistic expression in a medium dominated by franchises and sequels. Watching Mad God is like watching nearly nothing else (though Bertrand Mandico’s recent After Blue (Dirty Paradise) is a similarly experimental exercise in world-building, if a little less coherent in its vision).
Mad God also, though, may feel a little too on the nose for anyone whose recent experience with our own world has felt traumatic, perhaps even near-apocalyptic. In times when a pandemic has caused over six million deaths, when workers toil in terrible conditions, when the enslaved are trafficked for drugs and sex, and when so many work for the fortunes of so few, Phil Tippett’s world may strike some as less a fantastical vision than a dark interpretation of a reality slowly, steadily coming all too true.
Mad God opens in select theaters in New York and Los Angeles June 10, followed by screenings in other cities June 17. Mad God will be available to stream on AMC Networks’ Shudder.com beginning June 16.