We all have thoughts that terrify us, things that make us go, “Why did I think that?” and then we try to move on. Some artists embrace such horrific thoughts and this inspires art which makes most of us uncomfortable.
H.R. Giger specialized in gazing into the abyss and putting onto canvas what he saw there. In 2021’s Mad God, Phil Tippett delivers a feature film where nearly every frame has imagery of the likes I don’t believe has ever crossed my mind. And, if it ever did, I think I would have tried to forget it as soon as possible.
I don’t believe I have ever seen another movie that is so evenly divided between the beautiful and the repulsive. I kind of hope I won’t ever see another picture like it.
Mad God is somehow a simple movie that is difficult to describe. There isn’t a plot, per se, so much as a series of vignettes. There aren’t even stories in this, so much as there are the archetypes of stories.
In this, and some other ways, it frequently reminded me of the Bible. That may sound strange, but the picture begins with the Tower of Babel and a text scroll from the book of Leviticus. Also, if you’ve read the Bible, much of it is composed of isolated incidents that are bizarre and extremely violent.
And some choice words that come to mind when I recall this movie are “bizarre” and “violent”. Also “gross”. By some distance, this movie spurts, gushes and oozes more than any other I have seen.
What is even more shocking is the vast majority of Mad God is done through painstaking stop-motion animation. Tippett is one of the masters of the form and so put considerable effort into rendering his hellish visions in meticulous detail. He was so dedicated he spent 33 years making this movie. I wonder how many hours in total were spent creating some images I could barely look at directly once.
Hellish is a great word to describe this movie, as it takes place in what I can only describe as hell. I also saw parallels to Dante’s Inferno, though the geography of Mad Dog isn’t concentric circles—it has many subterranean layers and the ground level seems to be quite expansive. One of those subsurface levels is a great number of statues, largely religious in nature, that I assume are discarded idols from an earlier time. Do not look to your deities for help in this place. It is truly god-forsaken.
Although there aren’t any real protagonists, we do largely follow one character at a time as they navigate the landscape. Two of these are agents dropped in from the sky. They are dressed as if WWI is still being fought in the future, complete with gas masks. These figures appear to be neutral, unconcerned with killing creatures that literally get underfoot yet largely observing the gruesome violence that surrounds them.
I wouldn’t know how to begin describing many of the monsters in this picture that do much of the torturing, maiming, murdering, violating and spewing of various fluids. But there are more, um, conventional characters I can describe, such as the type of surgeon and nurse that only exist in horror movies, video games and nu-metal videos from the 90s.
Probably the most prevalent characters in the film are humanoid figures that appear to do most of the manual labor, but usually meet their end courtesy of the machines they work. I couldn’t help but consider the low regard those in higher classes tend to have for what they regard as the disposable masses. That the humanoid figures also become part of sausage they help produce, I started to wonder if there was a statement here about processed foods.
There’s more I want to say about this picture but I’m not sure how I can communicate these thoughts in a cohesive way. Let me instead take a similar approach as the film and relay various images that stuck with me. Such as that doctor and nurse pulling and impossible number of impossible things from the chest cavity of a living man. Such as an infinite war being fought by numerous tanks. Such as a suitcase the agents carry, and that we see a pile of these suitcases at one point, suggesting the fate of previous agents.
So much in this had me wondered if a recurring intended theme was the futility of human conflict, both on a large and small scale. If you’re two small creatures struggling over an item, you might both be literally tramped underfoot. If you are a bigger creature, you may be fighting in an battle that will never end.
Lastly, the title had me wondering if by “mad”, Tippett is saying God is mad or is he insane. I often thought he might mean both. In the end, however, it turns out God is downright cuckoo.
Mad God shook me harder than anything has in a long time. If feels like the filmmaker had demons to exorcise, and this master of animation worked at the peak of his abilities to render these majestic and horrific images to the screen. Many would describe this film as pointless gruesome. I for myself, I think this is a very brave movie made by an artist who stared into the abyss and spent 33 years capturing what they saw there.
Dir: Phil Tippett
Starring director Alex Cox (!) and a myriad of gross things doing gross things either on their own or to other gross things. You have been warned.
Watched on Shudder