The Mad God of the film’s title is writer/director/animator Phil Tippett and the sheer audacity of him manufacturing an 80-minute opus of grotesquery sprung from a passage by Leviticus that would ultimately need thirty years to complete. His original footage went before cameras during the late 80s and early 90s—around the time he was working on Robocop 2—before he let the concept fade away once computer graphics (thanks to Jurassic Park, which he won an Oscar for) began taking over the special effects industry. It wasn’t until the 2010s that Tippett would finally revisit the old puppets and sets he found during a storage purge at his studios. He’d bring the Shit Men back to life along with countless other weirdly disgusting beasts via three shorts.
It’s a great tale of perseverance, history, and education considering the past decade saw him agreeing to teach his CGI-trained staff the tools of the practical effects and stop-motion trade. The press notes say that this crew volunteered their time to help bring Tippett’s vision to life. Couple that effort with his own decision to put the finishing touches on the feature-length version himself while quarantined during 2020’s COVID-19 pandemic shutdown and you get a true labor of love unlike the studio-backed projects that utilize the phrase as marketing speak rather than honest to goodness fact. It needed to be with its horrific vision of Dante’s nine circles of Hell by way of Hieronymous Bosch. We’re talking nightmare fuel akin to icons the Brothers Quay and Jan Svankmajer.
If that weren’t enough to scare off Hollywood studios alone, an utter lack of a cohesive plot definitely would. The best synopsis I have for Mad God is that it depicts the never-ending cycle of death and life through glittery stardust creating new worlds destined for a painfully cruel destruction. Creatures are put through meatgrinders, given enemas to quicken bowel movements, and eaten by larger creatures who will then suffer the same fate. Some of the excrement eventually births new life, but they’re little more than pawns being put to work to keep this soul-draining machinery moving while ultimately proving too simple-minded to notice their jobs only guarantee their own harsh demise. To live is therefore to die and become absorbed back in as recycled fuel.
Rhyme and reason have no place in this narrative as it all reveals itself as some warped, carnivorous ecosystem churning in the background of a nameless masked figure’s unknown adventure. It’s through his seemingly endless descent from the surface (which looks no different than what’s roiling beneath) that we catch a glimpse of erosion, decay, and disuse. He’s watching with us through the porthole of his metal, coffin-shaped enclosure being lowered down farther and farther until finally hitting ground with a thud. It’s a dog-eat-dog atmosphere of grunts and screams as predators become prey and vice versa thanks to a mixture of proportions that transforms our masked protagonist from tiny to giant with each new locale. Clocks tick. Bombs are set. And soon even humans enter the fray.
This is where things really go off-the-rails because their arrival initially feels as though they might finally supply us some context. A doctor and nurse operate on a still living cadaver, pulling out jewelry and money amidst the bottomless pit of gelatinous viscera that fills its stomach. Eventually they find a writhing worm like creature crying like a baby before our attention shifts to a television screen about to press play on memories or missions or dreams or who knows what. There we meet the so-called “Last Man” (British director Alex Cox) as he apparently creates an army of masked figures to send down and wreak havoc with the rest of this world’s monstrosities. War ensues between tanks as the carnage moves from organic to mechanical.
I personally found myself even more confused than before as a result, so don’t go in expecting to leave with anything other than the experience of having looked inside Tippett’s long-gestating, warped psyche. It’s about mood and artistry, aesthetics and madness. And you will find some magnificent feats of genius like what I can only describe as a horseless Nazgûl wearing a plague mask, floating around with stringed chimes of clanking bones while strips of fabric flow behind it. To go from that beauty to the comic relief of two face-caged monkeys poking each other in the eye is quite the odd transition, but that’s pretty much par for the course here. For every intricate landscape puzzle with pathways of moving bricks comes a defecating row of prisoners.
Take the good with the bad and the strange with the majestic—darkly sinister, but majestic nonetheless. There’s no dialogue to be discerned and few sensory reprieves save a couple cuts to black, but you won’t really be missing much if you decide to give your eyes a quick rest from the repetitive chaos. If you see one unique creature devouring another unique creature, you’ve seen them all. The same goes for a lengthy sequence of Shit Men being squashed, eaten, and decapitated as they do their work like lemmings no matter what dangers lurk right in front of them. And possessing no resolution besides the genesis of a new world inevitably suffering a similar fate means the final twenty minutes of futility provides the real meat anyway.
courtesy of the Fantasia International Film Festival