If a work of art is the sum of its parts, then the stop-motion animation Mad God (Tippett, 2021) has a very large sum indeed. Director Phil Tippett crafted this cinematic fever dream as a mad god himself, stitching together a Frankenstein’s monster that merges stop-motion animation’s materiality with horror imagery and a vast array of aesthetic, formal, and philosophical influences. As a result, it’s hard to explain what Mad God is about; it’s made up of vignettes that are connected through themes of excess, violence, and the dialectics of creation/destruction and sacred/profane, all taking place in a gritty underworld. The part closest to a traditional plot line follows a character called The Assassin as they descend level by level through this hellscape in a reference to Dante’s Inferno, discovering crumbling cities, tortured souls, and wretched monstrosities along the way. Tippett pieced Mad God  together in stolen hours outside of his day job as a Hollywood SFX/VFX legend over the course of thirty years. Rather than capitulating to possible studio censorship, Tippett chose to protect his creative freedom by slowly completing the film on his own terms alongside passionate collaborators who shared his belief that good art takes time. Tippett effectively brings together grotesque adult horror and stop-motion animation in Mad God, and in doing so, he magnifies and reaffirms a visceral materiality that has always made stop-motion compelling.

Within the animation canon it is extremely rare to find stop-motion feature films that qualify as horror for adults, but we can trace horror’s presence in stop-motion animation elsewhere. There are a significant number of stop-motion horror features made for families, such as Laika Studios’s Coraline (Selick, 2009) and Paranorman (Butler & Fell, 2021), 3 Mills Studios’s Corpse Bride (Burton & Johnson, 2005), and many others which do not shy away from the grotesque. In the experimental realm, animators such as Jan Švankmajer (1934- ) and the Brothers Quay (1947- ) incorporate body horror in their short films that provokes a visceral spectator reaction. The legendary animator Ray Harryhausen (1920-2013) has scared generations with his stuttering monsters. While these works may not be horror films as Mad God is, they gesture towards an attribute of stop-motion animation that makes it a perfect match for horror: the propensity to explore and magnify the unnerving, the horrifying, and the disgusting through stop-motion’s material form[1].

Stop-motion animation fascinates spectators because they can see the film’s seams through imperfections in the models and movement, and are thus made more aware that the work has been crafted by an artist with physical materials. In her book Plastic Reality: Special Effects, Technology, and the Emergence of 1970s Blockbuster Aesthetics, Julie Turnock dubs this “not-so-realness”, drawing on Harryhausen’s philosophy that stop-motion animation captivates because of a sense of the not-quite-real.[2] Spectators are drawn to the sense that stop-motion animation is both real and not real, and stop-motion’s imperfect physical materials heighten horror images’ viscerality. This provides a tangibility to stop-motion films’ images that 2-D animation cannot achieve, placing Mad God’s horror more in the realm of live-action special FX horror classics like Hellraiser (Barker, 1987) and Videodrome (Cronenberg, 1983). Tippett pushes this materiality to its most extreme potential in Mad God.

Tippett has never been one to shy away from the disgusting, but he amplifies it in Mad God, exploiting stop-motion’s materiality alongside the grotesque aesthetics he has established in prior work, like with the frothy-mouthed Rancor in Return of the Jedi (Marquand, 1983) and the alien bugs in Starship Troopers (Verhoeven, 1997). As the director of Mad God, Tippett was able to chop people’s heads off and squish them at his own discretion, and he does so excessively and with relish. Surfaces and characters are covered with blood, feces, and other questionable fluids, and models are lumpy and distorted, recalling Tippett’s previous creature work. However, while Mad God may not be short of gore, its seemingly meaningless violence is replete with meaning when we consider how the film frames this spectacle of excess.

While Mad God is a film with many potential interpretations, one dominant thematic thread stands out: the film’s excessive material horror serves largely as a commentary on the spectacle of sex and violence that contemporary spectators ingest. Almost halfway through The Assassin, the film’s closest thing to a protagonist, is trapped. Soon after, a manic surgeon slices them open, pulling out guts, jewelry, watches, books, and coins from the chest cavity. The surgeon pries The Assassin’s chest open with his own hands and a sickening crack, splitting them wide and revealing gooey red organs and tissue that glisten in the light. As the surgeon yanks out bloody guts and items and throws them to the floor, the soundtrack plays stomach-churning squelches, intensifying the repulsion of this moment and emphasizing the materiality of these images. The camera cuts between shots of the surgeon’s hands as he pulls out long ropey intestines and tangled masses of jewelry, shots of The Assassin’s bulging eye as it whirls about in pain, and shots of thick, glistening red viscera as it splatters upon the walls and floor. As the surgeon pulls various items from The Assassin’s insides the spectator is aligned with the victim through those cuts to their bulging eye, showing that our own insides are as full of the junk that we consume as The Assassin’s. See figure 1.

Figure 1. The Surgeon digs through the Assassin’s insides, pulling out guts and material junk. Still from Mad God (Phil Tippett, 2021).

Tippett is likely the only author who could have made Mad God as he himself embodies the intersection of craft and cinematic history that his film embodies, having begun his career at a time where stop-motion effects were the standard before eventually being forced to translate that expertise into computer graphics on franchises like Jurassic Park (Spielburg, 1993) and Twilight (Hardwicke, 2008). This career transition was successful because Tippett has always had an incredible sense of the material, which he drives further than any other stop-motion feature film with Mad God’s gooey images of excessive violence. Tippett reaffirms the material power of stop-motion animation at a time when computer animation reigns, providing a compelling argument for the lingering power of handcrafted horror, and his dedication to craft ensures that Mad God doesn’t only incorporate animation history as inspiration, but that it is now an essential part of that history.

[1] A theme that is also explored in the podcast episode on Guillermo Del Toro’s Pinocchio (2022) by Spirited Animation, which is created by pastor Erin Jones and animation scholar Tim Jones who are guest editors on the ‘Profane Animation’ theme for the this blog.

[2] Turnock, Julie A. Plastic Reality: Special Effects, Technology, and the Emergence of 1970s Blockbuster Aesthetics. Columbia University Press, 2015.

Rachel Catlett is a humanities PhD student and research assistant at the University of Texas at Dallas. Rachel’s research interests include horror and genre studies with a particular focus on feminist and psychoanalytic film theory. Her current research focuses primarily on the Lacanian Gaze and Jouissance in both horror cinema and digital games.