It’s difficult to describe the stop-motion animation masterpiece that is Mad God. Director, writer and producer Phil Tippett’s project was 30 years in the making. It represents a wildly nightmarish vision from the special effects legend. This is a project that he almost shelved, but thankfully he didn’t because Mad God is one depraved visual feast, a true descent into hell.
This is a film that defies any type of explainer because it eschews the traditional plot and narrative formula. Instead, it’s more about sitting back and enjoying the visuals, as strange and demented as they are. As difficult as the film is to follow, somehow, you can’t look away. This is one Shudder feature not to miss.
A Project That Almost Never Happened
Tippett is responsible for some of the biggest pop culture moments/effects of the last few decades. He’s worked on Star Wars, Robocop, Starship Troopers, and Jurassic Park. For a little more context, he designed the AT-ATs, the Cantina masks, and Jabba the Hutt for George Lucas. He was credited as “Dinosaur Supervisor” on Jurassic Park. Oh, and he animated those gnarly swarming hoards of bugs in Starship Troopers.
Tippett initially began working on Mad God during Robocop 2. However, his work on Jurassic Park led him to believe stop-motion animation was finished and CGI was the future. Thus, he shelved the film. Years later, members of his studio encouraged him to resume the project. With help from Kickstarter donations, he completed the film.
Mad God’s Sort of Plot
As mentioned already, Mad God doesn’t necessarily have a straight plot. It forgoes any narrative logic. The hellish odyssey begins with the image of a Babel-like tower set against a blood-red sun. Dark clouds gather as thunder rumbles. Composer Dan Wool’s mesmerizing score swells until the title card, Mad God, consumes the screen. Talk about an opening.
From there, a wrathful passage from Leviticus scrolls, leaving viewers to contemplate the weight of suffering about to unfold. Then, a diving bell descends from the sky into a deep pit with skulls and fire. Yes, this indeed feels like something straight out of Dante’s Inferno. But somehow, these layers feel more disturbing than the devil’s domain.
From there, we’re introduced to a protagonist, of sorts, a miner in a gas mask and bowler hat. The character has a suitcase with a bomb and a map that crumbles the more he opens it. The steampunk-ish dude, known as “The Assassin,” is tasked with denoting the bomb behind enemy lines. Too bad his map withers to dust along the way.
Eventually, while preparing to detonate the bomb, the Assassin fails to notice a weird robot mutant who captures him and drags him away. From there, he’s stripped and tortured before a live audience by a crazed scientist and his assistant. It’s okay, though, because a character known as “The Last Man” (Alex Cox) just sends another miner to complete the task. And he has plenty more lined up, disposable and at his mercy.
Mad God’s Mutants and Monsters
Mad God is filled with mutants and monsters. I promise you haven’t seen anything like these freaks in any other horror film. Initially, they’re seen through the first miner’s eyes, as he roams the hellscape, led only by his deteriorating map. There are Slender Man-like workers killed on the job. There are fighting minotaurs, skulls on spikes, electrified giants that spew crap, and other grotesque Cronenbergian creatures. Each layer grows more depraved. I’m pretty sure I even spotted monsters jerking each other off (because why not).
The land is controlled, I think, by a monster who speaks in baby-like coos and gibberish. We only see its mouth, which looks diseased. But the listless workers and other monstrosities obey it. The visuals get stranger and stranger as the runtime proceeds. Eventually, we’re treated to a psychedelic tea party featuring cockroaches with human skulls for heads. These bugs play cards, too. Again, you have to wonder how Tippett ever envisioned such uncanny and striking images.
The world has many facets. At times, it’s an industrial nightmare, WWI-like battlefield, and torture chamber, especially when the mad scientist harvests the miners, plucking a baby out of their stomachs after slicing them open. The babies are given to a phantom-like creature in a plague doctor mask. This spook delivers them to an alchemist, who then grinds them up into goop and uses the muck, somehow, to destroy other worlds. At least I think I got that right. The alchemist may be a stand-in for the devil. But hell (see what I did there) if I know. This movie defies rational unpacking.
Mad God Is Its Own Frankenstein’s Monster
In many ways, this feels like Tippett threw every nightmarish vision he could conjure into one film. Because the work stopped and then started again many years later, there are wildly different tones and shifts that occur. It feels like a Frankenstein’s monster, stitched together, with its varying parts creating a whole. The lack of a clear narrative may frustrate some viewers, but there’s much to consume frame by frame. If you’re willing to forgo any demand for traditional narrative and storytelling, simply let the visuals and score suck you into this ashy world.
Overall, Mad God is one fiendish and ungodly ride. You’re not going to see images like these anywhere else. It’s a painstaking work of avant-garde stop-motion animation years in the making. The animation, miniature set designs, and live-action sequences coalesce into a surreal and uncanny nightmare. Somehow, Trippett found a way to complete this ambitious project. Mad God is one masterful work, Trippett’s magnum opus.
Mad God debuts on Shudder on June 16. For more of the streaming service’s new and original content, check out my weekly Shudder Secrets column.
Brian Fanelli is a poet and educator who also enjoys writing about the horror genre. His work has been published in The LA Times, World Literature Today, Schuylkill Valley Journal, Horror Homeroom, and elsewhere. On weekends, he enjoys going to the local drive-in theater with his wife or curling up on the couch, and binge-watching movies with their cat, Giselle.