Phil Tippett is a special effects god. Many of us, maybe the majority of us, owe a big helping of our childhood moviegoing memories to his work. Be it his efforts on Robocop, Jurassic Park, and of course the first couple of Star Wars films, Tippett’s stop-motion and visual effects supervision is basically charted into our DNA. And all that while, over the last 30 years, Tippett has been quietly working on his own film. And though he’s been slowly chipping away at this epic that so many have patiently awaited, a successful Kickstarter campaign finally saw this nearly fully stop motion-based effort come to fruition. When I found out it would be showcased at this year’s Fantastic Fest, I had to see what it was all about.
I’ve now seen Mad God, and I’m still not sure I can really tell you what happens in it, though I can for certain say that chemical enhancement is probably the ideal setting here.
Tippett’s opus is best described as a jam packed mash of a number of cultural touchstones, with influences as wide ranging as Clive Barker, early 90’s Tool and Nine Inch Nails videos, Francis Bacon, Ray Harryhausen, Dune, and Eraserhead. The general thrust of the story, such as I can attempt to conjure, is that a leather-bound WWI-esque masked explorer is being lowered into the depths of a subterranean realm (is it Hell? It’s never made clear, but an opening passage from Leviticus points us in that direction.) Our protagonist, called The Assassin, then journeys through a volley of inhuman sequences both horrifying and mesmerizing. From scenes of giants being electrocuted and defecating to monstrous butchers chopping up bandaged worm men, the Assassin pivots through every potential corner of Tippett’s creativity. Every moment of this film is about that sojourn, and you can almost time it in that every 4-5 minutes, a new creature design or concept is delivered and the setting almost completely changes each time.
It’s a fascinating approach, and for about the first 20-30 minutes it has the same sort of exhilaration I get from a really great comic book or science fiction/fantasy that just will not hold your hand. Something like the recent Prophet revival or the Book of the New Sun comes immediately to mind, where the narrative is somewhat shaped by the experience of the reader (or in this case, the viewer). All the pieces are there, but our individualized ways of processing information allow us to each map intentions differently. That kind of artistic analysis can be thrilling, and often is. But I have to admit, after about an hour of Mad God, I felt my attention was starting to drain away. I looked down for a minute, just to give my eyes a break, and when I looked back up, I totally lost the thread of what was going on and it took me another 5 minutes or so to get recalibrated.
Does that level of difficulty and lack of accessibility make Mad God hard to recommend? Not necessarily, it just has a very specific audience in mind. The kind of folks like me that found the stoner-metal opus Mandy utterly hypnotizing is really where this one’s head is at, and even then, I was ready to do something else by the time the credits rolled. Even I have my limits for abstract art, I guess.
Originally, Tippett released this film as a series of shorts, and rather than trying to weld all of these disparate ideas into one experience, viewers may have been better served to take these in as bite-sized installments and avoid the ever creeping numbing sensation that just grows as the running time ticks on. Or maybe you just need to watch it at midnight with all the lights out and in the proper frame of mind.
Either way, there’s a fun appearance by the great filmmaker Alex Cox, and anything that allows me to plug Repo Man and Sid & Nancy is a winner in my book.