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“If in spite of this you still do not listen to me but continue to be hostile toward me, then in my anger I will be hostile toward you, and I myself will punish you for your sins seven times over. You will eat the flesh of your sons and the flesh of your daughters. I will destroy your high places, cut down your incense altars and pile your dead bodies on the lifeless forms of your idols, and I will abhor you.” -God, Leviticus 26:27–30
DIRECTED BY: Phil Tippett
FEATURING: Alex Cox
PLOT: Condemned by God, Humankind yet survives. In an effort to destroy the deity, a lone explorer laden with explosives is sent to unfathomable depths. The assassin must survive Hell on Earth to complete his mission.
- Phil Tippett is a sought-after effects man who’s worked on multiple Hollywood blockbusters. He began his career with the original Star Wars film in the “Miniatures and Optical Effects” unit, and was possibly the first-ever credited “Dinosaur Supervisor” for his work on Jurassic Park.
- Mad God was three decades in the making, crafted by Tippett and his workshop between paid projects.
- With the advent of CGI, Tippett nearly abandoned his hopes of completing his stop-motion opus. A KickStarter campaign helped to fund the film’s completion. He also received assistance from film students he met giving guest lectures.
- Mad God premiered at Locarno on August 5th, 2021, garnering Tippett the festival’s Vision Award Ticinomoda, which “highlights and pays tribute to someone whose creative work has contributed to renew the cinematographic imaginary.” The film also won the Audience Choice Award at the 2021 L’Étrange Festival, which as its name suggests is no stranger to weird cinema, as well as the “Most Groundbreaking Film” and “Best Animated Feature” trophies at the Fantasia International Film Festival.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Putting the viewer through a viscerally agonizing and philosophically despairing grinder for eighty-three minutes, Mad God is wholly indelible. It is a harsh viewing experience, and so its few moments of tenderness stand out like flowers atop a mound of sullied corpses. When the unnamed explorer has a fleeting moment of connection with a doomed fiber-man, Mad God reminds the viewer that in life, there is hope—perhaps even in Hell.
TWO WEIRD THINGS: Toothy baby-talk overseer; Day-Glo death garden
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Stop-motion, theological nihilism, and a panorama of horrid wonder in every frame make Mad God one of the most visually intense experiences ever to be unleashed in cinema. Phil Tippett’s dedication to the craft, coupled with his deep knowledge of ecumenical imagery and fearless depiction of despair, makes his deeply personal movie a non-stop spectacle of exquisite hideousness.
Trailer for Mad God
COMMENTS: This mad God is the incarnation of sadistic capriciousness—a giggling, infantile entity, seen only via display screens: babbling mouth with stained teeth, and blood-shot eyes. Fibrous humanoids, forged from the defecation of bound and tortured creatures, operate a horrific machine. Exhausted upon creation, they limp from their pressed moldings to their varied fates: fueling a boiler mechanism with their bodies; crushed by a massive steam-roller; battered underfoot by massively-testacled guardian beasts; or piffed into a splatted nothingness by passing monoliths. A silent protagonist, armored in an encounter suit, fitted with shaded goggles and a bowler hat, bears witness. On a mission of destruction, he follows a cryptic map—which progressively disintegrates at every waypoint—carrying a briefcase full of explosives. Upon reaching a field of hills made of other briefcases, he arms the mechanism therein before being dragged off to a gruesome fate. The timer ticks down, only to glitch just before detonation.
The timeframe in Phil Tippett’s Mad God is difficult to gauge, but from its dramatic opening with the Tower of Babel, we can guess at eons. Every scene is encased in the muck of centuries, if not millennia, with ruins in the back-, middle-, and fore-ground. Minute details adorn each frame, from the grisly mechanism previously mentioned, to the “hospital” warren where the assassin is dissected, to the impossibly fortified laboratory where a sacrifice is delivered by a floating spirit whose purpose can only be badly guessed at. Nothing in Mad God is clear except for the staggering cruelty of the divinity, and the defiance of humanity—a defiance that runs along the razor’s edge of awe-inspiring and foolish.
Tippett ties together the Old Testament, Hieronymus Bosch, Ray Harryhausen, and E. Elias Merhige in the most unsettling and astounding vision of benighted existence so far this century. Taking a vindictive tract of Leviticus as its starting point, Mad God imagines a world where humanity has forsaken God, and God in turn harnesses His considerable powers to thwart us at every turn.
Reflecting its story’s grand scale, the film was made in pieces over three decades, during which Tippett read up a great deal on historical theology between his bread-and-butter special effects work. A battle between two functionary (read: shit-shoveling) guard beasts brings to mind the odd little monsters found in the holo-game of the original Star Wars. The assassin’s dissection sequence, presented as it is with grainy filming, inky close-ups, and blood-soaked extractions stylized to the point of being even more unsettling than realism, is overtly Merhigian, as if Tippett were trying to one-up Begotten. Harryhausen’s and Bosch’s influence shows throughout, as stop-motion creatures toil in the Hellscape.
The third act pulls the film from nihilistic stupefication into cosmic wonderment. The introduction of the floating hierophant (or spirit, or…?) rewards those who have endured Mad God‘s first two-thirds. It is presented with a squealing maggot creature by the nurse assistant of the extractor-surgeon who delved into the assassin’s innards (pulling out, before this beast, an array of organs, coins, jewelry, and even books), which it then bears to an alchemical laboratory deep in the heart of the underworld. The writhing worm is crushed, smelted down, and formed into a silver brick, which in turn is crumbled into dust and thrown into a miasmic furnace core. What ensues is the supremely awesome climax, a montage worthy of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Prometheus, as silver monoliths spew forth to other planets to lay the seeds of creation.
Horrible, horrible creation. Getting a bead on Tippett’s inspirations is easy, but the message of Mad God is as arcane as its floating hierophant. The assassin who descends the impossible, flak- and beast-guarded depths is obviously not the first, and we learn will not be the last. One of the few human-acted characters (credited as “The Last Man” and performed by Alex Cox) is a holy man, one whose long fingernails recall the hierophant’s claw-like fingers. This holy man communes with a trio of deformed crones who share one eye, and they furnish him with the maps the assassins rely on. He then passes an immense assembly of encounter-suited, briefcase-toting explorers. The Last Man hands the latest agent the map, and sees him off.
Having defied God, humankind’s fate is supposedly sealed; but despite the Hellishness of this world, hope has somehow taken root. The crushings, splattings, cacklings, gruntings, grindings, and other nightmarish marvels practically overwhelm, risking making the film nothing more than an elaborate exercise in sado-wondrousness. But care for detail, erudition of imagery, and its mite of optimism make Mad God a trial well worth enduring.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Tippett’s Mad God is darker, stranger, and much more of a mindf*ck that you could possibly dream. While impressive in its decadence, all that style might leave you craving more substance.”–Kristy Puchko, IGN (festival screening)
“Adding to the sense of surrealist nightmare are the purposely unsett[l]ing and ugly creature designs, mixing meat, rusted metal and various fluids to create the dark counterpart of discarded ‘Star Wars’ creatures… worth the wait. ‘Mad God’ exudes devotion, with every frame carrying decades worth of ideas and craft, resulting in a film that is just as hard to describe as it is hard to forget.”–Rafael Motamoyar, IndieWire (festival screening)
OFFICIAL SITE: Phil Tippet’s MAD GOD – hosts a good number of stills and concept art
IMDB LINK: Mad God (2021)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
Tippett Studio: Mad God – A brief blurb, a few credits, and an embedded link to YouTube for the trailer; it is worth poking around the creator’s other projects, as the site hosts examples of this effects whiz’s entire oeuvre
The Guardian‘s interview with Phil Tippett – Tippett sits down with John Bleasdale and discusses his heavy movie the morning after its screening at the Locarno Film Festival (among other gems, Tippett remarks, “I wouldn’t take my kids to this”)
Original KickStarter Campaign Page – An interesting historical monument that chronicles the project’s development; the years plastered around the page also hint at Mad God‘s looong gestation
Meet Phil Tippett and his Mad God – A 2012 YouTube interview showing some work in progress
LIST CANDIDATE: MAD GOD – This site’s original List Candidate review of Mad God
HOME VIDEO INFO: I foretell that the day will come when Mad God is released on Blu-ray, but presently it is available for viewing only through a limited theatrical release beginning June 10th of this year, followed by the streaming release on Shudder beginning June 16th. That in mind, it cannot be recommended enough that those of you brave enough to witness this vision should do so on the largest screen possible. We’ll update this section when there are more viewing options.