“You can do anything in animation” is a truism, a promise of unlimited potential that is frequently untapped beyond a surface-level dive into the unusual. Enough people stumble at “the animals can talk?” issue to make it unfair to expect more. However, it is also true that those filmmakers who are willing to go deeper into the realm of the possible do so with gusto. And so we arrive at a pair of short films that readily embrace the horror that ensues from making the wrong choice.
Raoul Servais’ legend in animation circles is due in large part to 1979’s Harpya. (The film won the Palme d’Or for short films at that year’s Cannes Film Festival.) The tale of a man who saves the life of a horrible-beautiful creature, only for it to methodically destroy his life, is a very simple demonstration of cause and effect.
When he intervenes to stop what looks like a cold-blooded murder, the action seems noble and moral. His decency continues when comes home with the near-victim, a giant, feathered, bare-breasted creature, but his good intentions immediately backfire. The house guest eats everything, denying the man even a morsel, and when he attempts to leave, the monster eats his legs for good measure. Even when he manages to distract the beast and escape the house, she pursues him and takes his food once more, leading him to attempt to murder her himself. It’s like a horror version of One Froggy Evening.
Servais’ technique is what lifts the movie into the rare air of our consideration. Using a method of his own invention, he shot live-action footage and projected animated settings onto the film using clear sheets. The result is something like a daguerreotype given life.
There’s a troubling undercurrent of misogyny in the film, however. In fairness to Servais, this is not explicit, but inherent in the mythological character he is invoking. (For his own part, Servais has described Harpya as a parody of a vampire tale.) If anything, it presents the danger of reading too deeply into a story; the harpy functions quite sufficiently as a movie monster, but it’s all too easy to infer a manifesto. In my research, I found at least one review that unironically celebrated the film as an attack on the shrewishness of women, which is pretty awful but speaks to the power of the piece.
Robert Morgan’s Bobby Yeah is less likely to garner sociological blowback, but only because it’s so much more obviously grotesque. Where Servais’ harpy was a lone example of a disgusting supernatural, everything in Bobby Yeah is bloody or slimy or both. That includes our ostensible protagonist, a bunny-eared, troll-faced creature who makes trouble for himself by literally pushing other people’s buttons.
The little rabbit guy is a classic protagonist who keeps stumbling from one terrible situation into another. Of course, he’s hideous, but he earns a tiny amount of sympathy by being the least hideous thing in the film. At every turn, he confronts a new bruised and twisted creature, often displaying unmistakably phallic characteristics and ready to attack the bunny guy for his most recent misdeed. (The film is replete with symbolism, particularly sexual, but it has significant impact even before you start to delve.) It’s an unrelentingly anxious 23 minutes, replete with violence, body horror, and building dread.
The eyes are often the giveaway in CGI animation, the evidence of unreality that disrupts the sense of reality. In Morgan’s production, the eyes have the opposite effect: disturbingly realistic eyes that peer out of misshapen doll faces, wall ornaments that resemble pizzas, and koosh-ball-headed serpents that stare out with unnerving authenticity. While the production design may seem to earn the title of “grossest film of all time,” it should be noted that the physical revulsion is easily matched by the psychic discomfort that lingers. Bobby Yeah isn’t just gross; it’s gross in very powerful ways.
As noted, you can do anything in animation, but what’s interesting is when a filmmaker really wants to do anything. Servais and Morgan both tap into primal fears that by turns intrigue and appall. Harpya packs a lot of horror and surrealism into its eight minutes, but it’s ultimately too slight to earn a place in the Apocrypha. Bobby Yeah, however, has the advantages of being longer and more viscerally unsettling. It’s a genuinely transcendent and transgressive work, and it’s worthy of future consideration as a candidate. Both movies, though, have a lengthy half-life in the brain, showing how a burst of animation can easily take up residence in your scared, scarred soul.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“‘…a fantastic surreal film…” – Dr. Grob’s Animation Review on “Harpya”
“…the stuff of surreal nightmares. It just goes to show that there are fertile imaginations out there creating weird and wonderful worlds for us to explore.” – Jude Felton, The Lair of Filth on “Bobby Yeah”
(“Harpya” was nominated for review by Absanktie and “Bobby Yeah” was nominated by Russ. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)