“Rising, street-car, four hours in the office or the factory, meal, street-car, four hours of work, meal, sleep, and Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday and Saturday according to the same rhythm… But one day the “why” arises… It awakens consciousness and… at the end of the awakening comes, in time, the consequence: suicide or recovery.”
Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus, and other essays
Phil Tippet’s Mad God is a ride I was not prepared for. Created over the course of decades by an industry titan that brought us everything from Robocop to Starship Troopers, it sets a high bar for itself. Luckily, it clears right over that high bar with the dexterity and ingenuity of Dick Fosbury (look him up). It’s like if Avatar was interesting beyond its status as a technical marvel. Mad God not only serves aesthetics that made me feel like I immediately had to take a shower after the showing but a story that reaches into the core of humanity’s deepest fears.
In the film’s website’s own words, “Mad God is an experimental stop-motion film set in a Miltonesque world of monsters, mad scientists, and war pigs. Conceived and directed by our founder, legendary visual effects and stop-motion craftsman Phil Tippett, all sets, creatures and environments in Mad God are handcrafted and shot at the Berkeley studio stage.” And, I mean, if that isn’t enough to grab you, I don’t know how else to convince you to watch it. But I’ll try anyway.
While there is a lot that can be said about Mad God, I want to focus particularly on this one scene that I consider, by far, the best scene in the movie. I wouldn’t normally think about movies in terms of scenes, but Mad God’s nightmare-esque approach to plot means the narrative is… non-traditional. Things happen and not necessarily in sequence. So it’s easy to think of Mad God as a series of vignettes more so than one coherent narrative with its conventional trappings: protagonist, antagonist, rising action, climax. But using the word vignettes is, uh, really pretentious, hence: I want to talk about this one scene.
Note: while you can expect minor spoilers about the scene itself and the general themes of Mad God, this article will be mostly spoiler-free. To be fair, Mad God has such a tenuous grasp on plot that I don’t know if it’s possible to spoil it, but I thought I’d clarify up front.
Miltonesque Stories: What is the Fall?
It is the end of times and a strange gnome-like alchemist is tidying up his lab. The world is grimy, painful, slick with blood; the lab is dusty, abandoned, cracked. The alchemist pauses to admire his terrarium and suddenly we are reminded that there is beauty in the world still. Within the terrarium is a lush Eden of color and light where small creatures frolic unaware of the suffering that surrounds them. There are two that seem particularly close. A parent and child, perhaps? The alchemist feeds them grubs, but in the neon light of the terrarium, the grubs glimmer like jewels.
The alchemist beholds his creatures with what looks like tenderness. Tenderness: a precious rare thing in this forsaken world. After a moment, the gnome opens the door to a second terrarium; a luminescent spider-like creature emerges from the outpouring of violet. The spider wanders up to the child and, jaws dripping, devours it. The parent screams but cannot do anything to stop it. The other creatures in the terrarium watch with blank faces, more annoyed at the disturbance than perturbed. The spider drags its writhing prey back to its terrarium for a feast; the child’s terrified shrieks harmonize with the parent’s cry. And the alchemist? The alchemist laughs.
Mad God has an undeniable biblical influence. It’s in the name; it’s in the Leviticus quote that serves as the movie’s opening credits. It’s in the way its own creators describe it as Miltonesque, which refers to John Milton, a seventeenth-century English poet most famous for writing “Paradise Lost.” “Paradise Lost” is Bible fan fiction that tells the story of two famous falls from grace: that of Lucifer from angel to demon and that of humanity’s original sin. The poem ends with Adam and Eve being banished from the garden of Eden. Having tasted the forbidden fruit of knowledge, they make their “solitary way” out into the world.
While Mad God describes itself as Miltonesque and certainly explores themes of banishment, I would argue that the story doesn’t really take place during the “the fall” like “Paradise Lost” does. Instead, it’s about what happens after. As Simon Abrams describes in his review of Mad God, “Imagine, if you will, a dystopian nightmare set in a post-industrialized world that’s forever teetering on its last legs, but never quite falls over.”
The movie opens with Leviticus 26, which includes lines like “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,” and “I will turn your cities into ruins and lay waste your sanctuaries, and I will take no delight in the pleasing aroma of your offerings.” Mad God is not the story of mankind pissing off G-d enough to issue this warning; it is what happens when the warning is fulfilled.
The Aesthetics of Post-apocalyptic Horror
Apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic horror tend to have a very specific visual language. Landscapes are blank and featureless, except in urban areas where they are dense, dirty, graffitied, and abandoned. The color palette is usually depressed to represent the hopelessness of the situation, the world painted in dull browns and muddy grays. The only exception is red, which flashes like a warning sign.
In horror, one of the most common apocalyptic film subgenres is the zombie movie. With notable exceptions, many zombie movies fall into this gray/brown apocalypse-scape aesthetic. The difference is that zombie movies tend to be more apocalyptic than post-apocalyptic. As one of my friends has pointed out: most zombie movies are only interesting during the initial burst of chaos when the world turns to shit. That said, visually, there is little distinction between apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic. Post-apocalyptic content like Children of Men and The Road (both the movie and the book by Cormac McCarthy) also adopts the gritty apocalyptic look. It uses gray dreariness to reinforce the hopelessness of the situation and the sheer willpower required to go on.
Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before. Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world.The Road, Cormac McCarthy
Where you really get that post-apocalyptic feel in Mad God is in the way it does textures. Every surface in the movie is either rusted, filthy, slimy, or all three. As stop motion that relies primarily on practical effects, the film’s medium lends itself to deliberate construction. It can exaggerate the features within settings and character design that cause the most impact, while still maintaining a tactile sensation. It’s close to reality, but not quite, much like a nightmare is.
By contrast, the terrarium scene is glimmering and bright; even the music features dreamy harps. It’s one of the reasons the scene stands out so much. Its contrast to the rest of the movie makes it uniquely alluring, which then makes the violence feel like a betrayal.
From Grayscale to Color: the Wizard of Oz Effect
Moving from a bland, desaturated world to a burst of color is such an effective filmmaking technique. After all, this single moment captured my attention more than any other in the movie, and it was, like, the least graphic scene of all. After watching Mad God, I racked my brain to think of movies that did something similar.
The first movie that came to mind was The Wizard of Oz. But the vibe between the two movies couldn’t be more different. When Dorothy steps out of her house in the colorful world of Munchkinland, it’s meant to feel like magic. That’s what color usually does; it represents positive emotions. The changeover signifies that we’ve entered a new world of possibilities. Tim Burton, for example, loves using the contrast between color and listlessness to express where his sympathies lie. In the Corpse Bride, the world of the living is dreary while the world of the dead is bright. And one of the first things that Jack Skellington notes when entering Christmas Town is, “What’s this? What’s this? There’s color everywhere.”
That said, the positive associations of color depend entirely on the context where it’s being shown. A great example of this is contrasting 1998 teen comedy Pleasantville with the 2021 Pleasantville-inspired episode of Wandavision (that’s right baby, I’m still talking about Wandavision). In Pleasantville, color is used to signify progress. The movie’s protagonists are two modern-day high school students (played by Toby Maguire and Reese Witherspoon – it’s not horror but please watch this movie if you haven’t seen it) who find themselves stuck in a black-and-white 1950s television show. As they bring their modern thinking to the sheltered suburbia, the town’s willingness to explore new possibilities increases. In response, the world around them slowly infuses with color. By contrast, the Pleasantville episode of Wandavision uses color to signify change, but with significantly more sinister undertones. The appearance of colorful objects terrifies Wanda as it represents an unknown. It breaks with her understanding of the world, of control slipping away from her.
The terrarium scene uses our bias towards bright colors to rip the rug out from under us. After more than 90 minutes of a movie set in a world as sanitary and appealing as the underside of a sewer grate, it’s no wonder we’re drawn to a break from the madness. It is soothing to the eye to see color. The terrarium is a tiny haven, which makes it all the worse when we realize that even it is not safe from harm.
Existentialism in Mad God: What if God Hates Me?
Let’s take a couple of steps back. In 1884, philosopher Friedrich Nietzche famously asserted that G-d is dead:
“The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. “Whither is God?” he cried; “I will tell you. We have killed him—you and I. All of us are his murderers… Do we smell nothing as yet of the divine decomposition? Gods, too, decompose. God is dead.
God remains dead. And we have killed him.Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, translated by Walter Kaufmann
What Nietzsche meant wasn’t that humanity’s cruelty had snuffed the life of our once benevolent G-d, but that our collective enlightenment was eliminating the possibility of his existence. According to him, humans were building a world so advanced and scientific that we no longer can believe in a sentient G-d, despite our need to.
The late 19th and early 20th centuries saw the rise of existentialism, a philosophical approach that emphasizes the free will of the individual. Fast forward a couple of decades and it’s the 1940s, you recently lived through one of the worst economic downturns in history, and less than a generation ago, a world war left millions dead. Oh also, a second world war has started up, which you don’t realize yet will become the single deadliest conflict in human history. Surprisingly, you and your contemporaries aren’t feeling particularly optimistic about the state of the world.
While existentialism isn’t unique to the realm of horror, they are good bedfellows. Because hand-in-hand with existentialism comes the very familiar existential dread. Off the back of the world wars, writers like Albert Camus and Franz Kafka began producing works that questioned the purpose of humanity itself. As Viktória Prohászková explains in The Genre of Horror, “Even though Kafka’s works are not defined as horror novels, they are characterized by a threatening atmosphere, in which the main protagonists are suffering physically and psychologically. The twentieth century is the era of the bloom for horror.”
Mad God has a certain post-nuclear quality to it. Like the existentialists of the early twentieth century, it presents a world of meaninglessness. However, unlike the atheist writers and philosophers that first presented these ideas, Mad God doesn’t assume that we are alone in the universe. As Leslie Felperin puts it, “the long chunk of biblical text from Leviticus that opens the film suggests that whatever god is overseeing this universe, he’s not a nice chap.” Instead of asking what if G-d is dead, Mad God asks: what if G-d is real and he doesn’t love us?
In Dom Sinacola’s review, he suggests that one of the reasons life seems meaningless in the film is its unique approach to plotlines and perspective. “Stories don’t end when protagonists die because there are only antagonists running reality.” We relate to the creatures in the terrarium; they are “characters without character. Puppets. Faceless creatures. Or rather empty frames, which the actors [and viewers] can fill with their own faces, their own shapes” (Eugène Ionesco). The alchemist is effectively their G-d and, boy, is he antagonistic. His amoral thrill-seeking causes nothing but suffering for them; he finds it funny to create something beautiful just to watch it burn.
See, I think the prospect of a hostile God is significantly more terrifying than the prospect of no God. The idea that all our suffering and pain is for nothing on purpose? Heinous. G-d is meant to represent unconditional love, but the film clearly takes the stance that, if there was ever any love, it was conditional at best.
In A Welcome Warning (Leviticus 26) (the quote used in Mad God), Pastor Bob Deffinbaugh suggests that G-d doesn’t make us suffer because he’s cruel. It’s because he’s delivering on a promise made:
“We are constantly being warned. We have yellow flashing lights to warn us that we are in a school zone, and buzzing radar detectors, to tell us that a radar trap is nearby… We are so accustomed to warnings, and so used to them proving to be groundless, that we have learned to take them in our stride—indeed, to ignore them. Leviticus 26 is one of the clearest words of warning in the Pentateuch… The Israelites did not heed this warning and they paid a severe penalty for doing so.”
An understandably generous reading of the passage, I think Mad God gives it significantly less leeway. The world it presents is actively cruel, deliberately hostile, indifferently painful, and painfully indifferent. We see this in how easily lives are ended; we see this in the glee with which the alchemist condemns his pets to death.
Horror and Comedy: If I Don’t Laugh, I’ll Cry
In his review of Mad God, Felperin proclaims: “Tippett is unquestionably a great technician but he hasn’t got the design flair of, say, Guillermo del Toro, or the surrealist cerebral reach of Jan Švankmajer, whose Alice from 1988 is still one of the most disturbing stop-motion feature films ever made. And unlike those film-makers at their best, there’s hardly any humor in Tippett’s vision, just cruelty and a relentless squelchiness.”
While I agree that Mad God is certainly not a comedy, I disagree that there’s “hardly any humor.” There were plenty of moments when I was in the theater when the audience laughed out loud. The humor in Mad God is just extremely bleak. It’s a well-balanced film, with tiny snippets of humor appearing in between harrowing intervals of suffering. And placed right before the film’s bleak conclusion to a bleak affair is what I would consider the most consistently “funny” scene in the movie. And, yeah, it’s the terrarium scene.
In most horror comedies, the comedy is used as a break in the tension. After all that terror, we get a little treat of laughter. However, as Laura Smith explains in “Why Horror Comedy Movies Work,” sometimes comedy has the opposite effect. “Humor…adds a shock-value element to the story rather than a lightened tone. The fact that Krueger is self-aware of his evil and humored by his murder spree makes him even more terrifying. If it makes him feel good enough to laugh about it, he will never stop, just as we never stop doing the things that make us feel good enough to laugh at and joke about.”
The humor in Mad God, and especially in the terrarium scene, is absurdist, or at least, it’s so cruel it’s absurd. Absurdist humor often takes the premise that the world is a strange, chaotic, and potentially cruel place that we have no real control over both physically and metaphysically and turns it on its head. It says “nothing makes sense: isn’t that hilarious?” Your choice, when confronted with the absurdity of it all, is either to cry or laugh.
The alchemist scene in Mad God offers us a look behind the curtain. Its placement towards the end of the movie means that only those able to stomach the gruesome and torturous horrors up to that point are allowed in. There is plenty to scare people off before then. The operation scene is one that comes to mind; when I went to see Mad God, a couple actually left during that scene because they clearly couldn’t hack it (and honestly, fair enough: the body horror was a lot). If you’ve made it through this terrible journey, right before being informed of the truth, you get the alchemist scene. A microcosm of senseless suffering: a beautiful, funny, bright, terrible moment that shines the light on our own situation.
“Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Be afraid.”A bastardization of the Frederick Buechner quote