Thursday, February 22, 2024

Stopmotion: Hybrid Animation-Horror

Will Vinton did some of his most memorable claymation for the California Rasin TV spots. Nevertheless, Ella Blake scorns commercial work with the disdain of a Millennial who has never finished a project of her own, which indeed she is. Instead, she works as the thankless hands of her ailing mother, a legendary model-animator hoping to finish what will must likely be her final film. When Blake finally discovers some inspiration of her own, it comes from a very dark place in Robert Morgan’s Stopmotion, which opens tomorrow in theaters.

Blake’s mother Suzanne is a considered one of the greats, whereas most of the animators she went to school with just know her as Tom’s awkward girlfriend. He isn’t even a filmmaker, but his sister is moving up the ladder of a commercial animation studio. Suzanne is desperate to finish her tragic film about a cyclops facing mortality, so she is not very considerate when it comes to her daughter’s feelings.

When the inevitable happens, Blake initially intends to finish her mother’s film. To avoid the painful memories, Tom sets her up in an apartment in a building his company manages (remember, Blake feels resentful over her lack of support). She soon starts doing her own thing, but not very successfully, until a creepy little girl invites herself in and offers unsolicited suggestions that Blake feels compelled to follow. Soon, she creates a new character out of roadkill, named the Ash Man. Rather disturbingly, whenever Blake animates a scene of the Ash Man menacing his victim, she experiences it herself in trippy animated hallucinations.

Morgan had an entirely animated segment in
The ABC’s of Death 2 that was technically impressive, “but punishingly grotesque.” The human element of his hybrid canvas helps him tell a much fuller story. Stopmotion shares a kinship with Berberian Sound Studio, but unlike the disappointing Censor, it does not simply rip-off the premise, placing in a slightly different context. Instead, Morgan’s use of stop-motion animation as both a theme and a medium adds further layers of metaphorical significance as well as strange physical textures.

In this context, Morgan’s macabre and unsettling animation really works. At first, it seems the horror is mostly of the “body horror,” variety, but the final twenty minutes are genuinely tense and horrifying. If there is a drawback, it is the character of Blake, whose mousiness and artistic pretensions keep viewers at arm’s length. As a result, her collapse does not fully connect on an emotional level. However, the Ash Man, portrayed in human-scale by James Swanton, is a memorable and terrifying cinematic bogeyman.

Perhaps somewhat ironically,
Stopmotion really demonstrates the creative potential of stop-motion animation. This is dark stuff, but that is partly why it is such a distinctive horror film. Recommended for fans of horror and the weirder varieties of animation, Stopmotion opens tomorrow (2/23) in New York, including the Regal EWalk.