Credit: IFC Films
by Jake Tropila Featured Film Genre Views

Stopmotion — Robert Morgan

February 21, 2024

Considering the wealth of nightmarish aesthetic possibilities, it’s difficult to understand why stop motion animation isn’t more heavily utilized within the realm of horror. Sure, the sporadic Tim Burton-produced joint will emerge, but the only notable example in recent memory belongs to director Phil Tippet, who unleashed his much-lauded Mad God on the world in 2021. A grotesque and long-gestating work, the feature arguably functioned better as a paragon of meticulous craftsmanship than a work of cogent storytelling, but there was no stone left unturned in regards to the possibilities the medium offers. Perhaps the key term here is “long-gestating”; unlike computer-generated imagery — or, heaven forbid, ones generated by artificial intelligence — which can smooth over sequences in one fell keystroke, stop motion is a work measured in millimeters, with the finished product a result of the painstaking hours spent articulating the most minute details on a series of models. It’s enough to drive one mad, and that’s exactly what propels Stopmotion, the latest film from British filmmaker Robert Morgan. The director, who previously contributed the completely stop motion-animated segment “D is for Deloused” in 2014’s The ABCs of Death 2, graduates to his feature-length debut here, seeking to examine the mind of an artist stretched to its limit in a demanding work setting. Stopmotion typically strains to hit the 90-minute mark, and its psychological depths are perhaps a bit shallower than intended, but for those who prefer more tangible images in their horror, it’s a marked success in that regard.

The film centers around Ella Blake (Aisling Franciosi, who broke out with her formidable turn in Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale in 2018), a stop motion animator who works under her domineering mother, acclaimed animator Suzanne (Stella Gonet). Suzanne, having been afflicted with arthritis, acts as the “eye” to Ella’s hands, controlling every facet of production while belittling her poor daughter for a seeming lack of vision. Despite support from loyal boyfriend Tom (Tom York), Ella faces the wrath of Suzanne’s cruel tutelage on a daily basis, working and reworking projects until perfect. When Suzanne is hospitalized with a stroke, the previously stifled Ella seizes the opportunity to isolate herself in a new apartment and take full command of their short film. Aided by the creative guidance of an enigmatic Little Girl (Caoilinn Springall), Ella starts from scratch with a new project, setting out to tell the story of a young woman confronted by a malevolent entity known as The Ash Man. Neglecting her relationships, Ella eventually becomes all-consumed in her work, crafting something that might ultimately have more insidious consequences in the real world.

Go straight for its titular animated sequences, and Stopmotion is a thing of ghoulish beauty. Part of the charm of stop motion is how well it works on screen; no amount of computers could possibly replicate the otherworldly, almost alien look the technique provides. There’s a janky, jittery quality that perpetually unsettles, and yet it’s somehow paradoxically more human in its appearance, if only because it’s been so thoroughly molded by human hands that the animator’s presence is felt in every touch, every gesticulation, and every flaw. Morgan wields this to his advantage, seamlessly incorporating plenty of stop motion with live-action footage as Ella’s abyssal plunge is increasingly realized, first working with armatures (the inner skeleton of a stop motion figure) covered in a malleable material like mortician’s wax, before escalating to more unconventional organic substances, like uncooked steak or the flesh of a fox corpse. The stop motion worlds are beautifully realized sequences of production design.

Working from a script co-written with Robin King, Morgan’s narrative is less wholly satisfying. Part of the problem comes from its length; Stopmotion has all the makings of a tremendous short film, but at even a relatively scant 90 minutes, its premise is stretched unbearably thin for a feature, often relying heavily on the gloomy mood provided by Léo Hinstin’s shadowy cinematography and Lola de la Mata’s dread-inducing score. Those who are well-versed in the genre will likely see the outcome from a mile away, as this sort of story only really leads in one destination. That’s not to say that a film like Stopmotion deserves a happy ending, but once it settles into its one-track-mind course, there’s really nowhere else for it to go. Matters concerning the Little Girl’s real identity are also painfully obvious, but Morgan nonetheless withholds the final reveal as if he is still expecting anyone to be surprised. Thankfully, the director does have Franciosi to work with, and she heroically commits herself to the role, rejecting empathy outright as she fully embraces the obsessive rot of Ella’s diseased mind. It’s fearsome work from the actress, giving Stopmotion the push it needs to cross the finish line. Morgan’s film may not set any new definitive baseline in stop motion horror, but it’s a clear step forward for the genre, and one can certainly hope that the technique becomes more widely employed, and soon.

DIRCTOR: Robert Morgan;  CAST: Aisling Franciosi, Stella Gonet, Tom York, Caoilinn Springall;  DISTRIBUTOR: IFC Films;  IN THEATERS: February 23;  RUNTIME: 1 hr. 33 min.