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There’s no discussing film history without bringing up Stop-Motion Animation. After all, isn’t simulating movement through a succession of incrementally different images a primitive form of stop-motion in and of itself? That’s why this laborious form of animation has existed since the early days of cinema, serving as a creative tool for pioneer filmmakers and eventually growing into its own animated niche.
Despite its reputation as a vehicle for raisin-based advertising and nostalgic holiday specials, hardcore fans know that stop-motion isn’t always as cheerful as Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer or Wallace & Gromit (though Curse of the Were-Rabbit remains an excellent riff on An American Werewolf in London). There’s actually a dark side to this charming artform, as showcased by Phil Tippet’s three-decade-long passion project, the stop motion horror movie Mad God, which is currently streaming on Shudder.
And with this miraculous achievement in nightmarish creature design having revived interest in adult-oriented animation, I’d like to take this opportunity to explore the history of horror (and horror-adjacent) stories in stop-motion. From giant apes to surreal dreamscapes, it’s clear that monster movies just wouldn’t be the same without clay puppets and patient animators.
The origins of stop-motion animation are inextricable from genre cinema, with notable examples as early as 1907 in short films like The Haunted Hotel, which used a primitive variation of the technique to bring ghostly poltergeists to life. This wasn’t the only film to take advantage of the budding artform (there were others like The Humpty Dumpty Circus and Japon de Fantaisie), but like a depressing amount of movies from this era, these examples have mostly been lost to time.
Eventually, the widespread use of stop motion in effects work led to several technological advances in filmmaking, which in turned allowed for horror and monster movies to get more creative. Malleable wires and innovative sculptors made it possible to bring all sorts of terrible creatures to life long before the days of computer graphics or even fancy animatronics, with giant monsters like 1933’s King Kong becoming full-blooded characters rather than lifeless special effects.
This was when creature features began to get interesting, benefiting from a new generation of genre specialists like the legendary Willis O’Brien and his man-eating dinosaurs. These prehistoric beasts may have looked and acted more like terrifying movie monsters rather than scientifically accurate animals, but O’Brien used them to perfect the art of giving his grisly creations unique personalities, animating them as if he were directing tiny actors – a tradition that would continue to inspire even modern-day animators.
This stop-motion pioneer also mentored the unforgettable Ray Harryhausen, who would go on to work on classics like It Came from Beneath the Sea, Jason and the Argonauts and the bittersweet Clash of the Titans, which marked the end of an era for stop-motion-based blockbusters. Known as the father of the modern monster movie, Harryhausen and his work on The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms even inspired the original Godzilla. His filmography may have been excessively parodied and diluted over the years, but it’s easy to forget that Harryhausen’s hand-crafted skeletons and squelching krakens originally terrified audiences with their lifelike movements and nightmarish designs during a time when this kind of speculative imagery was usually reserved only for comics and cartoons.
Of course, stop-motion isn’t just a crutch for effects-driven filmmaking, as several artists have noted that purposefully mixing less-than-realistic stop-motion animation with live-action footage can result in an appropriately surreal atmosphere. This form of stylization was used to great effect by Czech filmmaker Jan Svankmajer in his 1988 oddity Alice, as well as his 2000 black comedy, Little Otik (I’d also recommend Svankmajer’s infamous short film Food, which goes viral every now and again when internet users rediscover its absurd visuals).
Beyond the world of special effects and live-action experiments, stop-motion has evolved as respectable form of standalone animation. From Rankin/Bass’ cheap yet charming TV specials to Aardman Animation’s unique take on British humor, artists have been developing exclusively stop-motion-animated stories for decades now, though the painstaking efforts required to bring these pliable puppets to life mean that they’ve never been quite as popular as traditional 2D animation.
Fortunately, we saw an explosion of stop-motion media after the unexpected success of Henry Sellick’s A Nightmare Before Christmas, which combined the creative monster designs of Harryhausen with Tim Burton’s horror sensibilities and the Holiday charms of Rankin/Bass specials. While this resurgence is often erroneously attributed to Burton, who’s an admirer of the craft and rose to popularity with the wonderfully animated stop-motion short Vincent (I’d also argue that Frankenweenie is his last truly great film), Sellick is the one who really made a career out of spooky stop-motion projects. The director is even set to helm both the upcoming Little Nightmares adaptation and the demonic comedy Wendell & Wild, which is great news for horror fans.
Of course, Sellick really perfected his style when he collaborated with the Oregon-based Laika on Coraline, a spooky Neil Gaiman adaptation that has become one of my favorite gateway horror flicks. The exaggerated designs and creative use of 3D (a record-breaking first for stop-motion) paired perfectly with the otherworldly thrills of Gaiman’s yarn, and the film is often cited as one of the all-time best stop-motion features.
Laika is no stranger to scary movies, with their projects often dealing with surprisingly dark subject matter and even producing the kid-friendly zombie flick Paranorman. While the studio has recently strayed away from horror, even their most tame projects inevitably include homages to the works of legends like Harryhausen. From the giant skeleton monster in Kubo and the Two Strings or the monstrous yetis from Missing Link, it seems like Laika won’t be giving up on monsters anytime soon.
Beyond Hollywood, stop-motion has also found its way into amateur productions, often serving as an affordable starting point for budding animators, especially before computer technology became so widespread. Naturally, this style of animation became incredibly popular online, showing up in the amateur LEGO parodies of early YouTube and even in contemporary channels like Bluworm/The Lone Animator (who produces intricate Lovecraft adaptations) and Will McDaniel (who makes Cronenberg-inspired comedy sketches combining live-action footage with gruesome puppets).
The wonders of stop-motion may not be shackled to a single genre, but there’s no denying that there’s an intrinsically uncanny element surrounding these malleable characters moving on their own like puppets freed from their strings. I think this inherent eeriness is part of the reason why so many people claim to get a “creepy vibe” from even the most innocent of stop-motion animation. That might explain why relatively tame moments like the infamous “Mysterious Stranger” sequence from The Adventures of Mark Twain often show up on lists of “all-time scariest movie scenes”.
From The Lost World to Army of Darkness, stop motion has been used to bring horror nightmares to life since the literal beginning of cinema. While it’s now more of an aesthetic choice rather than a technical limitation, with the existence of cheaper and easier alternatives meaning that only die-hard fans still indulge in this time-consuming craft, this old-fashioned artform is worth maintaining for rare treats like the aforementioned Mad God, which took nearly three decades to complete and proves that these surreal thrills can’t be replicated by any other kind of animation. Even when it doesn’t look particularly believable, there’s always an undeniable charm to stop-motion, and that’s why I hope that filmmakers continue to experiment with the format for years to come.