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Stopmotion

The conceit of a tortured and socially maladjusted artist whose obsessive pursuit of their craft pushes them into madness with grisly results is a familiar horror movie premise, one that has covered subjects ranging from beatnik sculptors (the Roger Corman classic “A Bucket of Blood,” with the legendary Dick Miller killing people and covering them in clay) to ballet (“Black Swan”) to hair styling (“The Stylist”). In “Stopmotion,” the debut feature from Robert Morgan, the medium—the painstaking and time-consuming process of stop-motion animation—may be unusual but the resulting film, an undeniably grisly but ultimately tedious tiptoe through the genre tropes, certainly is. This is all the more frustrating because in the middle of it all is a performance by Aisling Fransciosi that is so strong and committed that viewers will wish that the rest of the film had made the same kind of effort that she clearly did.

She plays Ella Blake, a young woman who is currently utilizing her undeniable skills in the field of stop-motion animation to assist her mother (Stella Gonet), a legend in the field whose crippling arthritis has left her unable to manipulate the figurines, in completing what is to be her final film. From what we see, this is not exactly a happy collaboration — Mom is a stern taskmaster who emotionally manipulates her daughter in the same way she once manipulated her characters — and while Ella yearns to break away and do her own projects, she has no real ideas as to what they might entail. When tragedy strikes, Ella, with the help of loyal boyfriend Tom (Tom York), relocates to a vacant apartment in order to finish her mother’s film and then strike out on her own for the first time in her life.

That all changes with the arrival of a mysterious little girl (Caoilinn Springall), who deems Ella’s current project boring and instead suggests a narrative about a young girl who is lost in the woods being stalked by a malevolent entity known only as the Ash Man. Before long, the girl is also suggesting that Ella rethink the materials used to bring the characters to life, leading her to use such things as raw steak and dead animals to create literal meat puppets. Inevitably, the line between life and art begins to blur in increasingly nightmarish ways as Ella becomes more and more consumed with her project, at one point hallucinating that it is she who is being pursued by the Ash Man. At one point in the proceedings, a character claims that “great artists always put themselves into their work” and I will just say that Ella certainly takes that statement to heart in the ickiest manner imaginable.

Not surprisingly, Morgan is himself a stop-motion animator whose short films have received acclaim in the horror community and the stop-motion sequences seen here do have a certain fascination, somehow coming across as both eye-catching and stomach-churning, especially as things progress. The problem is that the story that he and co-writer Robin King have concocted to string these moments together is little more than a retread of the usual unstable artist cliches with a heaping (and eventually heaving) helping of “Repulsion” thrown into the mix for good measure. For a film charting an artist as she descends into an increasingly unsettling existence in which she struggles to determine what is real and what isn’t, the beats are pretty familiar throughout — the presence of the mysterious unnamed girl is especially unsubtle — and by the time it finally arrives at its ghastly conclusion, few viewers will be particularly shocked or surprised. The film also doesn’t really seem to have much interest in Ella as a character — after a while, it begins to manipulate her as much as her mother did and the closest it gets to psychological exploration comes when someone flat-out remarks “You are a puppet caught up in their own strings.”

Despite the lack of real nuance in the screenplay, it is still possible to care for Ella and her plight, at least for a while, and that is largely due to the work of Franciosi, who made a big splash a few years ago with her wrenching and powerful work as a rape victim determined to pursue her attacker in “The Nightingale” — a film so grim and unsparing that it makes “Stopmotion” seem like a lark by comparison — and who also did good work last year in the sadly underseen “The Last Voyage of the Demeter.” As Ella, she delivers yet another intensely compelling performance and even though she is never quite able to break through the often cliched nature of the screenplay and transform the film into the kind of fascinating and strangely sympathetic character study that it might have been in sturdier hands, she gives it her all. As you watch her, you begin to get the feeling that she put more thought and effort into building her character than the screenwriters did.

Although it clearly wants to be seen as some kind of wild hallucinatory exploration into the heart of madness, “Stopmotion” eventually reveals itself to be little more than a collection of barf-bag visuals and tired conventions that are occasionally enlivened by some nifty animation and the strong performance from Franciosi. Morgan certainly knows how to create unsettling images but is less sure at knowing how to deploy them in the service of a full-length narrative. Devotees of gore and stop-motion animation may get a kick out of the presentation of those elements but anyone in search of the kind of alternately frightening and heartbreaking story that it is clearly aiming to be will no doubt come away from it disappointed.

Peter Sobczynski

A moderately insightful critic, full-on Swiftie and all-around bon vivant, Peter Sobczynski, in addition to his work at this site, is also a contributor to The Spool and can be heard weekly discussing new Blu-Ray releases on the Movie Madness podcast on the Now Playing network.

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Film Credits

Stopmotion movie poster

Stopmotion (2024)

93 minutes

Cast

Aisling Franciosi as Ella Blake

Stella Gonet as Suzanne

Tom York as Tom

Caoilinn Springall as Little Girl

James Swanton as The Ash Man

Jaz Hutchins as Brett

Joshua J. Parker as Will

Director

Writer

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