de facto film reviews 3.5 stars

Horror films focused on artists dealing with madness are certainly nothing new. From the great Vincent Price in House of Wax, to Jack Nicholson in The Shining, to Yahya Abdul-Mateen in the recent Candyman legacy sequel, the tortured souls of creatives are a staple of the genre. Stopmotion, the feature film debut of lauded director/animator Robert Morgan, is another story in this long tradition. While not breaking new ground narratively, Morgan’s imaginative visuals and ability to set a mood make Stopmotion an intriguing film to watch, especially paired with a strong performance from Aisling Franciosi.

The film opens in the stop-motion animation studio of Suzanne Blake (Stella Gonet). As we learn from other characters over the course of the film, Suzanne is a legend in her field. But now she is afflicted with arthritis, and requires help from her daughter Ella (Aisling Franciosi) to make the minute movements in the figures required for stop-motion. Suzanne knows this will be her final film. She is an exacting director, vocally unhappy with Ella’s work, and initially unwilling to listen to Ella’s ideas. Seeing that her daughter is upset, Suzanne relents and invites Ella to give input, but it turns out that Ella doesn’t actually have any ideas to give her mother, at least nothing she’s able to put into words. Soon after, Suzanne collapses, and is taken to the hospital, having had a stroke. While she is concerned for her mother, Ella also sees this as an opportunity to branch out on her own. Her boyfriend Tom (Tom York) sets her up with an empty apartment that she can use as a workspace. Tom’s sister Polly (Therica Wilson-Read) is also an animator, and offers to try to set Ella up with a job at the studio she works for, which specializes in advertising, an offer Ella initially politely declines.

Stopmotion - Puppet

Courtesy of IFC Films

As she begins her film, Ella has an idea about a little girl lost in the woods. She starts the film using standard materials, creating puppets similar to her mother’s figures. However, she soon meets a young girl (Caoilinn Springall) who wanders the halls of the apartment building singing. The girl invites herself into Ella’s apartment and is initially interested in the puppets and the film, but quickly declares it boring. She proposes a deal. She has a story that she promises will be interesting, and she will share it with Ella if Ella agrees to make more interesting figures. These, the puppet girl and the villain, known as the Ash Man (“the man you never want to meet”) are initially constructed of mortician’s wax and raw steak. The young girl then gives Ella the story of the first night (of three) of the Ash Man’s arrival, which Ella animates. The next day, Polly visits, seeing Ella’s odd creations.

But rather than progressing with these figures, the girl says the second night must be scarier, and that she will only give Ella the story if she remakes the Ash Man’s puppet out of the remains of a fox she has found while walking in the woods, with an armature of bones and the animal’s flesh as the body. Ella is revolted and refuses. At a party, she asks Polly for drugs, as Polly has said she gets her own best ideas while high. She has frightening dreams of the Ash Man, but in the morning shows Tom that she didn’t take the drugs. Concerned for her well-being, he pushes Ella to take the job with Polly, at least for a few days, to distract herself from the grief of dealing with her mother’s illness and the obsession of her own film. While there, Ella sees that Polly has taken her designs and sanitized them for an ad. Furious, Ella leaves and finds the young girl, agreeing to her demands. As Ella’s mental state continues to decline, the young girl’s requests only get darker in order to get the third night of the story.

Stopmotion - Ella

Courtesy of IFC Films

Stopmotion is a very good film overall, and has a lot going for it. Director/co-writer Morgan’s imagination, along with that of co-writer Robin King, is one of the film’s greatest strengths. The first two acts of the film really get under a viewer’s skin with unsettling imagery and excellent sound design. There is a moment in the party sequence of Ella seeing a projected video of a ventriloquist dummy-like puppet while a woman stands near the wall it is being projected on. When the camera focuses on the woman, she has a strange makeup job of large puppet-like eyes painted over her own. Outside the context of the film, it doesn’t seem like something that should be scary, but while watching it, I was incredibly put off by it. It’s something that will stick with me. The mystery of the lengths that Ella will go to for her film, as well as the very nature of the young girl (malevolent spirit? A manifestation of Ella’s younger self?) draw the viewer in. Morgan wonderfully melds live action and actual stop motion footage to create something fascinating. A dream-like uncertainty hangs over much of the film.

The final act is where the tone changes somewhat and the film fell off a bit for me. What had been built up with such a fantastic tone of dread and unease becomes something more commonplace – a blood and gore horror finale. There are still wonderful moments mixed in, such as all of Ella’s and her mother’s stop motion puppets climbing on the couch to watch her hurt herself, but it does feel like a let down to end in a more standard fashion.

Stopmotion - Puppet 2

Courtesy of IFC Films

The other great strength of the film is Franciosi’s performance. Her Ella starts the film as a struggling artist operating under the thumb of her mother’s legacy. She is desperate to break free, and that desperation takes her to terrible places. There is a constant sense of unsurety in the character. A deep-seated need to be led, playing against a desire just as strong to do something of her own. Franciosi melds all of the elements of the character well and gives an exceptional performance. Also excellent is Springall as the impish young girl drawing Ella further down. Her initial curiosity turns to a darker path without ever being overplayed.

Stopmotion is a strong film with moments of greatness. I’m interested to see what director Robert Morgan does next, and if the film gets a physical media release, I really hope the animation sequences exist as separate special features.

Stopmotion is now playing in theaters