Aisling Franciosi is outstanding in Stopmotion, Robert Morgan’s creative horror debut about an animation director.
There’s a neat subgenre out there I am going to call filmmaking horror. These are horror movies which are based around a gimmick related to either making or watching a horror film (and the consequences of both). One of the best examples of this is Prano Bailey-Bond’s 2021 debut Censor, inspired by the wave of ‘video nasties’ that came to Britain in the 1980s. As the main character works to cut or ban certain releases for her censor board, she finds her grip on reality loosened by something that reminds her of a family tragedy. Censor was the film I was reminded of the most whilst watching Stopmotion, the new film by British director and animator Robert Morgan. His first feature film is an eery and violent horror all centred around stop-motion animation.
The film begins with Ella (Aisling Franciosi) slowly, precisely moving the head of a figurine. Getting it right is a matter of millimetres – and if she messes up, she will draw the ire of her legendary animator mother Suzanne (Stella Gonet, last seen in Pablo Larraín’s El Conde). Ella has been forced into constantly doing her mother’s bidding, whether she is working on her latest film or cutting up her food. Both require the use of hands, and Suzanne’s crippling arthritis has limited her abilities. Then she has a major stroke, putting her in a coma. Thanks to her boyfriend Tom (Tom York), Ella moves into a new apartment.
Maybe she can finish the animation without her overbearing mother. Or, when a young girl (Caoilinn Springall) arrives and calls it boring, she will abandon it completely and start work on a new project. Finally, Ella gets to do something her way. However, that is complicated when the hard-to-please girl starts dictating what to do and some of Ella’s creations – including the monstrous Ashman – come to life.
Between God’s Creatures and her turn of trauma and fury in The Nightingale, it is safe to argue that Aisling Franciosi is already the queen of the absolutely harrowing. Here, Franciosi is outstanding yet again as an insecure, sometimes brash animator who cannot shake off the looming shadow of her domineering, intimidating mother. In trying to find her voice, Ella spirals into madness. She wants her own story but fails to recognise she is the puppet in this one. First, it is her mother telling her what to do, then the young girl who is disturbingly into the story of the Ashman. The reason for that comes in a sensical but underplayed twist.
“It’s a wonderful medium, isn’t it? Bringing dead things to life,” says Suzanne during a conversation with her daughter. But whilst stop-motion can be gorgeous – see Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio – it is also arduous. Each shot has to be precise with minute changes, otherwise the movements of the characters will look jerky rather than fluid. Thankfully, Morgan is well-versed in stop-motion, working with it throughout his 20+ year career (including his segment for 2014’s The ABCs of Death 2). And the melding of animation and live-action is perfectly done. Dan Martin’s puppet designs are delightfully gross. Some are made from raw (or rotting) meat, covered in mortician’s wax. Some are boosted up in size. All of them add to this reality-bending story.
Elsewhere, the squeaks and creaks of the metal frames from the armatures spill out onto those of flesh and bone. It is part of some enveloping, enclosing sound design. It’s loud then quiet, muffled then clear and isolated. The latter reinforces how Ella is becoming not only more obsessed with her work but also more absorbed. There is a dinginess created by Felicity Hickson such as in the design of Ella’s new tower block, and lingering shots from Léo Hinstin (As Above, So Below) add to the film’s unsettling vibe. Plus, a gory climax leans into body horror territory with leg-quivering results.
I don’t think Stopmotion quite compares to something like Censor, which was more well-rounded and creative whilst using its ‘video nasty’ context to great effect. Morgan’s film is a lot creepier but certain aspects – like Ella’s relationship with her mother – feel underdeveloped. However, there is still much fun (or fear) to be had with Stopmotion. Its unique gimmick is not wasted and Morgan’s measured direction is visceral enough to leave you squirming. It has heaps of darkness and creativity. It is fascinated with flesh, creative pressures and self-doubt. It features another stellar performance from Aisling Franciosi. But it is not a film about someone losing control. That would imply Ella had any to begin with.
Stopmotion will be screened at the 2023 BFI London Film Festival on 7-10 October and will be released by IFC Films in 2024. Read our list of 25 movies to watch at the 2023 London Film Festival!