Worlds of Wounded Clay (2006)

Starring Jack Daly, Jessica Ashworth, Livy Armstrong, Daniel Hogwood-Kane

Directed by Robert Morgan

Imagine Jan Svankmajer and the Quay Brothers got together and made a proper horror film and you might have some small inkling of what Robert Morgan is all about. Then again, this isn’t really accurate since Svankmajer and the Quay’s have always been a bit precious and arty, whereas Morgan’s films seem to be born of his own personal demons, placing the films closer to Cronenberg in terms of their preoccupation with body horror, separation, loss, and redemption. Putting it simply, though you may not yet know the name Robert Morgan, you soon will.

The Cat With HandsTo date, Morgan has made only short films; two of them are rendered entirely in stop motion (“The Separation”, and “The Man In The Lower-Left Hand Corner Of The Photograph”), one of them is a mixture of live action and animation (“The Cat With Hands”), and his most recent is completely live action (“Monsters”).

Morgan’s first film, “The Man In The Lower Left Hand Corner Of The Photograph” borrows heavily from the Quay Brothers visually, using puppets swaddled in bits cloth, knots of string and wire, and topped with grotesque wizened heads. Thematically, however, the film introduces us to Morgan’s obsession with loss and restoration. The film depicts a decrepit old man, his only company a pet maggot and a graying photograph of his younger self, alone, even then. The man’s only living companion is his female neighbor, who he spies on through a peephole in the wall. When she dies, he conspires to retrieve her body, and using his pet maggot and pure force of will, returns her to life as a misshapen creature, half gnarled old woman, half larvae. The closing shot of the film is of the man, and his reborn bride, together and finally not alone. This is the film Corpse Bride could have been.

This theme of rebirth and regeneration continues in Morgan’s second short. “The Cat With Hands” tells the folkloric tale of a cat who lives in a well and steals body parts from wayward humans. While the story has its roots in a dream Morgan’s sister had, the film has the feel of a genuine fable. The cat progressively pilfers appendages from its human victims, ultimately stealing the face of a young boy. “The Cat With Hands” evokes an art-house monster movie feel, complete with classic transformation scene. The standout element of the film is the simultaneous human and catlike animation. It’s hard enough to evoke just one species using a puppet, but Morgan manages to adeptly incorporate elements of both. You’ll never look at your pet cat in quite the same way ever again.

The SeparationThe third, and most accomplished stop-motion film is “The Separation”, which is like a lithe, compact version of Dead Ringers told from the point of view of wholly sympathetic brothers. The story follows Siamese twins through their surgical division and their pursuant desire to be together again. Similar to both of his earlier films, “The Separation” is obsessed with the Platonic idea of being whole by being joined with another being. The added element of surgery and body transformation is both Cronenbergian, but also feels original to Morgan. The puppets in the film bear mentioning due to their fetishistic fleshy quality and superb animation. The genius of the film is how deeply you care for these inert lumps of rubber as soon as Morgan breathes life into them. “The Seperation” is featured on Synapse’s recent DVD compilation of Fantasia short films, Small Gauge Trauma, which you can read Johnny’s review of right here.

The final film in the series is also Morgan’s first live action short. “Monsters” is a childhood fever dream seen through the eyes of the young protagonist Stan. Stan’s got eczema, and likes to sport a ninja costume while exploring his neighborhood. In the morning Stan finds a decapitated duck in his garden. After lunch he’s told that his family home lies next to a mental institution. In the evening, he brawls with his obnoxious older sister, who tells Stan, in no uncertain terms, that she’s going to kill him in his sleep, by beating his skull in with a baseball bat.

Duck heads, psychopaths, and death threats are all too much for little man Stan, and by the time he goes beddie bye, he’s got himself in a bit of a tizzy. The result is a nightmare in which his mum and sister are killed by an axe-wielding maniac. The bad dream and resultant fear leaves its imprint on the little fellow. The next morning, sister finds Stan next door, contemplating the corpse of his neighbor’s bunny, whose throat he’s just slit. Of course, despised little brother or not, there’s things that can’t be left uncovered, and so filial loyalty and family values win the day. This time the theme of connection and wholeness manifests itself via Stan’s relationship with his sister, who ultimately ends up understanding and protecting him. The dream sequence alone puts most current horror directors to shame. Morgan is somehow able to tap into that raw, childhood fear; panicky and animalistic.

Morgan’s adeptness in both the worlds of stop motion and live action can only make one salivate at the prospect of a feature length film incorporating both. The good news is that he’s developing various features now, so the time is nigh to discover his early work (available at Animus Films’ site).

4 1/2 out of 5

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Jon Condit

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