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Aisling Franciosi's nightmare visions torment her even away from the set of her animated film in "Stopmotion." Courtesy IFC Films

Filmmakers can be an obsessive bunch. Perhaps you know this already. The job gives them so many details to worry over that can make a difference in the final product. The tendency must be even stronger for makers of stop-motion animated films, who spend countless hours bending over a tiny world and manipulating it with their own hands.

I wonder why more horror movies haven’t used this tendency for their purposes. Most horror movies about filmmakers are just boring retreads about snuff films, and only a few care to connect the energies of horror to a director’s lust for control, such as the 1960 masterpiece Peeping Tom. The partially animated British film Stopmotion opens this weekend at AMC Grapevine Mills and LOOK Cinemas Arlington, oddly enough, and this worthy successor to Michael Powell’s all-time great slasher film should be sought out by horror fans, animation fans, and anyone else looking for something unique and terrifying.

Aisling Franciosi portrays Ella Blake, an English film student whose mother (Stella Gonet) is a world-renowned legend of animation. Alas, Mum’s hands are crippled by arthritis, so Ella is stuck manipulating the puppets and snapping the frames for her latest film while her mother lurks over her shoulder and screams stuff in her ear like, “I just want to finish this film before I die! Is that such a burden to you?” You could scarcely blame Ella for being a tad relieved when her mother is felled by a stroke, but she’s plagued by hallucinations of her Mum even when she’s out of the London flat that they shared. After moving into an abandoned apartment courtesy of her building super boyfriend (Tom York), Ella meets a nameless little girl (Caoilinn Springall) in the building, and her story about a girl being stalked through a forest by a man made of ash (James Swanton) turns into Ella’s own project.

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Stopmotion owes a certain debt to Repulsion and Black Swan, while the film within the film is heavily reminiscent of The Blair Witch Project. Cooped up alone with her set, Ella starts to lose track of reality, dreaming vivid nightmares about the Ash Man chasing and mutilating her. She’s weak when it comes to story ideas, and so she takes large swatches of story from that little girl. I’d say she should give the girl screenwriting credit, but then the girl seems to have no parents and unlimited amounts of free time, and it’s worth wondering whether she actually exists. Ella’s visions bleed into her life to harrowing effect, particularly when her mother emerges from her coma to taunt her about her creative bankruptcy. (There are some British mothers who call their children “puppet,” and it takes on a sinister double edge here.)

Franciosi is the Irish star who played intense and ravaged women in The Nightingale and God’s Creatures — and I guess The Last Voyage of the Demeter, too — and she’s stretched as tight as a bodhrán as a woman who unravels as she follows her creative instincts to murderous ends. You won’t soon forget the revolting scene when Ella, having been hospitalized for cutting herself, opens up her stitches and tries to dig out the foreign object she’s convinced is underneath.

The animated interludes are their own kind of unnerving as well. Making his feature filmmaking debut, director/co-writer Robert Morgan has an extensive background in animation, and he makes Ella’s film into something uncanny. The figurine of the little girl wears her hair and clothes like her creator, with her mortician’s wax face frozen into a rictus of fear. The figure becomes even scarier when the little girl tells Ella to smear raw meat on its face to give it a bloody appearance. The animated film bleeds into Ella’s reality with lethal results, and makes Stopmotion into a horror film of rare power.

Stopmotion
Starring Aisling Franciosi and Caoilinn Springall. Directed by Robert Morgan. Written by Robin King and Robert Morgan. Rated R.

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