Leeds-based claymation artist Lee Hardcastle is not Robot Chicken. He understands that horror is quite nuanced. For him, it’s an entirely visual medium. Not much has to be said. But it hasn’t always been that way for Hardcastle, who’s come a long way since he first started posting clips on YouTube in the mid-2000s. Now, with directorial credits and Adult Swim projects under his belt, Lee Hardcastle is an accomplished animator with a vision that hits at the core of horror, comedy, and visual expression.
Hardcastle’s early work focused a bit too heavily on dialogue. He also mixed live action sequences into his claymation, which could make it difficult to suspend disbelief in watching his fantastical clips. 2007’s “Toilet Doom,” for example, follows Hardcastle down the toilet into a magical world with some animation sprinkled in. It’s a technique that he revisits on occasion, such as in 2014’s “Game Boy: The Movie,” a short about a fight between Nintendo’s Mario and Pokémon’s Ash Ketchum. Hardcastle weaves animated characters into the narratives, as a rabid Pikachu, for instance, attacks Mario. Without his own marvelous creations at center stage, however, the plot does not suffice.
Hardcastle is funny, but his humor does not come in the traditional story arc sense. He keys into less scripted emotions. He’s tried the parody game with a number of “in 60 seconds with clay” spoofs on popular films. He’s also tried being punny, most notably on “Cute Chick With Nice Pussy,” which rags on dudes who look for pornography on YouTube. (Cute Chick is an adorable yellow bird and Nice Pussy is a friendly cat.) Ultimately, it’s the claymation that warrants further exploration of his work, as those sorts of videos lack the pathos of his purely visual work.
It’s in his less derivative work where Hardcastle manages to key into detail and explore emotions through clay. His best work in this regard may be 2012’s “Hamster Hell,” an eight-chapter short film about a little boy who hides pet hamsters under his bed. In the film, the boy learns responsibility, tries to play God (with corporal hamster punishment), and is evidently quite lonely. With few words uttered, Hardcastle uses small details — like the gross blinking of an animated clay doll — to communicate feelings.
“Hamster Hell” was originally an eight-part series, which Hardcastle cut down and reformatted into the “feature” short film. He even acknowledges the improvement in “Hamster Hell” in an intro video, admitting that there was too much dialogue in the original series. The hamsters don’t need to speak — as they did originally — for “Hamster Hell” to work. Explication is not Hardcastle’s game.
When he’s not making a bildungsroman about hamsters, Hardcastle makes horror full of Tarantino-esque blood and gore. It’s brilliant. Traditional animation — whether hand-drawn or digitally rendered — cannot key into the same effects as Hardcastle’s claymation because of the format’s inherent ridiculousness. There’s more room for the physical since the subjects are handmade. Guts can explode, faces get blown off, and fluids ooze. And, again because it’s claymation, it’s just creepy. There’s more room for the physical since the subjects are handmade. Guts can explode, faces get blown off, and fluids ooze. And, again because it’s claymation, it’s just creepy.
But Hardcastle is not just a violence freak. It’s the smaller moments that add weight. In “T Is for Toilet,” a short included in the 2012 anthology film The ABCs of Death, the same little boy from “Hamster Hell” is afraid of going to the bathroom. Lo and behold, that toilet comes to life and destroys his family — in a dream, but it feels just as real. That toilet doesn’t just begin its destruction out of nowhere, though. It gets fully anthropomorphized, complete with a chattering set of teeth.
That same care is put into his recent Simpsons couch gag parody. With a terrifyingly beautiful piano accompaniment, the Simpsons family gets brutally murdered by the show’s teen bullies — Dolph, Jimbo, and Kearney. Prior to getting his head shot off, Homer cries and his eyelids quiver ever so slightly. Struck to the floor by a suddenly resurgent Marge, Kearney looks around the room in a daze before his own death. The blood certainly pours — egregiously even — but it’s never without reason.
Lee Hardcastle will give you your horror fix. “Chainsaw Maid 2” is a violent zombie apocalypse. “Minion Ways to Die” is pure torture. But there is always something more. There may be a cringeworthy yet hysterical punchline. There may be a moment of sadness mixed into the terror onslaught. He’s anything but an ordinary animator. Do yourself a favor and explore his work.