Cinema/TV, Film Notes

Film review – Mandy

My notes on Mandy – out on Blu-Ray, DVD, Digital Download October 29.

Like Panos Cosmatos’s first feature, Beyond the Black Rainbow, this fleshes out the skeleton of a basic exploitation storyline (in the ‘80s, it would have been a Robert Ginty movie) with a hallucinatory, allusive, playful-yet-nightmarish melange of imagery, soundscape, stylised performance and lysergic lunacy.  It’s undeniably impressive, and showcases an intense Nicolas Cage performance – he seems to pick one in every ten projects to remind audiences that he’s still a powerhouse before coasting on to the next nine disposable pictures – though it’s a little too beholden to other cult movies to fill its niche.  I liked it more than the tonally similar Climax, but it’s at bottom a more conventional film for all its eclectic references – from Friday the 13th to Jodorowsky, with a lot of Lynch – and extreme violence.  Like every other genre movie these days, it’s set in the 1980s – but it picks 1983 as a year, perhaps because it was the dawn of the video rental era in the US, and selects battered ‘70s holdover oddments (The Carpenters, a Don Dohler film, fantasy/horror paperbacks) as furniture for the period.


Red Miller (Cage), a chainsaw-wielding lumberjack, has found a balance in his life by marrying Mandy (Andrea Riseborough), with whom he has pillow talk about other planets (and Galactus).  She has facial scars that betoken a violent or tragic past, and he too has tells that suggest he was once an out-of-control drunk.  While walking down the road, Mandy attracts the attention of Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache), an acid-head Jesus freak failed popstar messiah not so much in the Manson mode as a homage to VHS era bad guys like Richard Lynch and Billy Drago.  Perhaps seeing in her what Red does, Jeremiah insists his disciples – an interesting bunch of vicious stoners played by the likes of Olwen Fouéré and Ned Dennehy – bring her to him.  The Children of the New Dawn aren’t up to kidnapping on their own, so they use a mystic kazoo to summon the Black Skulls, who might prosaically be SM bikers still tripping after a bad batch of acid but have the oily, spiky, leathery presence of the Cenobites from Hellraiser, or humanoid versions of the Cars that Ate Paris, or (to pinpoint the kind of film young Cosmatos might have lingered over in a rental outlet) the Neon Maniacs.


Mandy is suitably abducted and anointed, but Jeremiah’s command that she become his concubine muse goes awry when the sound of his Carpenters-esque self-issued folk rock album and the sight of his dick prompt not awed worship but a fit of laughter that precipitates a hideous, sacrificial murder.  Cage, daring to ‘go there’ again after the Wicker Man remake, is crucified with barbed wire and stabbed in the side and has to watch his wife burned alive in a sleeping bag.  It’s a convention of vengeance movies that the gang of psychos be inept as well as evil, leaving alive their eventual destroyer – and Cage goes through a thespic work-out mad scene (prompted by a gruesome mock commercial involving a mac-and-cheese-puking ‘cheddar goblin’ styled after the ghoulies) involving vodka in the bathroom, then is transformed into a mythic avenger (in a sequence that evokes Cage’s Ghost Rider) who forges his own Beastmaster/Hawk the Slayer-style weapon.  Encounters with exposition-dispensing shamans – a weaponeer (Bill Duke) and a drugmaker (Richard Brake) – are stops along his hero’s journey, which breaks away from a world that not unlike recent hard-boiled grand guignol noirs (Blue Ruin, Cold in July, Brawl in Cell Block 99) as Red’s quest to slaughter the Black Skulls and the Children of the New Dawn takes him into a landscape from a fantasy paperback cover.  The rest, of course, is violence – including decapitations, a chainsaw duel, head-crushing and a lot of incidental mutilation.


Its most acute insight might be that grandiosely evil people really hate being laughed at (especially by women), but it sets out its own ambitions so boldly that it almost invites the kind of reaction Jeremiah gets from Mandy.  With Jóhann Jóhannsson’s final score and hallucinatory cinematography by Benjamin Loeb, this is a richly-textured, immersive experience. It pauses occasionally for an eerie effect, like the face-swapping as Jeremiah lectures Mandy, and never holds back on a flourish for fear of absurdity.  There’s even a caged tiger to echo the tiger on Cage’s sweatshirt, and it’s set free in an act of symbolic import which is also hideously reckless – and precipitates the climactic blood orgy.


Here’s a trailer.


One thought on “Film review – Mandy

  1. I was looking for a review that was fair and balanced. It’s difficult to find, but I should have known that you would be on point. It seems to me that the director, Cosmatos, has asked himself the question, ‘What do we do with horror in an age when nobody is shocked?’ He could have gone down the road of overt social commentary like ‘Get Out’ or retro-homage like ‘It’, but instead, he travels within his own mind to explore the interaction between bad fiction, personal history and dream logic. Why do people love pulp-fiction nonsense so much, when they know what it is? What does it trigger in us? Why do we remember bad straight-to-video horrors from our childhood, when we wouldn’t bother to re-watch them? Is this like our own personal religion which stops us from growing further? Is it our own little inner childish tyrant? It seems to me he has laid out a map of delusional belief systems, using a backwater cult as the central metaphor, representing the narcissism of of self-justification.

    A loving relationship redeems two troubled souls, yet they cling to a particular nostalgia which hints at their boredom and repressed self-destructive tendencies and self-pity. The cult appears as a manifestation of their fears, the worst possible aspect of themselves. Failing to make sense of it, they are consumed by their fears. Mandy escapes the dream, because she sees it for what it is, and laughs at the banality of evil. Red cannot see it and so becomes mindless vengeance embodied, losing himself in the process – like the people of the idol-cult in Jeremiah 44 (https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Jeremiah+44&version=NIV). Red’s ’44’ baseball shirt is the reoccurring magical McGuffin, left lying in front of his TV set despite the fact Mandy was wearing it when she was supposedly cremated. The TV flashes: ‘This Is A Test. This Is A Test.’ The cartoon sequence also imply that Mandy is trying to remove a green lump from Red’s wound (the same colour as the “Cheddar Goblin”, who evidently feeds children with bad dreams). This poison was of course the result of a wound on Red’s stomach inflicted by Jeremiah’s knife – which implies that we are experiencing Red’s nightmare, caused by a return to substance-abuse and self-pity. The coke-snorting, porno-rapist bikers are faceless because Red knew them in a past life (he refers to one as a ‘vicious snowflake’) and blocks out the memory. There are four bikers just as there are four male sycophants who follow Jeremiah. Perhaps it was his friendship with these bikers which caused Mandy to leave him.

    The film ends asking the question whether he will find Mandy (balance) once again or continue to stare at her silent image, confused and lost, like someone suffering from Alzheimer’s or a toxic dose of disappointment. I believe the story is anti-plot and entirely unreal from the beginning – the true story could be that Red simply lost his partner, through divorce or death and now lives in drug induced confusion, searching for her in a fictional purgatory, pieced together from fragments of newspaper stories, radio shows, pulp fiction (including the bible) and past jobs. The most obvious indication that the whole film exists within Red’s unconcious memory is the use of a Cronenbergian mind-bug to dose Mandy. Similarly, there are connections drawn between the couples’ sleepy conversation about astrology/astronomy at the start and the focus of the fictional cult, ‘ABRAXAS’.

    The action sequences in the second half of the film don’t work at all and seem oddly camp while also remaining humourless, which as you say, is so bold that ‘it almost invites the kind of reaction Jeremiah gets from Mandy’. I wonder whether this is deliberate, or not? It seems like a bad decision by the director either way and almost ruins the film.

    It’s interesting to note that the director has stated that the film is about his parents, Horror/Action/Western Director George Cosmatos and his wife, sculptress of the macabre, Birgitta Ljungberg Cosmatos (who died young – eight years before her husband).

    Thanks Kim.

    Posted by Ross | December 9, 2018, 8:01 pm

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