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.