Art in film is not dead. In fact, it may be more alive than ever. Hollywood has filled our theaters with forgettable, big budgeted, flashy films that feel soulless and without substance. They can throw all the money they want at troubled productions, but at the end of the day, you can’t polish a turd. Every once in a while though, a film comes along that revs a chainsaw through the face of the movie world and demands to be noticed as it cuts through Hollywood norms while holding up a middle finger to “safe” thinking studio execs. This past weekend, we were gifted one of those films in Mandy…
…Directed by Panos Cosmatos (Beyond the Black Rainbow) and written by Cosmatos and Aaron Stewart-Ahn, Mandy stars Nicolas Cage as Red, a broken, vengeful man hunting a group of unhinged cultists who slaughtered his wife, Mandy (Andrea Riseborough).
I know what you’re thinking. Nicolas Cage? The same guy that in the past decade or so has starred in films such as Ghost Rider, National Treasure, and the horrifically awful The Wicker Man remake? Some of us may never forget those damn bees. Throw all of that negative thinking out the window. Whether you’re a fan of Cage or not, I’m here to tell you that this is easily one of his best performances to date. Cage is a combination of grief and rage incarnate, and if there is one thing that Nicolas Cage does well, it’s chug a gallon of rage-ahol and spit it all over the screen. I felt every ounce of pain coursing through Cage, which makes the finale all the more pleasurable when he suddenly transforms into some kind of mix between Mad Max and Ash Williams, only without the punchy one liners. And did I mention that he also creates one of the most badass axes I’ve ever seen on film? Cage is a force to be reckoned with, and you’ll enjoy the hell out of watching him enact said reckoning.
While Cage is the star of the show, I can’t overlook Riseborough, or Linus Roache as the cult leader and main villain, Jeremiah. Each delivers just as powerful a performance in their own way. Riseborough is captivating in a quiet but alluring manner, whereas Roache is utterly enthralling as Jeremiah, a man who sees everything he does as the will of God, with an unhinged nature that creates a sense of discomfort, as we never really know what he will do or how far he will go. The one issue here though is that, while Cosmatos does a wonderful job of establishing character, the intimidation of Jeremiah and the various other villains eventually wears off. Keep in mind that at first, Jeremiah’s group and the demonic bikers (more on them soon) are treated by Cosmatos like vicious entities that cannot be stopped, but down the line, that viciousness wears down a bit, making them all seem like too easy of fodder for Cage’s vengeance. Some of this is intentional, but it’s disappointing, especially with the bikers, because as a horror film, the audience wants to be scared of the monster/the villains, and that just wasn’t the case for me as the film wore on.
Speaking of those bikers, well, what would you say if I told you there were some sort of demonic bikers summoned by Jeremiah’s gang using an arcane ocarina? You’d probably say that sounds pretty fucking weird, and you’d be right. If you’ve seen Beyond the Black Rainbow, you know Cosmatos has a penchant for the obscure. And man oh man, does he deliver with Mandy. The demon bikers, veiled by shadow and backlit by streaks of red and blue, are nightmarish visions that would make even the toughest biker scream for his momma if he ever encountered them. Cloaked in spiked armor, the blackest of leather, strange tubing and heaps of slime, these demons look like they’re into some serious fetishes, and I dread to think what those are. The costume design by Alice Eyssartier is out of this world. In fact, Cosmatos and Eyssartier produce such fascinating looks for these creatures, that count me in as someone who believes that if we must ever endure a Hellraiser remake at some point, Cosmatos is the man to do it, and it’s not even close. Never have I seen a vision so close to the scale of Hellraiser and the cenobites until now. Unfortunately, as I mentioned, first impressions don’t always last, and Cosmatos seems to toy with the audience, making us wonder if these bikers are in fact demons, or if that’s just the way they appear to Cage, because their initial introduction is like night and day in terms of horror. By the end, they might as well be normal, every day people considering how weak they feel in the path of Cage’s rage.
Part 70s road film, part grindhouse horror, with a dash of Lynchian strangeness, Mandy is over the top in almost every sense of the word, yet somehow maintains a strong emotional impact, which outrageous films so rarely do. Gore is spilled by the gallons, so much so that I’d bet Cosmatos holds the Evil Dead films in high regard. Hell, there’s even a (too short) chainsaw fight involving a saw that would give Ash Williams chainsaw envy. And though Mandy is a film that takes itself seriously, there is plenty of entertaining dark humor, along with some moments that will make you wonder if you’ve lost your mind, including a commercial featuring something called the “cheddar goblin”, which is basically a Claymation goblin that vomits macaroni and cheese on kids. Is it necessary to the film? Absolutely not. Does it fit into Mandy’s brain melting tone? You bet.
Let me be clear. One does not simply watch Mandy. You EXPERIENCE it. This is NOT your typical, run of the mill horror film. Cosmatos asks his audience to participate rather than simply watch Mandy in the background while playing on their phones. Everything, from the mesmerizing score composed by Johann Johannsson, to the colorful cinematography by Benjamin Loeb, begs to be seen, and you’d be doing yourself a disservice to not grant your eyeballs the gift that is this movie. Mandy isn’t just another film. It’s like peeking into another dimension, a haunting journey through hell with no plan on how to get back, where each and every frame is so beautifully morbid that you could blow it up and hang it on your wall.
But, while I’m the sort of person that typically embraces horror that is weird and “out there”, I’ll admit Mandy is not for everyone. It might not even be for most people. The film is beyond bizarre. There’s no denying that. Mandy doesn’t follow conventional story structure. It constantly throws in realistic scenery, moments of surrealism, and even cartoon nightmares, and blends it all together, resulting in a trippy voyage through the grieving mind of Cage. Cosmatos manipulates the screen, and therefore the audience, never really allowing us to know what’s real and what isn’t. Are those bikers really demons, or is that just how they look to Cage? Did Cage even lose his wife to cultists, or is this all a bad dream? Cosmatos does well to never provide those answers, forcing the audience to come to their own conclusions, which can be a frustrating experience for some. This isn’t the sort of jump scare riddled horror we’ve all become used to. It isn’t the fun slasher types of eighties either. This is something unique, something different, and requires a specific kind of taste.
For some viewers, Mandy will be a maddening process that asks too much of its audience, a strange film that makes little sense and is discomforting in the way it presents itself. For others, Mandy will be a visual masterpiece that satisfies the craving for truly original filmmaking. No matter which category you fall into, Mandy deserves to be seen at least once. Cosmatos is most definitely one of the next great artists rising up in the horror film world.
Mandy is now available on VOD.
By Matt Konopka