If Mandy – the new film by Italian-Canadian director Panos Cosmatos, released in the UK this month – had been made in the 1960s, it might have been categorized as bikesploitation on account of The Black Skulls, a demonic motorbike gang who stalk the California mountain forests where the film is set. The chainsaw-wielding weirdos in those mountains could have dragged the movie squealing like a pig into hicksploitation redneck horror, and the LSD that everyone appears to be either micro- or macro-dosing throughout certainly would have tripped Mandy into psychsploitation, too. The Children of the New Dawn, a murderous hippie-Christian cult in cahoots with The Black Skulls, might have given the film a godsploitation label, but the heavy metal aesthetic that kerrangs throughout Mandy takes it into glorious rocksploitation. All this before we’ve even gotten to the core theme of loss and retribution that makes it a gory revenge movie, a splatter that matters. Did I mention that The Black Skulls also like human flesh? So, if Cosmatos made this film in the 1960s, he’d have made a cannibalpsychbikerockgodhicksplattersploitation flick. And that doesn’t even begin to cover it.
Set in 1983, the film tells a simple story. A couple named Mandy and Red – painted with fragile subtlety by Andrea Riseborough, in contrast with grand guignol strokes from Nicolas Cage – live in romantic rural bliss. Red is a damaged but sensitive lumberjack who adores Mandy, a dreamy artist who spends her days working in a local store or at home drawing Roger Dean-style fantasy landscapes and reading sword-and-sorcery novels. Jeremiah (played by Linus Roache), the insecure and egomaniacal leader of The Children of the New Dawn cult, spots Mandy walking the forest roads and orders her kidnapping by The Black Skulls. Mandy is dosed with hallucinogens by the cult and is killed in front of Red. (Not before she manages to embarrass Jeremiah for failing to be a charismatic-enough messiah.) Red is consumed with anger and grief. He visits his friend Caruthers – action flick veteran Bill Duke – who tells him where to find the gang. Red forges a giant battleaxe with his bare hands (of course), kills the Black Skulls, then snorts all their cocaine and chugs their liquid LSD potion. He tracks down the Children of the New Dawn and exacts bloody revenge to a soundtrack of rib-rattlingly loud black metal.
Mandy does not sound like a particularly original nor intelligent film. The dialogue is sparse and functional, borderline cliche, used only when necessary to push the narrative along. The film’s power lies with the extraordinary visual language that Cosmatos and his director of photography, Benjamin Loeb, layer on top of the off-the-shelf narrative. Mandy is soaked in colours graded to their most vivid limits. Entire scenes are rendered chiaroscuro in rich scarlets and dense blacks, highlighted by streaks of blue and green. (The palette of Dario Argento’s 1977 horror film Suspiria appears to be an inspiration here.) Scenes look as if they have been filmed through multiple layers of glass that send prismatic rainbows across the picture plane. Focus shifts, drawing the eye to odd details or sending it upwards to vast night skies filled with technicolour auroras. The film is paced slowly, hypnotically, for its first half, allowing us to spend time with Red and Mandy as they watch television at home or enjoy the quiet of the woods. Cosmatos uses soft puddlings of colour, acid trails and blankets of shadow, as if the action is seen through sleepy, narcotized eyes. Their world looks beautiful, yet it is an excessive beauty on the edge of thickening and congealing, threatening to suffocate them. If you happened to be friends visiting the couple in their country hideaway, this is the point when you’d ask what time the next bus back to the city leaves, because soon enough, edits begin to cut across dialogue to give the audience the sense that their perception is being shifted by some sort of drug or external threat. As the idyllic corrodes into the nightmarish, Cosmatos pulls his vision into ultra-sharp relief, ditching the gauzy, soft-focus drift in favour of rendering the violence of Red’s brokenhearted rampage in crisp, pornographic detail. Cage’s performance crescendos and explodes. He screams and roars, gurns and grimaces like he’s hamming for his life, but rather than come off as bludgeoningly over-the-top, Cage’s performance sits comfortably within the hallucinatory and operatic mood of the film. The soundtrack works a similar path. Composed by the late Jóhann Jóhannsson, thick-voiced and melancholy synths flood every scene during the first half, giving way to cavernous, metal-crunching power-chords for part two.
In interviews, Cosmatos has spoken about his desire to play with the machismo of his story and genre, to explore the male narcissism of Jeremiah and the violent grief of Red rather than use these archetypes uncritically. Yet it’s hard not to escape the fact of the brutal death suffered by the female lead, around which the film pivots. She goes down fighting – or rather, laughing at the size of Jeremiah’s manhood as he prances semi-naked around the cult’s flop-house – yet because Mandy is built from genre, it is also built from outdated attitudes carried by those genres. Here, Cosmatos does not go far enough in rethinking the male coding of the film, missing the opportunity to push into narrative territory that is more inventively in keeping with our own era’s attitudes than those of the period he plays with.
Which brings us to the 1980s. As with the director’s debut, Beyond the Black Rainbow – also set in 1983 – Mandy opens with the sound of a Ronald Reagan speech heralding a new era of prosperity for the USA. Despite being set in a specific year, the overall effect of Mandy is to take the audience to a wide, oceanic ‘80s, drifting to-and-fro across the decade. Intertitles break the film into chapters, using typefaces that run from quasi-medieval cursive to heavy metal gothic. Short animated sequences take Mandy on detours into Japanese anime, and fake TV ads – the fictional ‘Cheddar Goblin’ breakfast cereal – add to the trippy, artificial ’80s flavouring. Cosmatos nods to the most chilling moments in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986) and Twin Peaks (1990–91), most notably in in his use of a gang-cult as a plot device. Linus Roache, brilliantly brittle as Jeremiah, with Olwen Fouéré, Ned Dennehy and Alexis Julemont amongst his followers, actors who use their own physical quirks to sinister-comedic effect. An expansive reading of Mandy might detect traces of the ’80s ‘Satanic Panic’, when subliminal demonic messages were allegedly discovered in heavy rock records and Dungeons & Dragons was blamed for teen suicides as part of the religious skirmishes with folk devils during the bigger Culture Wars unfolding across the US at the time. Swap out The Goonies and Stand By Me for video nasties, hair metal and Tipper Gore, and Mandy is Stranger Things for grown-ups.
The film plays with affect in ways not dissimilar to what David Keenan called ‘hynagogic pop’; a wave of US musicians in the late 2000s, including James Ferraro, Ariel Pink, Neon Indian and Toro y Moi, whose music evoked the moods of 1980s FM radio and half-remembered Hollywood synth soundtracks. With Mandy’s Black Sabbath t-shirts and Red’s rugged workwear, the couple look like Los Angeles hipster homesteaders from our present moment, playing artisanal house in the country. This 1980s is non-specific, it could be a story from then, but – because period style signifiers are today so flattened – it could be happening right now. Red and Mandy, terrorized by Jesus freaks and Trump-voting Hell’s Angels, their country led by a mentally-unstable Republican TV star. Same shit, different decade. A more historical although less obvious comparison might peg Mandy as a cousin of Alan Rudolph’s neo-noir Trouble in Mind (1985). Both films use a simple story – an innocent couple find their lives turned upside down by dark forces – but set the action in an indeterminate time and place, using multiple genre conventions to complicate the narrative. Trouble in Mind features 1940s soldiers and ’80s punks eating alongside each other in ’50s diners, in a city that could be Chicago, New York or Seattle. There are lots of rainy streets at night, and neon lights shining through Venetian blinds; an evocation of ’50s noir that’s as stylistically hazy as Mandy’s metal ’80s. The effect is delightfully slippery; it is hard to know exactly when or where the narrative is happening.
Mandy tells a ten-a-penny plot in a visual language unlike any other release this year. Cosmatos has made an arresting experiment in genre, or rather, in making a film so high on midnight movie genres that it stumbles out of the grindhouse and into the woods, only to wake up two days later wondering why it is drenched in blood, its trousers are missing, and it has in its hands a six-foot-long steel battleaxe covered in biker brains.
Main image: Panos Cosmatos, Mandy, 2018, film still. Courtesy: RLJE Films
Dan Fox is the US Editor at Large of frieze magazine and is based in New York. The author of Pretentiousness: Why It Matters (2016), his latest book, Limbo (2018), is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions.