The first film of director Panos Cosmatos (the son of film director George P. Cosmatos, whose credits include ‘Rambo: First Blood Part II’ and ‘Cobra’) was the science-fiction acid trip ‘Beyond The Black Rainbow’, a mash-up of influences including Tarkovsky’s ‘Solaris’, Ken Russell’s ‘Altered States’ and George Lucas’ ‘THX 1138’. If you were to be unkind, you could describe it as 110 minutes of people staring at each other and/or walking around while somebody plays a Moog synthesizer.
Panos Cosmatos has returned with his second feature, ‘Mandy’, a revenge film that shares similarities with ‘Beyond the Black Rainbow’ and other 80s influenced fare (Jason Eisener’s ‘Hobo With a Shotgun’, Steven Kostanski and Jeremy Gillespie’s ‘The Void’, Joe Begos’ ‘The Mind’s Eye’) but has been fuel-injected by wild performances from Nicolas Cage, Andrea Riseborough (‘The Death of Stalin’), and Linus Roache (‘Non-Stop’) into a gonzo masterpiece.
The Shadow Mountains, 1983 A.D.. King Crimson’s song 'Starless' plays over an aerial shot of a forest of pine trees. On the radio, Richard Nixon talks about America’s return to spiritual values. We are introduced to Red Miller (Cage), a lumberjack; his artist girlfriend, Mandy (Riseborough); their tender relationship and many-windowed, vulnerable home down by Crystal Lake.
The first 45 minutes are an exercise in mood-building and narcotised atmospheric languor, with Riseborough (complete with a facial scar and blind-eyed contact lens) haunting as Mandy and Cage revisiting his subdued logger character from David Gordon Green’s ‘Joe’. According to Cosmatos, the deliberately slow, hypnotic pace of his films belongs to what he has dubbed the "trance film" subgenre, which includes Francis Ford Coppola's ‘Apocalypse Now’ and Saul Bass's ‘Phase IV’. Anyway, the buildup is as deliberate and intractable as quicksand, but so is the follow-through.
Enter: a traveling cult of backwoods freaks led by Jeremiah (Roache), a blond-haired, eyeliner-wearing failed singer/songwriter who really enjoys The Carpenters. He catches a glimpse of Mandy from his van and quickly sends his minions to grab her with the help of the Black Skulls, a gang of demonic bikers in gimp suits and spiky metal straight out of Clive Barker’s ‘Hellraiser’.
Mandy is killed as Red watches helplessly. An ad for a fictitious Kraft Mac & Cheese competitor called Cheddar Goblin plays on the TV. Then the film accelerates at light speed into over-the-top grindhouse insanity.
Transformed into an avenging angel of death, Red goes after Jeremiah and the Skulls. Over the next hour, the initially muted performance evolves into unhinged, cackling Cage in his purest form. Red retrieves a crossbow from a friend (a hilariously solemn Bill Duke, ‘Predator’) whose customised arrows can “cut through flesh like a fat kid through cake” and forges a battle axe, as the doom metal-inspired score by the late Jóhann Jóhannsson pulsates in the background.
Blood is spilled by the gallon. Cage, bug-eyed and teeth bared, shrieks “YOU RIPPED MY SHIRT?”, snorts cocaine off a shard of broken glass, quaffs vodka in his undies, takes LSD and lights a cigarette off a vanquished opponent’s flaming severed head.
Blood is spilled by the gallon. Cage, bug-eyed and teeth bared, shrieks “YOU RIPPED MY SHIRT?”, snorts cocaine off a shard of broken glass, quaffs vodka in his undies, takes LSD and lights a cigarette off a vanquished opponent’s flaming severed head. In one scene, Red conducts a silent, telepathic interrogation of a drug cook, The Chemist (Richard Brake) – we see a close-up of Cage’s face frozen in a wide-eyed grimace and covered in blood. That gaze is intense, magnetic, and (according to Cage in an interview) partly inspired by Bruce Lee.
Shot in Belgium, but set in an apocalyptic Pacific Northwest of logging roads and rock quarries, the beautiful look of the film seems to be inspired by the colourful Italian horror films of Dario Argento and Mario Bava: heavy color filters, kaleidoscopic lighting, double lens flares and telephoto shots. Crude animated dream sequences bring to mind Zack Snyder’s ‘Watchmen’ and Heavy Metal comics.
Cosmatos has a magpie’s eye for filmmaking and ‘Mandy’ pays homage to a shiny selection of genre classics. An instructive comparison would be the throwback horror pastiches of Rob Zombie, but you can also chuck in John Flynn’s ‘Rolling Thunder’, Nicolas Winding Refn’s ‘Valhalla Rising’ and the films of Nicolas Roeg. The dueling-chainsaw climax of Tobe Hooper’s ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2’ also gets a big, glorious nod.
If you are attuned to the very specific influences and psychedelic frequencies emitted by this movie, ‘Mandy’ is an absolute delight. As I watched Cage laying waste to foe after foe with his Frank Frazetta-style battle axe, all I could think was: “King Crimson + head crushing + Nicholas Cage + doom metal? Am I dreaming? Did Panos Cosmatos steal my mail and make this film just for me?”