Thursday, 25 October 2018

October Horrors # 12 / Thoughts on…
(Panos Cosmatos, 2018)


“Where the mystic swims, the psychotic drowns,” attentive listeners may hear Nicholas Cage growl during his climactic show-down with Linus Roache’s narcissistic, Mansonite cult leader towards the end of Panos Cosmatos’ ‘Mandy’. I’m unsure of the origin of this phrase (it sounds like it could be an unattributed quote from somewhere or other?), but it certainly seems to hit the mark re: Cosmatos’ apparent desire to leave both his characters and, potentially, his audience struggling to keep their heads above water amidst a veritable tsunami of sensory overload.

I recall director Ben Wheatley, in interviews around the release of his (excellent) film ‘A Field in England’ a few years back, lamenting what he saw as the disappearance of the “Head Movie” – a phenomenon he saw as being exemplified by films like ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ and ‘The Holy Mountain’ – from contemporary screens, and declaring his intention to add his own modest contribution to this seemingly defunct canon. Cosmatos, we assume, must have felt a similar absence… but his own reaction to it is anything but modest.

Refracting its director’s apparent desire to create the Ultimate Acidhead Movie through the lens of what I take to be his own childhood aesthetic obsessions, and further filtering it through the grand stylistic excess of some his contemporaries in nouveau-cult cinema (Winding Refn, Strickland etc), ‘Mandy’ is, inarguably, one hell of a trip.

Like a powerful psychotropic experience, it is a film that leaves a long, pungent aftertaste. It’s the kind of movie that sits in the back of your mind after viewing, like a big mental snowball of unearned experience, just waiting to be poked with a stick.

The fact that many of ‘Mandy’s on-screen characters spend much of their time tripping balls provides a none-too-subtle hint that this is indeed a valid way to read the film, but there is far more going on here than just some ‘Fear & Loathing..’/‘Inherent Vice’ styled stoner fantasia. Applying this phantasmagorical portrayal of chemically-altered perception to an ultra-violent horror/fantasy framework, the film offers us characters whose psychotropic intake has taken them to the very edges of humanity, and in some cases terrifyingly far beyond them.

At the opposite end of the scale from those who approach drug-taking from the comfortable, new age perspective of guided meditational growth, this is a film for those wild(wo)men who prefer to go into it weaponised – with extreme metal in their ears, darkened woods or concrete hinterland as their surroundings and physical danger close at hand, as if daring the expanded universe to tear them apart.

I am very much not one of those people, but, so long as it all remains safely within the confines of a motion picture screen, with sound properly balanced and the camera safely mounted on a tripod, I can surely dig it.

Based on reviews I’ve read so far, ‘Mandy’ seems to have left writers unable to resist the temptation to resort to dubious, hyperbolic sound-bites in an attempt to encapsulate the experience of watching the film, so, here’s my shot at the pull-quote bulls-eye: ‘Mandy’ is like watching Jodorowsky direct a ‘Death Wish’ sequel written by Robert E. Howard, as your pupils expand to the size of dinner plates and your fingers begin to wriggle before your eyes like Lovecraftian spaghetti.

If that sounds like a recommendation to you, I highly recommend finding time to catch this one theatrically whilst you have the chance. Please take this opportunity to search for screenings in your local area.

In the meantime, the following numbered thoughts and tangents may be best appreciated by those who have already seen the film, but if you haven’t, I shouldn’t worry – it’s pretty difficult to “spoil” a story that can be expressed in its entirety in one sentence, and that was probably first carved in stone by some ancient scribe before the dawn of recorded time.


‘Mandy’ has rather strange relationship to reality… and not just because of all the acid, either.

In one sense, the film, particularly during its opening (pre-revenge) section, is a detailed and highly specific evocation of a particular time and place (a mountainous area of the USA, 1983). (1)

Every prop, item of clothing, vehicle or piece of furniture, and each small aspect of the web of cultural reference points that drift through the idyllic existence of Red (Cage) and Mandy (Andrea Riseborough) – all of these have been carefully chosen to scratch a nameless, deeply buried nostalgic itch that many viewers (particularly those born in the ‘80s) will not even have been aware of until they watch this movie and feel a touch of it in their bones. (2)

These temporal conjurations extend even to the texture of the film itself. Though evidently shot with all the smooth, HD clarity that the 21st century has to offer, ‘Mandy’s photography simultaneously swarms with a thick, almost intrusive layer of film grain, recalling more than anything the unique ‘feel’ of 16mm footage blown up to 35, as exemplified during the ‘80s by break-out low budget features such as ‘The Evil Dead’ and Jim VanBebber’s ‘Deadbeat at Dawn’.

Within this scheme, visual textures are deliberately tweaked scene by scene to sink hooks into deep-buried memories. When we see Red engaged in his work felling trees, climbing into a chopper with his co-workers for the ride home, the heavy grain is combined with washed out greens and browns, recalling any number of ‘80s Vietnam / forest survival type movies, whilst a later scene in which he and Mandy drift in a boat upon shimmering lake adopts a blown-out, over-saturated VHS kind of look, flashing us straight back to the gently psychedelic drift of a ‘70s bigfoot documentary.

In this regard, ‘Mandy’ is an exercise in high level aesthetic alchemy – a creative excavation of the recent past comparable to that which the Ghostbox label have carried out for the UK of the 1970s. As an evoker of *feel*, as a wrangler of the wildly divergent strands of temporal-cultural suggestion, Cosmatos here proves himself a master.

Naturally, the more obvious and potentially comedic signifiers of the era have for the most part been avoided; by and large, things are more subtle. This may, for instance, be the most METAL film not to actually feature any metal on the soundtrack. (3)

The use of fonts, cult-ish visual signifiers and the occasional t-shirt is as far as it goes, but the essence of METAL (in capitals) nonetheless runs rich and deep through these two hours. Fans of the genre will be left no doubt that Cosmatos is one of their own, though nary a power chord is struck nor a devil horn thrown. (A battle axe is forged in the shape of the ‘F’ from the Celtic Frost logo however, so… what more proof of good faith could fans possibly require?)


But, on the other hand… well, speaking of battle axes, let’s just say that my reference to Robert E. Howard above wasn’t just plucked out of thin air. After the prolonged and appalling home invasion/murder sequence that constitutes ‘Mandy’s transitional central phase, it becomes increasingly clear that a hologram of Howard’s Hyborian Age has been super-imposed upon the USA of the early 1980s.

(A not inappropriate collision of worlds, given how thoroughly the sword & sorcery genre suffused that era’s popular culture, with John Milius’s 1982 ‘Conan the Barbarian’ in particular instigating an unsettling communion between Howard’s might-is-right prehistoric philosophy and the equally fantastical macho individualism of Reagan-ite political discourse; a heady fusion that, nearly forty years later, still filters through to ‘Mandy’s otherwise rather contradictory notion of a fuzzily nostalgic vigilante revenge story.)

When Red hits up his enigmatic pal Carruthers (a wonderful one scene bit from 80s/90s action vet Bill Duke) to reclaim his crossbow, we’re presented with a fistful of the kind of ominous exposition you’d usually expect some D&D players to receive from an aged traveller in a remote tavern. There have been “rumours of dark riders”, they were last seen heading for such-and-such a place, he “once glimpsed them upon the horizon”, and so on.

Leaving aside the question of exactly what kind of druggy, Satanic grapevine Carruthers picked up this info from, given that he seems to be a total recluse, we may find ourselves rubbing our eyes and wondering where exactly we are again..? The United States in 1983 suddenly seems very far away.

Indeed, from front to back, this is a story that, with a few minor adjustments, could have happened to Conan or King Kull, rather than a 40-something lumberjack played by Nicholas Cage, and the simplistic, video game-like storytelling favoured by Howard predominates from the moment Red’s quest for vengeance begins. [You know - Conan/Cage obtains weapons, confronts enemies, is captured. Escapes, kills enemies, reclaims weapons, proceeds directly to next set of enemies, and so on.]

We know this is not a post-apocalyptic world, because there’s stuff on TV, and people have jobs and visit grocery stores, but at no point do we actually visit a human habitation that comprises more than a single building. Isolated, makeshift homesteads and compounds dotted around the wilderness provide our only points of reference, and signs of wider societal organisation are entirely absent. No vehicles that are not directly connected to our story travel the roads through the forest.

Much of this I think is this is simply the result of Cosmatos’ desire to cut absolutely all connecting tissue out of his narrative. Acting less on the basis of conventional, A-to-B cinematic story-telling and more like some restless, ‘Metal Hurlant’ style comic book artist, this director doesn’t really give a damn about how his characters get from one place to another, or how they find out where they’re supposed to be going in the first place.

Instead, he is happy simply to teleport his hero (who, lest we forget, is actually wielding a battle axe) straight from one spectacular action set-piece to the next, wringing maximum value out of each epic confrontation, with no time for any non-epic messing about in-between.


Boy, those Cenobite bikers (can we go with “Cenobikers”?) are quite a piece of work. I won’t go into their “origin story” (as it is one of the few details of ‘Mandy’s plot that it is probably best for viewers to discover as they go along), but, jesus - what a terrifying conception.

The moment when they are first ‘summoned’ – interrupting what up to this point has been a film ostensibly set in the real world, and a richly detailed version of it at that – is truly startling, causing us to share to some extent the fear we might actually experience if we found one of these creatures standing in front of us.

Deep, nasty dread is henceforth infused into all that follows, and I found the subsequent strobe-lit nocturnal kidnapping almost impossible to watch; it is just too horrible to contemplate, recalling the ghost of childhood anxiety that, no matter how unlikely it seems, or however often your parents tell you otherwise, such horrors – as expressed through the somehow-very-‘80s biker / serial killer / demon composite that I’m sure I recall all too clearly from some nasty comics that my parents should probably have not let me read at the time - may actually be out there somewhere.

And, indeed, they might. One of the things that makes these particular monsters so ghastly is that, though they may lurk at the very far end of unlikelihood and have no real life analogues (I hope), the explanation that is eventually offered for their existence is not actually a supernatural one. As a ready-made urban myth ready so be shared wherever young people gather to take drugs and get up to no good in the dark, they are wonderfully potent. (I mean, there’s a whole slasher movie franchise just waiting to happen there, at the very least.)

Also: along with this fairly direct tribute to ‘Hellraiser’, one of the relatively few blunt, Tarantino-style “homages” that creeps into ‘Mandy’ involves a big shout-out to Phantasm II, of all things. We’re among friends here, no doubt. (4)


Ok, the Nicholas Cage thing. Let’s get on with it.

Personally, I really ‘cannot hang’ (as I believe the phrase goes) with this comedy/meme thing that’s built up around Mr Cage in recent years. To be honest, I prefer to think of him as just a extremely fine actor whose apparent willingness to say ‘yes’ to just about anything, though admirable, doesn’t always help his reputation in these days of social media snark.

To misquote Norma Desmond, it’s not his playing that’s too big, it’s the pictures that are too small. Like a modern day Klaus Kinski, he might get a bit goofy and OTT in the mediocre, run-of-the-mill assignments that take up much of his time, but, once in a blue moon, a project arrives that is worthy of his particular, highly tuned sensibilities - and at that point, you can just wind the fucker up and watch him go.

A few years back, Werner Herzog (funnily enough) gave him one such opportunity with the brilliant (and seemingly quite under-rated?) ‘Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans’ – and, needless to say, with ‘Mandy’ Cosmatos gives him another chance to strut his stuff on the level where he truly belongs. Once again, he does fantastic work here. (5)

I would leave it at that, were it not for the fact that many attendees the screening I attended evidently thought differently in this regard, having apparently pitched up with the primary intention of wringing maximum Cage-laffs from proceedings.

There is, it must be said, a lot of intentional humour in ‘Mandy’. There are zany one-liners and everything, and these tend to be mixed up quite jarringly with passages that are otherwise harrowing or savage. So, I appreciate that people may get a bit disorientated by this and take a “what can you do but laugh?” approach to navigating the choppy waters of this singularly intense and unusual movie.

There are other sections here however that are clearly not meant to be funny. The already infamous ‘bathroom scene’ is one of them, but, in view of the unspeakably terrible things that happen to Cage’s character during this film, I don’t believe he is overplaying here at all. Hell, if anything, he’s underplaying. Few of us, I’d imagine, would proceed in quite such a reasonable manner in similarly dire circumstances.

Seemingly channelling Warren Oates’ devastating portrayal of masculine grief in Peckinpah’s ‘Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia’ (a divisive head-trip of a revenge film with which ‘Mandy’ shares more than a few eerie parallels, now that I come to think of it), Cage is pretty on point here, and I could really have done without the chuckles in the row behind me.

I’d assume that at least some of these chucklers were the same people who were already loudly yakking away on their phones about other things in the queue ahead of me as they left the auditorium, whilst the closing credits were still rolling. I mean… c’mon man. Maybe you liked the movie, maybe you didn’t, but please - give it a few minutes to settle in before you’re planning tomorrow’s fucking brunch.

Thankfully though, these were not the only people who made it to this sold out city centre screening. A middle-aged couple with matching straight black hair, silently putting on their matching leather battle jackets. A big guy with impressive wrist tattoos and an unreadable metal band logo t-shirt, smoking a rollie with shaking hands on the step outside the cinema. Various other lone, scraggle-haired individuals, quickly striding off into the late afternoon shadows; heading straight back to their black light basements, I would like to think.

In aspirational terms at least, these folks feel more like my kind of people, and it is spiriting to see that word of mouth (or word of wi-fi, at least) has already connected ‘Mandy’ to its real audience.


For all its savage violence, drug-damaged black humour and kaleidoscopic visuals, and despite the crassness of its neanderthal boilerplate revenge storyline, ‘Mandy’, like ‘..Alfredo Garcia’ before it, is a love story.

I mean, the clue’s in the name, man. Cosmatos could easily have called his film “Demon Fire” or “Serpent’s Eye” or something, and would probably have sold some extra tickets to people who might currently be apt to mistake it for a romantic comedy whilst scanning the listings - but that’s not what it’s about.

Without Mandy, and the thirty or so minutes we spend with her, none of the other stuff in the film would matter a damn. It would be some huge, empty, post-modern, lol-worthy mega-action laff-fest, and I probably would have concluded my thoughts on it far earlier than this.

Like ‘..Alfredo Garcia’, this is a film split into two halves, hinged around a transitional moment of blackest desolation at its centre. And, as with ‘..Alfredo Garcia’, it is the first half – slow, almost meditative in tone – that will eventually live longest in your memory.

So, how can I best put this? I have a very strong, very good feeling about Red and Mandy’s life together in the early part of the film. Their house and its surroundings are beautiful, the pace of their life and the time they spend together is beautiful. I mean, I may not particularly want to go to work as a lumberjack, but that aside – their life is about as close to a vision of an ideal existence as I could possibly imagine.

Perhaps not everyone will share this feeling, but as we have established, ‘Mandy’ is probably not a film for everyone. For those within a certain age-group though, or those who hark back to the recent past, or enjoy things like rock music, or science fiction, or solitude…? Well I’d imagine that if you’re reading this weblog, you’re probably in the club, let’s put it that way.

Mandy herself is not some generic, pretty wife character who exists solely in order toprovide moral justification to Arnie or Charles Bronson as they embark upon their regulation seventy minutes of cathartic violence. Mandy is different. Mandy is cool.

In spite of a necessarily limited amount of dialogue and screen time, Andrea Riseborough does an amazing job of building her into a fully-formed person (and, she is probably going to have to deal with people staring at her on the street and silently mouthing “mandy” for years to come as a result).

We’re perhaps not going to fall head-over-heels for her like Roache’s creepazoid cult leader does, but she is someone we would all like to play a bit part in our lives. She is the kind of acquaintance we would always think of warmly, wondering what she’s up to, but confident that it must be a-ok, whatever it is – and most of all, we’d appreciate what a good thing she has with Red. She’s the kind of affirmative, self-contained person who might send you a postcard now and then, and you’d always be very happy to receive it.

We in the audience might all chuckle at it when it plays out the first time, but in retrospect, the scene in which Red and Mandy sit together on the sofa, distractedly eating their dinner whilst completely enraptured by Don Dohler’s ‘Night Beast’ (1982) as it plays out on their fuzzy portable TV, is… well it’s something that will stay with us, let’s put it that way.


Perhaps the soul of any revenge movie can be judged by what the revenger does after his or her labours are complete. It is always a tricky, uncertain moment, determining what we will be left with after the fleeting catharsis of vengeance has faded, and there are many directions a story can be taken in during those vital few minutes before the credits roll. Something though tells me that any such film in which the protagonist brushes off their hands and goes home, congratulating themselves on a job well done, is probably not a good one.

As Nicholas Cage sits dazed after his final confrontation, he is closer - in appearance, mental state and deed - to one of the Cenobikers he has recently dispatched than he is to the man who initially set out on his quest for vengeance. He has tasted their sacred acid and worn their armour; he is just as plastered in blood and filth as they were, and has committed acts scarcely less horrendous.

The thought of his returning to any kind of quote-unquote ‘normal’ life after all this is unthinkable. This netherworld of drugs and psychosis and mindless debasement would seem to have swallowed him whole. Has he indeed drowned, as per the aphorism he so recently muttered?

We might worry at this point that the film, along with its central character, has rather lost touch with  where it began, left empty and exhausted after a solid hour of mind-flaying, hysterical madness.

But then – that flashback. Perfectly placed. Devastating. I’ll spare you the details.

Tears in our eyes at the end of a film in which Nicholas Cage snorted a faceful of cocaine off a shard of broken glass after crushing the head of a demon biker?

I know this film has had a lot of hype already, but really – believe it.

Movie of the year? Are you kidding..?

Like Mandy listening to that cult leader’s hippie folk song, I survey the competition and laugh.

Stay metal, friends.


(1) Suitably vague, the film’s stated location of “The Silver Mountains” generates search engine hits for areas in Washington, Idaho and Michigan, and ‘Mandy’ was seemingly filmed in Belgium, rather surprisingly.

(2) Oddly enough, the one thing that didn’t really ring true for me in the film’s production design was Mandy’s Motley Crue t-shirt. She and her husband are more-or-less in their 40s, we presume, and it seems unlikely to me that someone who was this age in 1983 would have much use for Nikki Sixx and co. (They would, in fact, be baby boomers pretty much – of the same generation as the psychotic hippies who proceed to persecute them.) All is forgiven however, when she wears a Black Sabbath T in the next scene. Spot on.

(3) Admittedly, doom-lord Stephen O’Malley’s contributions to the late Jóhann Jóhannsson’s soundtrack probably help in this regard. Before any arguments erupt, we should also probably note at this juncture that the use of the one pre-existing song featured in the movie – ‘Starless’ by King Crimson – is both totally sublime and hugely appropriate… but calling it metal is probably a stretch, for my purposes at least.

(4) FUN FACT: Christopher Figg - producer of the original ‘Hellraiser’ and subsequently of Neil Marshall’s ‘Dog Soldiers’ (2002), amongst other things - can be found prominently listed in ‘Mandy’s production credits. For his apparent role as a behind-the-scenes instigator of superior horror cinema across four decades, we salute him.

(5)As an aside, I wish that Herzog could / would return to his brief dalliance with making fictional, Hollywood-type movies. I mean, we all know he can draw a few thousand quid from the bank and make a weirdo Werner Herzog documentary without breaking a sweat, but the strange collision between Werner wackiness and mainstream genre movie aesthetics made both ‘Bad Lieutenant’ and ‘Rescue Dawn’ fairly extraordinary, IMHO.


Maurice Mickelwhite said...

Great GREAT review, sir! You’ve pushed this firmly into my “must see” queue - not that I have a lot of time for films at the moment.

At first, when the film was mentioned to me, I was pretty much “nah, I’m not watching another Cage film. His quality control is worse than Caine in the 80s” but as I’ve read more and heard more, it’s sounds like it’s hitting a lot of my likes and, well, getting more TRVE.

You’ve certainly sealed the deal though. I know I won’t be able to see it on the big screen right now (hell, I’m having to chop portmanteaus into nightly segments just to get my fix right now!), but this looks destined to be in almost permanent residence at the Prince Charles each week, so I can always see it there, after a home watch.

Ben said...

Thanks Maurice - much appreciated!

I just really hope I haven't spoiled this film by over-selling it... it had a big impact on me, and I bashed out most of this text shortly after watching it. Maybe me feelings will cold down somewhat on second viewing, or as time passes.

As much as I loved it, I think it has equal potential to annoy a lot of people, and it will be interesting to see whether it can retain the excitement it's generated upon release.

(I'm still haunted by the experience of going to see 'Drive' when it came out, feeling pretty enthused about it, then happening to watch 'Thief' and 'The Driver' over the next year or so, reading a few fairly unflattering interviews with the director, and thinking... hmm, yeah, actually, maybe not so much.)

But yeah, Mandy looks set to continue packin' em in at the Prince Charles! I actually bought our tickets a week in advance. I guess the marketing people are going for the old "restrict it to one small cinema and wait for hype about sold-out screening to build to a frenzy" approach... and it seems to be working! Really worth catching at the cinema anyway I think -- whatever you think about the film as a whole, the visuals and sound mix are pretty stunning.

Ian Smith said...

Thanks for the lengthy review you've devoted to this movie -- it had a big impact on me too when I watched it recently.

Is it just me, or is a scene in 'Mandy' where Nicolas Cage -- at his character's absolutely lowest ebb -- contemplates a pathetic, fire-consumed ash-statue (I'm trying to avoid spoilers here) and then then sees it break apart and blow apart in the wind evocative of one of the hallucinogenic sequences in Ken Russell's 'Altered States'?

I think in 'Altered States', the scene involved human bodies disappearing under drifting layers of sand. But I'd like to think that the vibe is similar, and that Britain's barmiest cinematic visionary did have a wee bit of an influence on this excellent, exhilarating movie.

Ben said...

Thanks for your comment Ian!

It's so long since I saw 'Altered States' that I have difficulty remembering what is actually in it, and what I just imagined, but yes.... it was definitely bubbling around somewhere in the back of my mind whilst watching 'Mandy', specifically with regard to the idea of people taking so many drugs that they unleash scary atavistic forces within themselves and physically turn into monsters, etc.

I seem to recall 'Altered States' having a similar sort of colour scheme too -- deep shadows, and lots of red etc? Definitely way overdue for a re-watch - I have it sitting on the shelf, so will have to try to fit it in.

By the way, I've just finished reading Erich Kuerstan's review of 'Mandy' on the Acidemic blog, which is well worth a look if you're in search of more insight into the film -- just absolutely fantastic writing:

Patrick said...

Thanks Ben, great review.
I feel that I fit pretty perfectly into the group you described as the film's intended audience. I'm quite bit of a metalhead, love exploitation and horror and science-fiction. Even if I never was much into Jodowsky and other "head-films", I instantly felt that the film was somehow "aimed at me". Yet I still felt estranged by it's relentless retro-cult approach. I don't want to be too picky, it's a miracle that something like this gets done, and seeing Nic Cage in such a project is pure pleasure. Still, Cosmato's reliance on pop-cultural signifiers for the hip "in-crowd", the 1980s setting reminiscent of so many recent retro-vehicles somehow felt too easy, too slick.
Still, a great cinematic experience.