Mandy (2018)

Mandy first published by Sight & Sound, Nov 2018

Review: It is hard to define what constitutes a cult film, as the label typically refers not so much to content as to the kind of niche yet devoted audience that a film has acquired over time: adoring hipsters who happily return to the scene of their midnight crimes for serial viewings. Yet one sly way for a film self-consciously to preempt the ‘cult’ monicker is to include a literal cult in its narrative. So it is that Sion Sono’s Love Exposure (2009), Riley Stearn’s Faults (2014), Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation (2015), Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead’s The Endless (2017) and near everything by Alejandro Jodorowsky place unconventional religious sects at the centre of their peculiar plotting as an uneasy reflex for both themselves and their own imagined fanbase. Now Panos Cosmatos’ Mandy sees its protagonist Red Miller pitted against a traveling group of acid casualties who do the bidding of their ageing Manson-esque leader Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache). Red is played by Nicolas Cage, who is a cultic icon in his own right (Raising Arizona, 1987; Wild At Heart, 1990; Adaptation, 2002; Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call New Orleans, 2009), although here his expressionistically manic stylings are refined even further in their wide-eyed, gestural intensity by a screenplay that calls for very few actual spoken lines.

Cage’s on-screen debut (as Nicolas Coppola) was a small part in Amy Heckerling’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982), but his big breakout rôle came in 1983, as romantic lead Randy in Martha Coolidge’s Valley Girl. 1983 is also the year in which Cosmatos’ first feature Beyond The Black Rainbow (2010) and now Mandy are explicitly set – the same year that Cosmatos, aged nine, first stepped into his local video rental store and started fantasising about the forbidden contents of the horror section’s VHS cassettes. Both Cosmatos’ films feel like feverish idealisations of imagined straight-to-video Eighties genre oddities, with ideas conjured straight from those lurid covers. Something like this creative process is figured within Mandy itself, as the eponymous rocker (played by Andrea Riseborough) draws elaborate illustrations inspired by the characters and landscapes seen on the covers of her favourite fantasy novels. If Mandy is somewhat unworldly in her wide-eyed chatter about other planets, her lumberjack partner Red is, at least at first, altogether more grounded. Yet after Mandy is murdered by Jeremiah’s cult ‘family’, the world of bloody vengeance into which Red rapidly descends will come increasingly to resemble the apocalyptic geographies depicted on Mandy’s book jackets. Even the intertitles which occasionally punctuate the film, and Red’s animated dream sequences, mimic the visual modes of these books or of heavy metal album sleeves.

Mandy is also a kaleidoscope of retro-cinematic references. Red and Mandy’s Edenic woodland home expressly sits alongside Crystal Lake, where Jason Voorhees from the Friday the 13th slasher franchise slaughtered co-eds throughout the Eighties. Both Jeremiah’s hairstyle and the superimposition effects used on his face as he tries to seduce/initiate Mandy, are modelled on the lysergic blowback from Jeff Lieberman’s Blue Sunshine (1978). The bikers on acid called to assist in Jeremiah’s home invasion are fetishistically fashioned to evoke the transdimensional ‘Cenobites’ of Clive Barker’s Hellraiser (1987). Red will engage in a chainsaw duel straight out of Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986). And of course, devils-in-the-woods and revenge are perennial B-movie themes.

Distilling these motifs to archetypes, Mandy presents a heady, heavy clash of divinities. Jeremiah is a false god, bending others to his narcissistic will through manipulation and drugs. His servant ‘demons’ too, though summoned with an object (‘the Horn of Abraxas’) that Jeremiah invests with cultic associations, turn out merely to be LSD-crazed, BDSM-fixated Hell’s Angels. Yet Red, an ordinary man, becomes both devil and messiah – not only receiving a crown of barbed wire, a pierced side and a nail through the palm of his hand, but also forging his own mystic weapon and appropriating both the costume and the psychotropic sustenance of the demonic bikers to execute his vendetta and bring Jeremiah’s temple iconoclastically down. So, even as Jeremiah’s imposture is exposed, Red acquires a mythic status – and divine glow – that perhaps, as a decent, loving man, he had all along in Mandy’s eyes. Hyperstylised and ultraviolent, Mandy is an amped-up theological trip into pulp’s purest quintessence, with Jóhann Jóhannson’s doomy guitar drones accompanying Cosmatos’ soured nostalgia as the ‘rock and roll’ promised by the film’s prefatory blurb.

Synopsis: The Shadow Mountains, California, 1983. In an isolated woodland cabin, lumberjack Red Miller lives in idyllic bliss with Mandy Bloom, a fan of heavy metal and fantasy fiction. They go swimming in Crystal Lake, watch trashy science fiction on television together, and discuss the planets alongside one another in bed. Walking along the road, Mandy catches the eye of cult leader Jeremiah Sand, passing with his ‘family’ in a van. An ageing hippy musician with a messiah complex, Jeremiah sends ‘Brothers’ Swan, Klopek and Hanker out with the ‘Horn Of Abraxas’ to summon three demons – in fact a trio of fetishist bikers addicted to bad acid specially cooked up for them by Jeremiah’s Chemist. With the bikers’ help, the family overcomes Red and Mandy in their sleep. 

Dosed up by Mother Marlene on LSD, Mandy is presented to Jeremiah for sexual initiation, but laughs at his absurdity and impotence. Jeremiah and the family burn Mandy to death before a bound Red, whose side Jeremiah also pierces. They leave. Breaking his bonds, Red bandages his wounds and collects his crossbow (‘the Reaper’) from neighbour Caruthers, and learns where the bikers are staying. After forging his own axe, Red kills the three bikers, and tastes from their jar of special LSD. Told where to find the family by the Chemist, Red takes all the members on, with axe and chainsaw, sparing only young Sister Lucy, whom he recognises as a victim. Finally, Red crushes Jeremiah’s skull and burns down his new church.

© Anton Bitel