BEWARE YE SPOILERS
Panos Cosmatos made a minor splash in indie horror circles a few years back with his abstract, indulgent mess Beyond the Black Rainbow, a hallucinatory and colorful homage to austere Canadian thrillers that pitted extraordinary individuals against big scary psycho-therapists. It was strange and memorable and generally lousy, held together only by its superb score from Sinoia Caves and its narratively useless but pleasantly oblique visuals.
Mandy is much, much better. It’s a visual buffet. Nicolas Cage is the title character’s partner who, after a long first act spent dreamily doing nothing but cuddle and linger on her creepily lit, otherworldly face, is unhinged from his life by her murder. A demonic sex cult (or maybe corrupted Christian? I don’t know, it doesn’t matter) summons some cenobites on ATVs to steal her away to be a bride, or whatever, to Linus Roache’s bathrobe-wearing self-appointed messiah. She laughs at him and his wee exposed penis, which naturally compels him to burn her alive. This is yet another story of a murdered, martyred woman, fridged to inspire a dude’s revenge. And here we move on to the film’s real heart, a vicious, utterly ridiculous mashup of horror tropes featuring Nicolas Cage wielding an axe he welds himself and a chainsaw and riding an ATV into a rock quarry that doubles as hell and a slow-motion tiger called Lizzy and dozens of other delights that are a blast to watch and that have fuck-all to do with each other or anything else. It’s a kitchen sink of crazy nonsense and it’s undeniably fun.
And yes, it’s much, much better than Beyond the Black Rainbow. But it doesn’t add up to much more than a series of visual pleasures. And maybe that’s fine.
I both respect and am exasperated by Cosmatos’ visual ideas. I like his audaciousness, that he soaks entire movies in over-composed and impressionistic floods of color, that he overdrives grain and vignetting and flares and other distortions. He’s probably a great stills photographer. It’s fun to look at. Much of this is also low rent, not to mention narratively unmotivated. His most interesting compositions center on weird and vicious costumes and props and environments. These obviously cost; this film’s budget gives him a longer leash to experiment with physical effects. I really dig the cenobites / angels and their crazy semi-organic weapons and goopy flesh and spiky armor. Visually, that stuff is far more memorable than a bunch of smeary focus pulls and shifty light sources. The film owes many of its crazier ideas to late 1970s / early 1980s staples, particularly Heavy Metal and its stable of geniuses. Some shots in the film squarely belong on the sides of vans. This must be fun as hell to watch with an audience – it indulges some slapstick splatter that I could watch for days. It doesn’t amount to anything more than cookies for horror fans but on a Saturday night that’s justification enough to break out the chainsaws.
Having said that, one of my challenges with both of his films so far is that I don’t think his low-budget, more thoughtful visual abstractions coexist cohesively with his comedic physical violence. Cosmatos seems like a somewhat binary and contradictory visualist and filmmaker; his painterly impressionist work and his gruesome slasher business don’t seem to like each other much. His gnarlier tendencies annoy me a bit, as much as I like his production design and anarchic energy; the first act’s pleasant if incoherent exercise in visual tone-making is cheapened by scenes of a demon with a knife for a dick.
His contrary impulses are certainly better met here than in Beyond the Black Rainbow which, legendary score and Cronenbergian psychocandy aside, had no interest in uniting its ideas. The visual hardening once Mandy has died works thematically. Once Cage’s mission clarifies so too does the appearance of the film. The contrast is startling and effective, but it doesn’t last long. Within minutes Cosmatos is right back at smashing every visual idea he has together all at once and the effect is exhausting. Deliberately, I suppose.
It is deeply enjoyable to watch Nicolas Cage give himself over to the purest Nicolas Caging we’ve seen in some time (ignoring Mom and Dad). The guy is somehow a terrifying parody of his own schtick; I’m not sure how he injects such menace into a mockery of himself but he’s incredibly fun. And that axe welding scene, goddamn. It is perhaps the most magnificent slow-motion weapon-smithing since Lord of the Rings.
This is one of the few films I’ve seen where a nostalgic 1980s setting plays as more than fanciful naïveté. Reaganism, coke, and boomer excess are all thoroughly defenestrated. It’s a satisfying social critique.
I want to take a moment to acknowledge the score, the final finished work from the brilliant Jóhann Jóhannsson who died earlier this year. First of all, who the hell decided that Jóhannsson wasn’t a good fit for Blade Runner? This film features a big juicy soup of reverberant synth hits and drones and pulses and roaring guitars and man, it’s wonderful. The music is defiantly badass.
I think Panos Cosmatos has a great film in him. This isn’t it, but his talents are on loud display and I’m glad to see the world take notice.