Mandy. 2018. Directed by Panos Cosmatos. Screenplay by Cosmatos & Aaron Stewart-Ahn.
Starring Nicolas Cage, Andrea Riseborough, Linus Roache, Ned Dennehy, Olwen Fouéré, Richard Brake, Bill Duke, Line Pillet, Alexis Julemont, Stephan Fraser, Ivailo Dimitrov, & Clément Baronnet.
Rated R. 121 minutes.
Father Gore was sold on Panos Cosmatos after Beyond the Black Rainbow. To see his talents go further, exploring a similarly strange and surreal world in Mandy is a rare treat. His movies create new worlds and evoke ones we already know. Like in his first film, Cosmatos draws on his biggest influences in order to carve out his own niche in the genre world.
Mandy begins as a visually psychedelic drama set in 1983 about Red (Nicolas Cage) and Mandy (Andrea Riseborough), a lumberjack and artist living in the woods together in an idyllic existence amongst nature. Their beautiful world soon becomes a nightmare, and the film transforms into a 1970s/1980s-era action-horror hybrid full of gore, surrealism, and one of Cage’s best performances since he won an Oscar.
Underneath all the chaos and madness lies a story embodying all the anxieties and interests of the late ’70s/early ’80s, from astrology to Satanic Panic and maniacal cult leaders to sex, drugs, and the supposedly dark influences of heavy metal and horror. There are no underlying morals to this concoction. It’s a feverishly beautiful mix of what’s influenced Cosmatos as an artist, combined with various aspects of culture/pop culture prevalent when he was growing up as a teen in the ’80s. The result being one of the most depraved and endlessly fascinating horrors of the past couple decades.
It’s not random to have Ronald Reagan on the radio early in the film. This was his famous Evil Empire speech, given to the Annual Convention of the National Association of Evangelicals the same year in which Mandy‘s events are set— also the same year of the events in Beyond the Black Rainbow. Reagan spoke of “a great spiritual awakening in America” and preached a return to traditional values, as the so-called everyday American was against drugs, abortion, teenage sex, and pornography. He also linked human freedom to spirituality in his rant against communism. The short bit we hear of his speech before Red turns off his radio sets the stage for the other side of the spectrum, where a darker spiritual awakening was occurring and encompassing everything Reagan and the Republicans feared most.
The opening quote’s interesting when juxtaposed with the conservative spirituality of America in the early ’80s. Although Cosmatos doesn’t credit the quote, it’s actually taken from the last words of kidnapper, thief, and murderer Douglas Roberts, who was executed on April 20th, 2005 for a murder he committed in 1996. On one side, there’s Reagan and the return to Jesus for America. On the other side is the death penalty, human violence, and crime in America. Two sides of the same coin, a duality— a theme often present in spiritual circles.
This is exactly why Jeremiah (Linus Roache) wears the cross, he’s built a temple, he pretends to pray to God, like most cult leaders, because he’s a combination of good and evil. Moreover, the idea of good and evil co-existing is something Reagan and all Republicans/conservatives have trouble understanding. They want to delineate clearly the distinction between what’s good and what’s evil, when in reality this is not often the case. So, Cosmatos envisions Jeremiah and his Children of the New Dawn as drugged up cultists preaching enlightenment while perpetuating only darkness.
Mandy‘s got never ending visuals. It’s also an impressively written piece of genre cinema when you take apart all the various ’70s and ’80s homage, as well as the astrological and spiritual references which create the film’s world. For instance, Jeremiah mentions “the Horn of Abraxas,” later used to summon the three demons. Abraxas is a Greek mystic word. One theory is it refers to the seven classic planets – Mars, Jupiter, Venus, Saturn, Mercury, the Sun, and the Moon – which is interesting when we consider all the astrology in the film.
Mandy talks with Red about the planets, and astrology was generally big in the ’70s/’80s. At the end, there’s a wide shot of the forest and visible planets in the sky aligned. Jeremiah mentions ascension as part of the cult— an astrological term. As it happens, in 1983 Jupiter and Uranus were in right ascension, as well. When Red tracks down the Chemist (Richard Brake) he’s told he “exude(s) a cosmic darkness,” as if Red’s a planet himself about to eclipse Jeremiah. Finally, bridging astrology and rock ‘n roll, is a piece of dialogue inspired by Neil Young’s famous line from the 1979 album Rust Never Sleeps, later ending up as part of Kurt Cobain’s suicide letter: “It‘s better to burn out than to fade away.”
From astrology, the influence moves into spirituality and psychology. Before Jeremiah lights Mandy on fire, he references Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount – “Another pearl wasted before swine” – and then stabs a ceremonial blade into Red’s side, like the Roman guards did to Jesus before his crucifixion. When Red and Jeremiah have their final showdown below the temple, the cult leader expresses a clear God complex, to which the lumberjack replies: “The psychotic drowns where the mystic swims…” This whole piece of dialogue is a riff on writing from Psychology of the Future: Lessons from Modern Consciousness Research by author Joseph Campbell.
The duality in spirituality is never more clear than in the finale. Red finds a temple built by the cult. Although there’s a cross on it, the place is anything but holy. It’s empty, and he has to go through a hatch in the floor, as if a mythic Greek figure heading into Tartarus/the underworld. Red experiences what those Republicans and conservatives always feared, finding the lurking evil below the hippy cults and religious freedom movements. A proper end to a psychedelic spiritual journey.
Quickly back to the blade. Brother Swan (Ned Dennehy) explains to Red it’s the “tainted blade of the pale knight, straight from the abyssal lair.” It’s easy to view this as language crafted by high fantasy novels and heavy metal— one of the first sounds we hear is a guitar player tapping his axe, and early on we see Mandy reading a fantasy paperback. But ‘pale knight’ is significant for other reasons. More than likely it’s in reference to ‘Pale Night‘ from Dungeons & Dragons, further having been influenced by a quote from Book II of John Milton’s Paradise Lost. In D&D, Pale Night is an Abyssal Lord, a powerful demon. The blade’s a touch of everything, though Father Gore bets Cosmatos played D&D more than once as a boy.
That’s not all in the way of pop culture influence. Cosmatos goes for a direct reference, likely to two gnarly ’80s horror flicks: Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 and Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm II. The entire duel of the chainsaws references Dennis Hopper and his wild fight in with Leatherface. There’s also a moment where Red and his opponent show off their chainsaws, the spitting image of Phantasm II from a scene where Reggie’s attacked by a gas mask-wearing villain.
If interested, the Hooper clip is here, and the Coscarelli clip is here.
And did anybody catch the reference to a “Crystal Lake“? Sort of funny, seeing as how Cage said he took inspiration for his role from none other than slasher icon Jason Voorhees. Maybe Nic caught that reference in the script, too. Or maybe he just digs Friday the 13th.
From cults to piles of cocaine and a knife cocked demon, to heavy metal, sex, and LSD, Mandy evokes conservative fears of decades gone by in a fever dream action-horror film. There’s so much to enjoy for horror lovers. Even those not particularly huge on the genre might be interested due to the arthouse atmosphere Cosmatos has made his trademark.
The film works perfectly well in all its brutality and surrealism. It’s likewise inescapable how Cosmatos and co-writer Aaron Stewart-Ahn moulded the story into something that would’ve been a parent’s worst nightmare had this film actually been released in the ’80s. Their screenplay goes from astrology to spirituality, into Satanic panic-inspired terror and drug-fuelled horror. Without having to lather the writing up with expository dialogue, Cosmatos and Stewart-Ahn created a visually hypnotic work of cinema more suggestive than concrete.
Yes, there’s a clear plot in the way of a revenge tale. There’s also a vast world of possibility found in the many varied inspirations that went into creating the story itself. Nothing better than an action-horror with intellectual potential. The sort of cinema you can enjoy mindlessly, or it can light your mind ablaze. Like grindhouse and arthouse combined, in one bloody, mythical package.