OnScreen Review: "Mandy"


Ken Jones

  • Chief Film Critic

And the award for the most bonkers movie of the year goes to Mandy, a horror film starring Nicholas Cage and directed by Panos Cosmatos. There has been a boon of quality horror in the last few years of a wide variety, and Mandy is a welcome addition to that list.

Cage is a logger named Red who lives in the woods with his girlfriend Mandy (Andrea Riseborough). Mandy catches the eye of Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache), the leader of a weird hippie cult that calls themselves the Children of the New Dawn. Sand orders one of his followers to use a mystical horn to summon a demonic biker gang to kidnap Mandy at night. The rest of the film becomes a Red’s path of vengeance upon what he calls “crazy evil”, replete with a hand-fashioned battle ax, a crossbow with arrows that would “cut through bone like a fat kid through cake”, chainsaw battles, and scene after scene bathed in a striking red glow. If all of this sounds crazy, that’s because it is. But it’s the right kind of crazy.

The film is set in 1983 and has the look and feel of movies from that time. However, while Reagan can be heard giving a speech on the car radio as Red drives home after work, and Mandy wears t-shirts of various 80s bands, the film exists in its own unique world. The biker gang is supposedly human, but sounds and acts animalistic or supernatural. Their look is clearly influenced by Pinhead and the Cenobites in Hellraiser. The film seems to have one toe in the real world and is ankle deep in a metaphysical world where drugs can change people into deranged creatures. And then there is the glorious ax that Cage forges himself. Never mind where this forge exists, or the mold for this ax for that matter; these are trivialities compared to what this film has on its mind; it’s best just to enjoy this ride.

In fact, the whole movie feels like one crazy descent into a drug-fueled nightmare. Cosmatos basks much of the film is this red glow, like taillights on a car lighting up the darkness, only amped up to 11 give the film a haunting, atmospheric look. And it is mixed with this glorious synth score by the late Johann Johannsson that is moody and extreme. Cosmatos also employs some camera tricks that give the film a hallucinatory feeling. At one point, Mandy is drugged and brought before Jeremiah, who attempts to woo her in his own twisted way. There is a blurred motion effect and the audio is also altered to slow down and deepen the voices to imitate being drugged. The most effective shot, though, is two close-up of Riseborough’s and Roache’s faces are superimposed over one another, swimming in and out of being blended together as her features sometimes win out briefly only to disappear and for his to then emerge. It’s a trippy, beautiful bit of filmmaking.

Nothing, though, is crazier than Cage, who really gets a chance to shine in this film. The film is perfectly suited to his crazier instincts as an actor. He is given free reign to explore his range as an actor, and genuinely gives some of his best work in recent memory. He is perfectly in tune with the tone of this movie. His Red starts out as mild-mannered, with the hint of he and Mandy having left a certain kind of life behind. In the immediate aftermath of the destruction and harm that Jeremiah and his crew have caused in upsetting his idyllic life, Cage has a scene where he enters the bathroom to clean up his wounds after waking up from a nightmare. He proceeds to pull out a bottle of vodka from the bottom of a cabinet and start pounding that while running through a gamut of increasingly crazed emotions that is completely wordless and purely guttural grunts. It’s absurd and impressive in almost equal measure. For most of the last half hour or so his face is caked in dried blood, as they would say in professional wrestling, he wears a crimson mask.

In the middle of the film, before Cage goes on his revenge trip, he stops to retrieve his crossbow before crafting his insane battle axe, and tries to explain to a briefly cameoing Bill Duke exactly what happened, saying, “They were weirdo, hippie-types, whole bunch of ‘em. And there was some muscle – it didn’t make any sense. There were bikers and gnarly psychos, and… just crazy evil.” It’s actually a perfect encapsulation of the film.

Mandy exists in a world that doesn’t make any sense, and yet it totally works. It’s the kind of film that midnight showings were made for. It’s firmly grounded in the grindhouse exploitation tradition of movie-making. I’ve never done drugs, but I imagine movies like this give a pretty fair approximation of what a bad experience is like. Nicholas Cage, so often a target of criticism and ridicule as a celebrity, has found a movie that matches his craziness and puts it to good use and, frankly, he’s rarely been better. It’s not A Quiet Place or Hereditary in terms of the kind of horror film it is, it has its own unique blend of horror and entertainment going for it. This is an instant cult classic.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars