Mandy (2018) — extreme psychedelic horror

Is it in the splatter / revenge genre with a b-movie budget, or is it ‘High Art?” YES! Mandy is such a wild ride and has so many fascinating features to discuss. Join me in the Escape Pod to break down just a bit of the modern horror masterpiece.

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I finally saw Mandy, which was released just two years ago. It feels like it was much longer, because the meme-worthy incarnation of Nicholas Cage seems like it has been a thing for much longer than just two years. And yet, I associate this version of Cage (over the top, scenery chewing, b-movie) with this particular film, an unrated, itself over-the-top gore fest that may have Lovecraftian elements and also features a blood-soaked Cage looking exceptionally deranged for a very large part of the film. I feel like those images of him have been roaming the internet for a lot longer than two years.

More recently (2019) Cage has starred in the Color Out of Space, which came up hot on my Lovecraft radar, although I haven’t seen it yet. Based on posters for Mandy and Color out of space, I assumed they were part of a set — The Nic Cage cosmic horror series or something. I figured Cage was now the muse for some aspiring cosmic horror film auteur and I could expect loads of these B-grade masterpieces. As it turns out, that’s not the case at all.

These two movies are emblematic of Cage’s recent career trajectory, but it’s not as if he’s JUST doing cosmic horror. His full embrace of camp is recently evidenced by Cage landing the title role in an upcoming Joe Exotic series. Cage works incessantly and seems to have top billing in almost everything he does. These are not movies that end up on Oscar short lists, but, on the whole, they seem to make money and give younger and independent filmmakers a chance to work with a living legend.

And despite the similar poster art, Mandy, which I knew nothing about, is not at all related to Color Out of Space, which is based on a Lovecraft story with the same name.

But let’s linger on the poster art for a second, because it is not just marketing, or I should say it’s more than marketing in the same way that a gatefold 2-LP cover is more than just a way to protect two twelve inch wax discs. The art is part of the product presentation and gives the audience an expectation that will, hopefully, enhance the experience that the artwork provides. Sure, you can listen to the record and get maximal enjoyment without ‘experiencing’ the cover art, but you are missing out on part of the art-form. Yes, it’s all one product, but there is a sweet spot, which in some ways is the purpose of this blog/podcast where the items that were specifically designed and created to earn money can also find a way to communicate, perhaps even on a massive scale (by going viral), something beyond just the need to put up great numbers.

The better analogy, and the more obviously conscious source material for the Mandy poster, are those VHS covers from the horror section in our local video stores from 30 years ago. This is a key era, though very brief, in the history and evolution of cover art, so let’s take just a second. First, you have to acknowledge that even before COVID, the video store experience was long gone. For those of you who don;’t remember, or are too young, these were purpose built stores that, even in the suburbs of Philly where I grew up, had the feel of a used book store. The boxes, like old books, were constantly being picked up and moved around as more titles came in. For the most part they were empty, but the images on the boxes, especially for the horror titles, were often extraordinary and sometimes disturbing. Boxes for movies like “I Spit On Your Grave” and “Faces of Death” promised something so subversive and obscene, if only you could ever find a way to actually watch the video.

And that’s the big difference with even the most extreme heavy metal cover art from the same era. There was so much great stuff in that class too: Iron Maiden (shout out to Eddie!), Megadeth, DIO and Judas Priest, just to name a few. But note the difference. No matter how much weed you smoked, these LPs didn’t have images beyond album art. You put on the record and you get sound only.

Not so with the horror and sci fi titles in my video store. Whatever was on the cover MIGHT ACTUALLY BE DEPICTED — if — I was daring or stupid enough to watch the movie. I might actually get to see that image come to life, or at least that was what my 13-year-old self thought.

The artwork the accompanies Mandy is not nightmare fuel by any means, but it is you first visual experience of the movie, unless you’ve seen publicity stills. And the visual aspect of Mandy is its most important attribute. Unlike the lurid images from the video store, there is a haze and lack of clarity with the Mandy poster. It make me ask whether this film is going to be a b-movie splatter fest or whether it is going to be art.

The answer, of course, is yes.

So, as to the cover — the basic plan appears to be, like the early and iconic Star Wars poster, sort of a trailer/still that just shows a lot of the characters from the movie. The use of red/purple/pink hues, as well as the Mad Max like image of Cage in the middle of the iconic pyramid/triangle really makes the image stand out. Unlike the cover for a lot of 80’s horror, where the artwork OVER-promised and the movie UNDERdelivered, with Mandy — this is EXACTLY what the movie looks like.

The era of VHS artwork is now completely ended. Scrolling through your Netflix choices, no matter how gleefully gruesome the image might look, is just not the same as being in that musty store, with that smell, and holding the box for “Chopping Mall” and wondering if the movie really featured anything like the gore fest depicted so vividly on the cover.

Should we actually talk about the movie now? Yes and no. The first thing that hits me when I hit play is that this movie features one of the great prog-rock masterpieces for its opening credits. No less than King Crimson’s elegiac ‘Starless’ from 1974. It’s an epic without peer and many Crimheads would swear it is the best composition from any era of the band’s storied history. I might be one such head. So, ‘delight’ does not begin to describe my reaction. HOW COME NOBODY TOLD ME! I mean, it’s one of those things that would (ON ITS OWN) be enough to get me to watch the movie even if I knew nothing else about it or was otherwise DISinclined to watch.

As soon as we start talking about the actual movie, the key description, for the plot anyway, is that it is impenetrable. Most revenge stories are not depicted in what I would call a realistic manner, but Mandy really chucks it out the window. The fantasy elements do not mean that there is no plot. It’s a revenge story — so that’s the plot. But it’s really the style that takes center stage. So we don’t ask how we got here, or why any of this is happening. There is an unspeakable act of violence against the title character and her boyfriend Red (played by Cage) has an opportunity to mete out some extreme justice.

But, oh that style!

Look. There is a subjective line between annoyingly pretentious high art and a glorious defiance of dominant conventions. Many of the greatest filmmakers, like early Coen brothers, sneak in the unconventional and discomforting stylistic elements into a delicious treat — makes the medicine go down smooth!

But there are always those who want to destabilize your world view. To make you question your place in the cosmos and the nature of reality itself. That’s a heavy burden to take on, frought with risk. But, as a friend recently pointed out, sometimes you get the casting of 4’2” Billy Curtis in High Plains Drifter. Young director Clint Eastwood may have thought this was an artistic flourish that nodded to absurdist and new wave art, but the gimmick doesn’t land and we’re just left feeling like it’s exploitative. Yes, it’s destabilizing when you see it, but it adds nothing to the sweep and aura of the film.

On the other hand, when you look at all the decorative nonsense crammed into Raising Arizona, you can argue, as a viewer, that everything is doing something valuable in there. I may not know what the intention behind each flourish, but there is a continuity leaving me with the feeling that these “gimmicks” are in the service of a completely realized work of art. Of course, Raising Arizona is that rare movie where almost everything works. Most movies I’ve seen can’t make that claim.

Mandy’s most immediate referent is the only other film by director Panos Cosmatos. Beyond the Black Rainbow was released in 2010 and presents a stylistic vision that overshadows its own performers and plot. The appearance is sumptuous with color, lighting and texture all on the table to create mood. Despite its artistic achievements, Black Rainbow never broke through. I found it by chance on a streaming service and just assumed it was some drug-fueled experimental genius from the 70’s.

Mandy’s use of the revenge paradigm means that you can do all sorts of wacky stuff without loosing the very simple, very familiar plot thread. In this way, the revenge genre is not only enthralling, but somewhat user friendly for the artist.

The next big difference between Mandy and Black Rainbow is Nic Cage. Yes, he is a force of nature, big and fearless on the set. But there is also a tone of experience that he brings. While he doesn’t seem too worried about becoming a filmmaker himself, he has made SO many films that there is no question he knows the business, knows what it takes to get a film made. In a way, he is the new, ‘old Hollywood,’ and having him anchor something as ‘out there’ as Mandy smooths the road a great deal. Cage is the ringer. Everyone in the cast and crew bows down and he repays them with massive generosity and genius.

And he goes off. I get the impression that director and star made some kind of bet to see who could go off more, who could bring more insanity to the screen. I’m not sure who won, but they both did great. The moment Cage’s character begins to understand the depth of his loss is a scene of screaming anguish in a gaudy bathroom with warm but harsh lighting as Cage, in a t-shirt and tighty-whities, pours a large amount of vodka down his throat and all over his wounded body. It’s lit like no other scene in the film — all the soft pinks and purples are eliminated as the stage is set for an orgy of blood and revenge which can’t just come out of nowhere.

So, this bathroom scene is the pivot point between the first half of the movie, which is all about foreboding and tension-building, and the second half of the movie where everything, including humanity and reality are chucked right out the window.

The rest of the film doesn’t disappoint. Each act of vengeance is its own set piece, including the sword fight where chainsaws are used instead of swords. When Cage confronts the primary antagonist Jeremiah Sand we get the additional element of script and dialog to amplify the moment. Linus Roache, who plays Sand, talks in interviews about portraying the hypocrisy and withering cowardice of the overcharged male ego, but he really doesn’t have to say a thing. It’s plainly obvious what this character is about (especially in the Trump era), perfectly positioned as the psychotic religious cult leader whose penchant for LSD has turned his whole murderous belief system into a REALLY bad trip.

The legendary Bill Duke appears to help Cage get kitted out for his epic odyssey of revenge. You can’t help but remember Duke in Predator talking a little revenge to Jesse Ventura’s corpse:

“who ever got you, they’ll come back again. And when he does, I’m gonna cut your name right into him.”

So you can say “what is Bill Duke doing in Mandy?” I say he’s connecting us to Predator and a whole different generation of action / horror movies, but he’s also one of only a handful of people who has more gravitas than Cage. Duke’s endorsement of Cage’s revenge plan is important because he’s seen the shit go down, as a character in his only scene in the move, but also, undoubtedly, as an actor. Another pro. Another survivor. There is something about Duke’s strength which makes you believe that a mere mortal can defy a maelstrom of pure evil and come out at least looking like his humanity is intact. This may not be Cage’s fate at the end, but it makes for a weird kind of pep talk to get us ready for the blood and torture that is about to be unleashed.

(Excerpt starting at 1:10:00)

It is a bit wrong to make an audio-only podcast discussing this movie. So much of what happens is both visual and indescribable. There is a graininess to some of the images that makes the film feel like a real exploitation flick from the 70’s. The lighting, and overall use of color is so bold and so effective.

But the cool thing about this scene with Bill Duke is that it relies, just for this interim part of the film, between tragedy and revenge, it gives us script. First of all, Bill Duke’s character is called Caruthers. That takes me right to Scatman Crothers’ incredible performance in The Shining as Halloran. There is so much genius in Kubrick’s work that we sometimes overlook his flaws. The inclusion of a magic negro trope (right down to, and including, the character’s tragic death) is such a flaw. That element adds nothing to The Shining and it shouldn’t be there for a variety of reasons. That’s a subject for another podcast, but I like to think that, even though Bill Duke’s character spells Caruthers differently, that there is a connection between the characters. Certainly both performers are well known for their bald heads, and you can hear the Mandy script take a cheeky shot at that when Red says to Bill Duke — I’ll get out of your hair. It’s a cheap one, but I still love it.

Mandy is the promise of Black Rainbow realized. All the style and panache is now well grafted onto a basic (i.e. easy to understand) revenge movie. As much as Mandy has white knuckle action, it is also remarkable for its patience. If anything, Black Rainbow can be a bit slow, but this isn’t an issue in Mandy. All the lingering over style and lighting and framing is in the service of building tension. If it appears as self-congratulatory at times, that is because the congratulations are well-deserved. Cosmatos seems to be a filmmaker primarily interested in making a film that he himself would enjoy. In Cage he seems to have suitably anarchic and insightful fellow traveler and I am hopeful they will collaborate again. If not, then Mandy, which is so much, will have to be enough.

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