The most obvious and arguably accurate way to describe Panos Cosmatos’ sophomore feature, the psychedelic Action-Horror hybrid Mandy, is calling it the cinematic version of a late-70s/early-80s prog-rock/prog-metal album.
It’s not an unfair or wrong assessment, mind you, and one that, even after stripping away all the other aspects of the film that call to mind such an observation – the usage of doomsday cults, perversion of religious iconography, being super into spirituality and demons – Cosmatos clearly wants you to have in mind given that he kicks proceedings off with some King Crimson.
There are infrequent animated visions and title cards that, despite being done in today’s more angular digital animation, genuinely wouldn’t have looked out of place as the front covers of various half-forgotten vinyls that now go for hundreds on eBay or Discogs. Jóhann Jóhannsson’s final brilliant score drones in tightly-arranged movements and dirges yet has a strange occasional beauty to itself. The world of the film slowly but then gleefully untethers itself from reality and takes flight to a dream-like fantasy fit for macho pot-smokers getting baked listening to Led Zep’s descendants in 1984.
As Mandy rolls on and starts picking up actual steam, however, the prog influence mostly dissipates in favour of amping up the film’s other main source of inspiration: schlocky, often-cheesy Video Nasty B-movies also from the early-to-mid 80s. The film is positively drowning in mood-lighting assisted blood-reds and deep-blues. There’s enough fog coating almost every scene that this movie probably single-handedly kept the fog machine industry going for a few additional months. There are some genuinely creepy and perverted creature designs that are given the perfect sweet-spot of being hidden enough to avoid spotlighting any gaps in the practical effects but also shown clearly enough to properly unnerve the viewer – one has a spike for a penis that you’d better believe Cosmatos has his cinematographer (Benjamin Loeb working overtime) get some nice disturbing close-ups of it penetrating stuff with.
Mandy is weird, basically. It’s actually very simple at its core – an old-fashioned machismo-soaked revenge flick about two lovers, Red (Cage) and Mandy (Andrea Riseborough), being terrorised by a cult and also demons maybe – but the movie operates on this campy dream logic that you either vibe with or don’t. When it got going in its second hour, I had a lot of fun of with it because I have a real soft spot for nonsense B-movies thanks to an adolescence spent watching episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000, and Cosmatos delivers big-time on the gore and the nonsense.
It also has Nic Cage delivering a go-for-broke performance that actually comes close to achieving sincere emotional depth at times. A breakdown scene at the film’s midpoint called to mind Toni Collette’s similar soul-bearing expression of raw grief in Hereditary, although Cage is undercut somewhat by Cosmatos’ staging and costume choice seemingly precision-calculated to trigger guffaws in the kinds of people who are coming to this movie looking for the Memetic Cage that’s undeservedly shredded his reputation as an actor in recent years.
So, like the vast majority of prog music, there is technical wizardry on display, I can occasionally find some genuine personal enjoyment, and I can definitely understand how Mandy would end up certain people’s new favourite film. (This was made for midnight screenings at cult festivals the world over.) But, like the vast majority of prog music, it largely did nothing for me, aside from a few base pleasures that are already beginning to subside. For one thing, it’s inherited prog music’s refusal to get to the bloody point in any kind of decent hurry.
The film’s first hour is devoted to the lead up to the act that kicks off the revenge rampage and, whilst it has a few decent hypnotic scenes, there is absolutely no reason for this act to last an entire goddamned hour. The sheer length of time and endless… slow… drawled… beat-filled… speeches reach for a profundity the film doesn’t actually have and certain stylistic beats, like dissolving Mandy and the cult leader’s faces into one another so that they’re basically inseparable, lose whatever coolness they had by Cosmatos going to the well with them way too many times.
Which brings me to my most personal of criticisms: like a lot of prog-rock, it’s utter nonsense and I genuinely can’t tell how much of it is meant to be taken seriously and how much of it is aware that it’s very silly. Because Mandy is very, very, very silly – you’ve likely already heard about the much-vaunted chainsaw duel, and it is just as gloriously stupid in reality as it sounds on paper. But it moves at a glacier’s pace, lingers on scenes and beats for egregiously long stretches of time, and it’s coated in so much attempted symbolism that I can’t help but think there’s a deeper layer I’m either missing or finding drowned out by Carpenters gags, pithy one-liners, and the kind of overblown axe-forging montages you only ever saw in videos featured on MTV’s Headbanger’s Ball segments.
I’ll say this much, I can guarantee that you and I will not see anything else like Mandy for the rest of this year, maybe the rest of this decade and possibly even the next. It is a one-of-a-kind, leaving-everything-on-the-table work of a singular creative vision that will cut straight to the hearts of those attuned to its wavelength and pick up a deserved rabid cult following. Everyone else will probably sit semi-appreciative and somewhat-bewildered by what is basically Archer‘s Kreiger painting another Rush album cover onto the side of his van.
Mandy will be on general release in UK cinemas on Friday 12th October.