Mandy: a heavy metal nightmare
Extreme violence and an eerie, psychedelic aesthetic come together to give life to Mandy: a campy revenge piece that follows the footsteps of horror classics and has the formula for becoming an instant cult classic.
Set in 1983, the sophomore film by Greek-Canadian director Panos Cosmatos revolves around Red (Nicolas Cage) and Mandy (Andrea Riseborough), a couple whose tranquil life in the woods is suddenly disrupted by the arrival of a religious cult and their psychopathic biker henchmen. When the titular Mandy becomes the target of the cult’s latest attack, Red decides to hunt down each member of the sadistic gang and get the revenge he very much deserves, thus beginning a descent into hell; one that we will all witness.
Reminiscent of the slasher’s golden years, Mandy is, at its core, a classic example of the revenge horror subgenre. Cosmatos' film follows in the footsteps of cult films such as The Last House on the Left (1972) and I Spit on Your Grave (1978), from which he inherits the use of crude brutality and an almost necessary intention of shocking the audience. However, Mandy's most relevant reference is probably to Tobe Hooper's groundbreaking 1974 debut: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It is a reference at often times direct, as can be seen, for one, in the scene where Mandy is tied to a chair in the dining room of the sect members’ house, with a few shots that inevitably recall the infamous family dinner in Hooper's classic; and, later, when Red engages in a chainsaw duel, evoking an iconic scene from the sequel (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, 1986). But even beyond these seemingly obvious similarities, Cosmatos pays homage to the classic from the very essence of the film. Hooper shocked audiences back in the day with a film that was too violent and gory for its time. Now Mandy does the same, but brings it up to date, delivering a psychedelic gore-fest that surpasses the already high bar of tolerance to violence that viewers have acquired over time, and reaching new levels of unsettling and disturbing imagery.
Mandy's first act begins at a slow pace, as the story gradually slides into a display of violence that, accompanied by a gonzo aesthetic and drug-induced psychedelia, generates a double sensation of bewilderment and horror. This over-the-top violence and the hallucinating visual extravaganza that surrounds it are intensified by two formal aspects: on the one hand, the use of strident colors in almost all the scenes, which evokes a style similar to that of the Italian giallo; and, on the other, the music of Jóhann Jóhannsson who, inspired by the sounds of genres such as doom and heavy metal, creates a truly sinister and terrifying soundtrack.
Another key element to the film, the "Black Skulls" alone have the potential to haunt anyone's dreams for days to come. A gang of creepy biker guys that could be straight out from the Hellraiser saga or from a heavy metal band -one with the perfect name, I might add-, who terrorize the town for no apparent reason. The film does not give an explanation about the origin or nature of these characters. However implied -as Bill Duke points out in a surprise appearance-, it is not known whether or not there is a supernatural or demonic nature in them, nor what it is that makes them seek violence -or what in God’s name is in the stuff they drink when they are summoned-. Everything is open to interpretation and it works perfectly that way.
Mandy is a piece that draws on many horror references to create an innovative film based on a tribute to tradition. Cosmatos' film follows the codes of the genre, but uses them to take them to the most radical extreme possible. It is also the perfect redemption of Nicolas Cage, with the best of his “Cage mania” in all of its glory. As disturbing as it may be, Mandy is a must-see for fans of the genre, and it's a film that has undoubtedly already gained cult status -pun intended-.