Mandy (2018)

If you liked Panos Cosmatos’ retro-futurist sci-fi/horror mind trip, Beyond the Black Rainbow, you’ll absolutely love his follow up film, Mandy. Even if you didn’t, Mandy is for you if you want the cinematic equivalent of a Black Sabbath collaboration with Lustmord. Equal parts surrealist Lynchian fever dream and low budget Clive Barkeresque phantasmagoria, Mandy is a heavy metal laden tour de force of postmodern pastiche. Its status as a modern cult classic is guaranteed. When a film features “Starless” by King Crimson over the opening sequence, you know you’re watching a movie that’s swinging for the fences.

Plot wise, Mandy is a fairly straightforward revenge fantasy that’s a grittier arthouse analogue to the gothic industrial urban fantasy portrayed in The Crow. Similar in tone to the foreboding mysticism of Nicolas Winding Refn’s Valhalla Rising, the effectiveness of the film lies in Cosmatos’ expert pacing, psychedelic visuals, brooding soundtrack and ever escalating aura of cosmic doom. Like his prior film, Mandy is also loaded with esoteric symbolism.

As Red Miller, Nicolas Cage adds yet another iconic performance to an already eclectic and celebrated body of work. Is it his best? I don’t know, but it’s a supremely entertaining performance and he inhabits it with all of his Cagey charm. As he shared in an interview with Empire Magazine, Cage will go the extra mile to ensure that a performance has the right….spirit. There are at least a couple scenes which belong on a Cage career retrospective highlight reel. Miller is a lumberjack somewhere in what we presume to be the Pacific Northwest who lives a peaceful life of seclusion with his girlfriend, Mandy. In the titular role, Andrea Riseborough channels an equally iconic metalhead chick who is both an accomplished illustrator and avid fantasy novel reader. In her two pivotal scenes, she’s wearing a vintage Mötley Crüe pentagram shirt and Black Sabbath shirt from the Never Say Die period. Like Quentin Tarantino, Cosmatos is both attentive to detail and explicit about his sources of inspiration.

I wonder if Nic Cage is into the occult.

The film contains a lot of occult symbolism, and one of the most significant ideas is revealed during an intimate moment between Red and Mandy. Mandy asks Red to name his favorite planet, and he confesses that Saturn is his favorite. This foreshadows Red’s supernatural rampage to come and casts the overall story arc in a distinctly Gnostic light. Within the Western esoteric tradition, Saturn has a myriad of associations with Yaldabaoth the demiurge, the Lord of Time and Death, the black cube, the devourer of children and the dominion of this world. Even the bedroom in which they sleep resembles a black cube.

Mandy is also reading a book called Seeker of the Serpent’s Eye. It’s a fake book, but it sounds like something that could have been written by Michael Moorcock or Robert E. Howard. As we hear Riseborough’s voice over, the film cuts over to an animated segment that’s a double layered reference to the 1981 classic, Heavy Metal. We see a naked woman who extracts a green orb from the corpse of some fallen creature. The green orb is the Serpent’s Eye, but it’s also a reference to the mysterious Loch-Nar that was the embodiment of all evil in the universe. I suspect this also ties into the reference to the demon Abraxas that will occur later in the film.

Under the crimson primordial sky a wretched warlock reached into the dark embrace. His fist closed around the serpent’s eye, strange and eternal. It glowed from within, strange and eternal.

Miller reads as a Gen X-er who has chosen a simple life over the materialistic rat race that was ushered in by the Reagan administration. As he drives home from a job, we hear Reagan delivering a homily which extols traditional American pieties. Miller promptly switches off the radio. I believe this was meant to be read as a boilerplate rejection of American conservatism and strip mall Christianity, but given how the rest of the film unfolds, I think the film can be interpreted more broadly as Gen X meting out a brutal vengeance against the false utopianism and plastic idealism of the Boomer generation.

Their life is torn asunder when a hippie Jesus freak cult discovers Mandy taking a walk through a normally untraveled country road. As the leader of Children of the New Dawn, Linus Roache’s Jeremiah Sand is a captivating amalgam of Charles Manson, Jim Jones, and David Koresh. Using a perfect combination of slow motion, colored filters, and a doom laden soundscape, Cosmatos imbues this meeting with a menace and dread that you don’t encounter often enough in contemporary horror.

Though they are properly viewed as a representation of cults like the Children of God, the Process Church of the Final Judgment, or the Branch Davidians, Children of the New Dawn will be seen simply as a proxy for all of Christianity for most viewers. For the average person who watches Mandy, they’ll see no distinction between Jeremiah Sand, Pope Francis, Joel Osteen, Billy Graham or John Hagee. At the end of day, the theological distinctions between these individuals may be negligible, but the fact that this film can present such a lurid caricature of Christianity and get away with it says quite a bit about how effectively Hollywood has both hastened and capitalized on the decrepit state of the Christian church in America.

Jeremiah is obsessed with claiming Mandy as a new concubine/disciple so he summons Ned Dennehy’s Brother Swan to his side. “You know what to do,” he says as they exchange a knowing look. Sand asks if he has the Horn of Abraxas and Brother Swan offers a smile of reassurance. He sends Brother Swan on his way and then summons the mind controlled Sister Lucy to his room for ritual abuse.

Brother Swan drives to a clearing in the forest with his dimwitted lackeys in tow. He walks into the field and pulls out what appears to be an ocarina. With a name like the Horn of Abraxas, you expect something like what Tibetan monks play, but the ghostly melody that emanates from the instrument is sufficiently creepy. Up until this scene, Cosmatos has been skirting the edge of reality, but this is the point when it tips over the edge into madness. After Brother Swan admonishes his dimwitted lackeys to shut up and wait, a demonic biker gang that looks like leftovers from the Hellraiser universe emerges from the forest. Astride very loud motorcycles and ATV’S and decked out in infernal, post-apocalyptic bondage gear, you just know some bad shit is going down. Their entrance alone is one of the film’s best scenes and reveals Cosmatos’ visual panache. Upon their arrival, Brother Swan offers a jar filled with a gelatinous substance that’s some kind of highly concentrated LSD paste which will figure prominently in subsequent events.

Mandy is abducted and Red is bound with barbed wire. Before she is brought before Jeremiah, she is dosed with LSD and intentionally stung with some nasty looking giant insect. In a parallel of Beyond the Black Rainbow, Mandy presents a charismatic hippie-esque cult leader who uses drugs to seduce and control his subjects and to artificially enhance his promises salvation and spiritual liberation. I believe both films open a window of insight into experiences and events which shaped Cosmatos’ worldview. Since drug induced mind control is a prominent theme in both films, the question over whether these experiences involved mere observation or his own trauma and emotional distress is an open one.

As she is escorted into their inner sanctum, she’s wearing the 44 jersey we see on Miller in the film’s opening. IMDB claims this is either a reference to Reggie Jackson, Mark Twain or serial killer, David Berkowitz, but I suspect it’s a Crowley reference. In chapter 44 of the Book of Lies, there is a ritual called the Mass of the Phoenix. The ritual calls for the consumption of a “cake of light” which includes bodily fluids. Nothing resembling this cake is eaten, but I suspect Mandy herself is the cake of light. Both Miller and Sand represent two different but pure expressions of the Luciferian ethos of Do What Thou Wilt. This above all else appears to be the film’s overriding message.

Sand is modeled after Manson, and like Manson, Sand is a failed musician who uses music as a method of mind control. In yet another Cosmatos masterstroke, Jeremiah pulls out a vinyl record of his own music which features an original folk prog track called “Amulet of the Weeping Maze” that sounds like an outtake from Jon Anderson’s Olias of Sunhillow. Sand hoped that the drugs and the music would elicit the feelings of ecstatic reverence that it apparently inspired in his flock, but Mandy’s reaction was not the one for which he hoped. For the transgression of humiliating Sand, Mandy is subjected to a horrific execution while Red is forced to watch. Cage channels a level of emotional anguish that’s pretty wrenching.

From this point forward, Mandy takes on a supernatural, post-apocalyptic fantasy horror vibe. The film suggests that the drugs aren’t just tools for mind control, but are a simultaneously a portal into other dimensions, a source of superhuman strength and a conduit for demonic hallucinations. After Sand and his minions leave him in his state of despair and trauma, Miller frees himself from his barbed wire bondage and sets out to exact his revenge. He takes on the quality of a superhuman, Saturnian dark avenger.

Red seeks out the one man who can supply him with the weapons of vengeance he needs, and that man is named Caruthers. He is played with the slow burn gravitas of Bill Duke, and he evinces the steely cool of a man who is completely comfortable with the idea of taking a life. It’s a vibe that one gets from quite a few actors in Hollywood, and it makes you wonder whether or not it’s acting. After acquiring a crossbow from Caruthers, Mandy goes completely batshit as we suddenly find Miller in a metal forge. In what is by far the film’s greatest scene, we are treated to Nicolas Cage in mirrored shades making a battle axe by hand from molten steel. This scene is worth the price of admission all by itself. Besides being an utterly outrageous weapon, it’s also intentionally shaped like the ‘F’ in the Celtic Frost logo. Since Celtic Frost famously featured Giger artwork on their album To Mega Therion, I believe this is another meta-reference to Crowley.

Armed with his mythical Luciferian battle axe, Red ingests the LSD paste and sets out on his quest for retribution. We’re treated to some brutal combat scenes mixed with dollops of black humor. Just when you think the Celtic Frost battle axe couldn’t be topped, Cosmatos scores another victory of sheer excess by giving us a chainsaw duel. After dispatching the demonic bikers and delivering a gruesome comeuppance to Brother Swan, Miller’s bloody trail of corpses finally leads him to the Temple of the Children of the New Dawn.

The Order of the Trapezoid.

The film concludes with the inevitable confrontation between Miller and Sand, but Cosmatos sets it up with a long march through torchlit tunnels and grinding doom fanfare that is completely epic. You’re rooting for Miller, but what Cosmatos is ultimately serving up is just another serving of black hearted negation and nihilism. The Luciferian dark avenger vanquishes the corrupt Jesus cult leader. The penultimate vision of the film is seeing the chapel crucifix burn as the triangular A-frame is engulfed in flames. It’s tempting to think Cosmatos was showing us that the god of the Children of the New Dawn was actually Satan in first place. But I don’t think that’s what he was saying. There’s a vague sense of cosmic justice being delivered, but it mostly feels like he wants to revel in the smug satisfaction of watching his Christian straw man get crushed and burned. There’s nothing wrong with art that’s a descent into the abyss, but when that idea comprises most of the messaging coming out of Hollywood, it feels a tad malevolent and misanthropic. Don’t get me wrong. This film is among the finest of its kind, and if you have any appetite for what Cosmatos is serving, this film is unparalleled.

The author wishes to thank Eddie for offering his deep insight on the symbolism contained in this film.

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