I’m always baffled by the inability of respected film critics to understand the horror genre. Panos Cosmatos’s Mandyis no exception. Since the film’s debut on streaming sites and its subsequent bookings into cinemas due to audience demand, it has drawn ire from the majority of “respected” critics. Even the ones who liked it were careful not to actually say so. Horror is somehow beneath them and this attitude serves as a restrictive lens within which to critique Mandy. The problem with viewing the film through this restrictive lens is that Mandy is most clearly nota horror film. It’s a revenge drama.
Mandy’s plot is revenge genre 101. It’s the same story in The Crow (1994), Oldboy (2003) and The Virgin Spring(1960). 1. A senseless horrible crime is committed against honorable people. 2. The lone survivor methodically hunts down and kills the perpetrators. If the presence of gore was the only qualifier to categorizing Mandy as a horror film, then clearly Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch(1969) or Mel Gibson’s torture-happy The Passion Of The Christ must also be horror films. They are not.
It speaks highly of Mandy that reviewers just didn’t get it. This film wasn’t made for the likes of Mark Kermode. It was made for the people who grew up on George Miller, David Lynch, Dario Argento and the many revenge epics that came out of Hong Kong, Japan and South Korea in the 1990s and early 2000s. Like Gordon Chan’s Beast Cops (1998), you either get it or you don’t.
That’s not to say that there’s nothing here to enjoy for those not “in the know.” Mandyis both deeply atmospheric and highly entertaining. The relationship between Andrea Riseborough’s Mandy and Nicholas Cage’s Red is tender and very real. Mandy is clearly a survivor of childhood abuse. It is made clear in the story she tells Red of her father forcing all the neighborhood kids to kill a bunch of helpless baby starlings with a crow bar. Then there’s the mysterious scar under her left eye. No explanation is required. Mandy’s dark, sad eyes tell us all we need to know. It’s a perfect example of silent cinema character development.
Mandy’s haunting qualities eventually attract cult leader extraordinaire Jeremiah Sand who, after randomly spotting her walking down the road, decides she’d make a great addition to his small “family.” He orders his minions to summon a few demon-like drug-mangled bikers who resemble the Cenobites in Clive Barker’s Hellraiser (1987.) They kidnap her and Red and leave after taking another member of the cult as payment. It is unclear if they eat him.
Jeremiah erroneously believes that Mandy will be as easily controlled as the other damaged souls in his group. He is wrong. Even after they administer their best LSD and a hallucinogenic wasp sting, she won’t join. She defiantly laughs at Jeremiah’s outdated hippie proclamations of peace and love and especially at his shitty failed folk album. It’s 1983 and Mandy and Red are metal-heads. Jeremiah’s time has passed and only the oldest members of his dwindling group still worship him unconditionally.
This sequence is an interesting one. Rather than falling victim to the genre tropes of stripping the lead actress nude and/or including a rape scene, Cosmatos instead features Linus Roache’s Jeremiah fully disrobed. The scene lays bear just how sensitive the male ego can be when Mandy laughs at Jeremiah’s penis. His fragile ego just can’t take it and he immediately orders his followers to stuff Mandy into a burlap sack (similar to the one her father used for the starlings) and light her on fire. All of this takes place in front of Red, who is tied to a post left to bleed out slowly from a knife wound. Bad idea.
Although we never learn much about Red’s history, other than that he is a recovering alcoholic, it is sufficient motivation for his forthcoming rampage that he loved Mandy very much. He was in awe of her intelligence and artistic accomplishments and now she is dead. Those responsible must pay. They do so dearly and it’s super-fun to watch.
Much has been written about Nicholas Cage’s “wigged out performance” in this film. Cage has alwaysmade unconventional choices in his performances going all the way back to Peggy Sue Got Married(1986) but, the scene in the bathroom takes the madness to new heights. For a moment it felt like we were watching actual footage of Nicholas Cage at home alone on a weeknight, screaming and chugging down an entire bottle of vodka in his underwear, as one does. Following that, there’s a cheddar goblin, homemade battle axe fights, bad LSD trips, a chainsaw duel, a mound of cocaine snorted off of a glass shard and crushed skulls. In short, it’s awesome.
Having vanquished all the bad guys, Red is reunited with Mandy and together, they drive off into one of her drawings of an alien landscape. Is he hallucinating? Definitely. This conclusion is reminiscent of some of the best romantic/tragic endings in cinema history. Within it, one can see the shadows of Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungeon riding off in their taxi to heaven at the end of Sid and Nancy (1986) or Eric Draven meeting Shelly in the graveyard of the afterlife at the end of The Crow (1994). It is a beautiful ending to a completely crazy, heartbreaking, fun film. Not everyone will get it. Those who do will buy the Blu-Ray and attend midnight screenings. It’s that kind of movie.