Mandy: a phantasmagorical thrill ride
“A psychotic drowns where the mystic swims. You’re drowning. I’m swimming.”
After Mandy, a film which graciously leaves out end-credits music to allow for rapturous applause, I stumbled through the BFI Southbank in a daze, tripping over myself on the way to the toilet just as a random guy I’d never met tapped me on the shoulder and said “what a treat, eh?”. My mind was spinning, my head aching, and my memory confused: sorry, what in the fuck did I just watch?
A cosmic freakout of planetary proportions, Panos Cosmatos’ latest picture is everything you’d hoped and more: a shrieking behemoth of a two-hander that’s so out-there I can barely believe it exists. Taking everything great about Beyond the Black Rainbow, and dialing it all up to superlative proportions, Cosmatos has his cake and smashes it all over the floor, before setting it ablaze and using it to light a bloody cigarette.
The first half plays a bit like something Terrence Malick would make were he possessed by Satan. We follow Andrea Riseborough’s titular character in her dreamlike existence with Red (Nicholas Cage) in the Smoky Mountains, 1983. They lounge around in their log cabin, discussing astronomy (“what’s your favourite planet?”) and watching sci-fi TV shows. That existence is shattered when the Children of the New Dawn and their leader, Jeremiah (Linus Roache), spy Mandy walking down the street and decide that she belongs in their cult. In the carnage that follows, Red is left heartbroken and hellbent on revenge.
The second half, the advent of which is demarcated by the strangest macaroni cheese advert you’ll ever see, is different. Immediately announcing a darkly comedic tone, as Cage inhales a litre of vodka whilst screaming on a toilet in a dirty pair of y-fronts and a tiger t-shirt, that revenge comes in the form of a feverish, hour-long meta freak out on the part of the veteran actor. And boy is it exhilarating: when Red viciously slices up a mutated LSD monster, grins at the camera, then immediately snorts a mountain of coke off a glass shard, a muted press screening erupted into dual bouts of spontaneous cheering and applause. I’d say more about the ludicrous, sinister, ridiculous things that go on in this movie, but I’m wary of spoiling the insanity, so we’ll leave the plot at that.
Mandy is a disorientating and intoxicating watch precisely because nobody seems sober: the cult are jacked up on LSD and all number of other substances, the demonic biker gang (who may or may not be actual demons) are fueled by an ultra-strong, brain-melting psychedelic; and Red is on practically every substance known to man. The storyline veers between semi-believable and completely implausible every couple of minutes; the tone jumps from menace to melancholy to outright comedy in seconds.
Cosmatos’s production is shockingly druggy, allowing psychotropic technicolour to refract through a dense haze of film-grain, thick mist, and black smoke. Azure and emerald strobes, pulsating ruby light, and drifting hallucinogenic filters fill the screen at every available opportunity, with no concession made to reality. At times, colour filters are superimposed over the image so that entire scenes are viewed through a particular part of the spectrum. Aftertrails, lens flare, and motion blur have been added in post to disorientate and inebriate. Nicolas Cage’s performance begins to derail, as he begins to directly communicate to the audience through stares and knowing glances. Things happen which, afterwards, you’ll wonder whether you actually saw, or whether you dreamt them – was there a fucking tiger in this movie? To get lost in Mandy is to submit to sense itself as God: the inorexible power of feeling guiding you through the dense forest of experience.
Jóhann Jóhannssons score proves to be a main attraction in itself, complementing the galactic visuals with a maelstrom of noise: drugged-out, droning guitars; electric, blissful synths; quasi-metal hard rock. It’s as if you listened to a dungeons and dragons playlist whilst spaced out on 2cb. The soundrack, as with all Jóhannssons best work, feels like a character of its own: something that could easily exist outside the paradigm of Mandy, that could be listened to without any context, but which simultaneously feels tailor-made to fit this film.
When he made Beyond the Black Rainbow, Panos Cosmatos stated he was aiming to deliver on the lurid premise of the garish VHS boxes of the 70’s and 80’s; boxes he was then too young to access the content of and could only imagine what lay in store. With Mandy, he’s crafted something that far exceeds the promise of almost any exploitation horror in history: a phantasmagorical thrill ride through a psychedelic ghost train cloaked in glowing, technicolour mist and splattered in blood.