Panos Cosmatos’ fantasy horror film Mandy hit selected theaters and VOD services on 14th September 2018 and two of the 25YL crew had been eagerly awaiting its release. This is their thoughts after watching.
Sitting at the table today are:
Rob E. King (Contributing Editor)
I’m a general fan of horror films but mostly write pieces for 25YL regarding Twin Peaks, David Lynch, and Mark Frost’s novels. As we’ve recently started opening our site to looking at other media, this will be one of my first horror-related discussions following my coverage of Severin Films’ Blu-ray release of The Changeling. Mandy left me with a lot to think about.
Laura Stewart (Executive Editor & Content Strategist)
I am a huge fan of the brilliantly out there acting of Nicolas Cage, and after seeing the trailer for Mandy, I knew I had to see just how far he could go. The ’80s is my era of choice for music, TV and film, so any throwback to that time was high on my list of “must see films”.
Plot: In the Pacific Northwest in 1983, outsiders Red Miller and Mandy Bloom lead a loving and peaceful existence. When their pine-scented haven is savagely destroyed by a cult led by the sadistic Jeremiah Sand, Red is catapulted into a phantasmagoric journey filled with bloody vengeance and laced with deadly fire.
Main Cast: Red (Nicolas Cage), Mandy Bloom (Andrea Riseborough), Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache), Caruthers (Bill Duke), The Chemist (Richard Brake), Brother Swan (Ned Dennehy), Mother Marlene (Olwen Fouere), Sister Lucy (Hayley Saywell).
RK: First off, I’m thrilled that we are finally getting to talk about Mandy. Let’s start off by talking about our first impressions or reactions to the film. In online Facebook communities, I’ve seen some back and forth that I’ve captured for some abbreviated responses. Some of the negative reactions offered: “took an hour for anything decent to happen,” “arty for the sake of being arty,” and “self-important.” For each of those, there were as many if not more praising or fascinated terms or phrases: “brilliant,” “strange,” etcetera. How did it play for you?
LS: Oh wow! I went into the film hoping I’d love it. I had heard about it for quite a while, saw the trailer and thought, “well that looks…different” but I don’t think anything could have prepared me for just how awesome I thought it was. The very first seconds, as soon as the music started, I knew I was going to love it. Then, the opening scenes, as we “flew” across the trees, it was The Shining-esque. I knew we were in for a treat.
RK: Yeah, right. I’m right there with you. I had read about Cage doing a revenge film, where he would be up against occult members or a cult. I was interested, and I went in wanting to love it myself. That Shining reference, I like that. It’s a good point because I think there are some in-references in this film for sure. To first impressions, I felt like the statements above made a lot of sense to me. I think they are some valid sentiments. After I finished watching the film, I left the theater knowing I needed some time to process my thoughts. The pacing is different. In my first watch, I felt completely engrossed in the first three quarters but actually got bored in the revenge portion. These statements place the pacing issues at the front. So I don’t know if the pacing just caught horror audiences off guard or what. But ultimately, I did decide that I love this film, and I think the pacing is important. How did the pacing work for you?
LS: You know, I felt exactly the same way about the first three quarters. The film is so visually fantastic you cannot take your eyes off the screen. It is just so beautiful, the way the pinks, reds and purples blend with the love scenes, and I’ll go more into the relationship between Mandy and Red later, but although, yes, it took a little while for the film to get to the brutal revenge scenes. It was the earlier moments, their relationship at home in the Shadow Mountains and the scenes with the cult “family” that really kept me interested. It definitely does take a while to process, I think because it has so many styles, from the serious drama/arthouse horror like The Shining, but then falls into Evil Dead territory and I even got hints of Monty Python at times—that is something which I haven’t really seen mentioned anywhere else, about just how funny this film is. In the true ’80s horror style. So I was pretty happy with the pacing because if it had just been all out violence all the way through that would have got old pretty quick.
RK: The humor is there for sure, and I’m going to admit up front that I have not completely sat down and finished Beyond the Black Rainbow, but if Panos Cosmatos did not include his geek humor in that, he definitely got it out in this. I love that he got the Friday the 13th reference in there, “We live down by Crystal Lake.” So, Monty Python. I don’t know if I put that together. Tell me more about that. Were there some specific Monty Python moments for you?
LS: I think mostly with the cult family. I could imagine Michael Palin playing Jeremiah Sand at some points, that ridicule of the leader, everyone kind of sniggering at him. It is very subtle, but it just made me think of The Life of Brian which is never a bad thing! I have to say that Linus Roache was utterly fantastic as Sand. From the trailer, I did not expect his character to turn out to be quite so…camp!
RK: That is a fascinating association with that character, and I can see how that works for you, definitely. I would never have landed on that, but maybe that’s what is interesting about this film—it offers open interpretation in places. Let’s move onto those characters for a bit. How about Jeremiah Sand and the “Children of the New Dawn”? These are the antagonists. Did you find them intimidating? When it comes to Jeremiah for me, I started to look at cult leaders from other films, Clive Barker’s Lord of Illusions, specifically. And that reading came from the character of “Brother Swan.” In Lord of Illusions, you have a defeated cult leader, Nix, with a rogue protegé named Swann. In the end, Nix is an intentionally pitiful character by Clive Barker’s own words. What was being communicated with us through the Children of the New Dawn?
LS: It’s funny as no, I didn’t find them intimidating as such. They were all kind of pathetic, yet they were able to carry out some serious atrocities and perhaps that is the true horror of this movie. They were all so normal in what is very much a fantasy film. It was perhaps the most realistic part of it, that people under the influence of potent LSD could and maybe would start to believe that they had a higher power and a calling to do this kind of stuff. We know that it happens, and it must have been in some part a reference to the Manson Family I would suspect. It is that thing of people living with no rules (other than the ones their leader sets for them) that makes it quite terrifying. It sounds strange saying that in a film which is so outlandish. It was a strange mix of people who clearly needed to be loved. Brother Swan was pretty creepy. I should say that I didn’t find this film scary at all, but I’m not sure it was meant to be either. Sad though in parts, very much so.
RK: Absolutely. The more I revisit this movie, I think it’s a misnomer to call it a horror film. I am much more inclined to think about it as a gory/violent fantasy as you stated. The Manson Family is the reference I think a lot of people will come away from this film thinking about. Here, I want to pull from the thoughts I typed out a week or so ago.
“Jeremiah Sand is undermined three times in this film. Shall we say betrayed? First, he is emasculated by Mandy’s laughter as he prostrates himself gloriously naked before her and his followers. She sees through him and all of his cult’s poisonous intoxicants. Second, when Caruthers explains the plot in glossary fashion to a seething Red, fresh from the loss of Mandy, the cult who seemingly held ascendancy as its purpose is reduced to mere street-thuggery and acid dealing. Third, at the height of Red’s confrontation with him, he falls to desperately begging for his life with the offer of degrading fellatio, when he had all but assured the audience of his insatiable desire for a woman like Mandy. He betrays the very identity he hoisted as an excuse for sadistic murder. So this time, he is exposed again, this time before Red. I might further like to insinuate that, given the context of this film and Red’s intimidating tool of vengeance, that Jeremiah Sand indeed has axe envy.“
Then, if I wanted to further that, we’re dealing with a hurt male ego here. Jeremiah literally needs worship to prop his ego, and Mandy’s terrifying ending is a witch burning in the sense of “if we cannot control her, label her a witch and then we can burn her.” It’s all ego. Given that, I want to move on to talk about that fantasy aspect we’ve mentioned. What makes this a fantasy film for you more than a horror film, if it does? What are the aesthetics here? Two direct fantasy elements I can think of immediately are the “Horn of Abraxas” and the “Tainted Blade of the Pale Knight.” What did the inclusion of those elements add to the story?
LS: I think it all ties in with the music, as the film is set in 1983, Mandy is a huge lover of stoner rock and Black Sabbath and so on. She paints pictures very much in the style of artwork from rock albums of the time, and the whole film is pretty much one of those album covers brought to life. That is probably why I love the film so much. Being a huge lover of that music now, and very much so when I was growing up. Those album covers and the kind of posters teens would have on their walls at the time. Wolves howling under a blood-red moon and that kind of thing. It is as absurd as it is spectacular, and brings a very warm feeling of nerdy nostalgia. The “Horn of Abraxas” and “Tainted Blade of the Pale Knight” fall into that, in very much a Dungeons & Dragons way or any fantasy video game. Even childhood games such as Zelda come to mind. Plus, the current attraction with games such as Bloodborne, Dark Souls, and Elder Scrolls where obtaining weaponry with mystical affiliation or ultimate power gives you that “fuck yeah” feeling.
RK: That’s awesome. Yeah, and as we are writing this back and forth, I just got to thinking how maybe the acid-filled world of the Children of the New Dawn kind of spills into Red and Mandy’s lives. Once they have come and gone, now there is a Cheddar Goblin, the element of a goblin. Red makes a battle axe, and stored away are bone-cutting arrowheads. And right there, you evoked album covers. You know that I looked at the chapter headings in relation to Mandy’s Seeker of the Serpent’s Eye paperback, relating that art to Heavy Metal comics and the subject of Grady Hendrix’s Paperbacks from Hell. So, trashy paperbacks is what I read from it. Frank Frazetta kind of brings those two worlds together. Regardless, that “fuck yeah” feeling has its fingerprints all over this material, and I’m giving you the trademark on “That ‘fuck yeah’ feeling.”
We have at least two ideas left to discuss. One, earlier we talked about the humor. I love Red’s deadpan Eric Estrada joke with Mandy. Their relationship is mature and casual. It isn’t new love. The sense we get is that they have been together a long time. They are into a routine in their lives. You mentioned their relationship. What did you think about them, about what the Children of the New Dawn were destroying? Then, from those earlier reactions, what about the self-importance and artiness in this? I’m referring to the color filters, the animation, all of that.
LS: I loved the relationship between Mandy and Red, as you said it isn’t new love. They are married and clearly, both have their demons. I’m assuming Red has a long relationship with alcohol, and we learn that Mandy had a troubled upbringing. I am a huge fan of the over the top acting of Nicolas Cage—it’s no secret that I adore Wild at Heart as much as I love Twin Peaks, because of the over the top love between Sailor and Lula. Mandy and Red had a similar feeling to me, but the love is settled now—it’s not crazy stupid love, but it’s true love. It’s the easiness of just lying there and saying nothing, the watching of TV, the doing nothing together—very recognisable to people in happy relationships. They seclude themselves largely from the outside world because they don’t really need anyone but each other. What they had was safe, and that is what is most upsetting about how the Children of the New Dawn destroyed that. To reference Wild at Heart again, it is a bit like how Bobby Peru tried to break Sailor and Lula. So it was devastating and certainly one of the most powerful parts of the film, watching Red witness what happens to Mandy, and his extreme reaction to it. Nic Cage does big, powerful love to perfection, and that is why I love him so!
With regards to the colours and animations, in some ways, I agree it is arty for artiness sake, but hell does it make it stand out. In a film laced with LSD, it seems right to have it included. To give you that feeling of being on a trip, that this is totally mind-bending, and it can be beautiful and revelatory, but it can also be the most terrifying and confusing and absurd experience. The humour is like that on an acid trip, of that there is no doubt. Going back to Mandy’s emasculation of Jeremiah, that felt so realistic to me as I’m pretty sure I would laugh too if on acid in that situation—with a naked guy introducing his really bad psychedelic folk song as the best music ever. It is a truly bizarre mix of realism and total fantasy that I have never seen attempted before.
Red’s journey to destroy all those who wronged Mandy is brilliant and hilarious throughout. I watched the film alone, but I still found myself laughing out loud several times. I mean, in what other film will you find Nicolas Cage downing a bottle of vodka in dirty white pants, snorting from a heap of cocaine so big it could make Tony Montana’s eyes water, only then to have the tiniest finger dab of LSD completely push him over the edge. The fight scenes are as brilliant as they are ridiculous. I believe I had to pause the film to message someone to tell them just how incredible it was—I needed someone to know!
RK: It’s true. I laughed quite a lot toward the end, and I’ll admit that I don’t have a lot to add, given the addition of what else I wrote. My feeling a few weeks out is that this is a film that people who hated it initially are going to want to come back to, to figure out why it sticks with them. At the same time, I can understand how someone might come to it wanting a textbook horror film, given the aesthetics and come away permanently frustrated. As I personally circle back to it, I know that I’m going to ask myself new questions and continue reading too far into it, but I appreciate that it can be a film for simple entertainment or a film that you can choose to read into. I don’t see it as art for art’s sake alone. I think it adds layers to an audience’s reception. You don’t have to read into it, but it is there to do so.
So if I had a last question, given all of this context, either in your youth or today, what is your Seeker of the Serpent’s Eye? What was the album cover or content, book cover or content, or like Lord of the Rings books were for so many, in any context, what is or was your Mandy book? Is there one that helps you relate to this material?
LS: When I first saw the film I thought to myself, if I was aged between 15-20 when this film came out, this is what my gang of friends and I would be watching every weekend without fail. This was one of those movies that has so many classic moments, great one-liners, the music and the visuals, and it’s just perfect to return to over and over. We are so very used to analysing everything in immense detail here that it’s sometimes hard to let TV and film just flow over you, and I admit at the end I did think, “Was this all just a hallucination then?” That’s the joy of it, really. It can be fantasy or reality, and you can have it and enjoy it both ways.
My Seeker of the Serpent’s Eye? Wow, that is a toughy! My youth was largely spent in the grunge era, which led on to Sabbath, Rush, Zeppelin and King Crimson, so it was pure joy to hear “Starless” lead the opening titles. The score of this film is totally incredible by the way, and I was sad to learn that Jóhann Jóhannsson (the Icelandic composer behind the soundtrack) passed away in February. However, I am glad that he left us with something so stunning—the movie would have been much less impressive without it. Lord of the Rings and particularly The Hobbit for me, which is still my favourite book, would definitely influence my love for this. The Zelda, Elder Scrolls and Fable games are some I still enjoy to this day. So there’s a lot of nostalgia in this film for sure. I think it is other movies though; Hellraiser, Army of Darkness, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, The Shining, and even The Lost Boys all skimmed my mind as I watched. I don’t think you can get much better than that really!
Of course, we cannot finish without mentioning the performances of Nicolas Cage and Andrea Riseborough. Cage gave it everything and then some and it really didn’t feel out of place here, like he’d found the perfect role for his style and personality. Riseborough made Mandy the coolest girl on the planet, a haunted geek with a passion for great music and a creative flair. This movie was made for her, and people just like her, all over the world.
Panos Cosmatos has created something truly mesmerising and unique with Mandy while paying homage to so many other greats, and I have no doubt at all that this movie will go down in history, maybe not as a blockbuster, but as a slowly emerging cult classic. I bet we will still be marvelling over this film in 25 years.
RK: Just in closing for myself, I fear that it risks being absorbed into Nicholas Cage’s huge oeuvre of films, for the good and bad, but that is a mistake because this is a Panos Cosmatos film for sure. Though I admit to being a huge fan of Cage’s work in this film, in many others for that matter, this is a film that relied on the entire cast for its effectiveness. For my money, Linus Roache alone gave us a performance that will need to be reexamined, and I couldn’t even recognize Riseborough after researching her after the film. I have no problems endorsing this film, both for its entertainment value and for its artiness. Laura, thank you so much for joining me in this conversation. It was a lot of fun. Your impressions added a lot to my—and I hope everyone else’s—thoughts on the film. This was great.