Finally! A movie based on Barry Manilow’s 1975 #1 monster pop hit “Mandy”! You probably remember these classic lyrics:
They came and they took you and burned you
So now I’m forging an ax
Or, as The Boy has it: “If Nicolas Cage forging his own axe isn’t enough to entice you into the theater, this probably isn’t the movie for you.”
I was going to open the year with a 2018-in-review style offering, but half of our 120+ screenings (the lowest since 2010) were classic revivals, and half of what was left were mainstream Korean and Chinese cinema. It was a bad year for Hollywood by my lights. This movie, for all its faults (and narrow audience under the best of circumstances) nonetheless has a lot more heart and soul than the top 10 2018 movies combined.
By the time we had heard of it, it had already been pulled from its widest release (about 250 theaters), but was popping up at midnight showings and revivals around the city. This week, it turned up at the Downtown Independent as part of double-feature of Panos Cosmatos (director) films, including Beyond The Black Rainbow. If you know Red Letter Media, Jay Bauman is a fan of both films, and Mike Stoklasa…less so. (Taste-wise, as far as weird horror, I tend to fall between the two of them.)
So, let’s get the preliminaries out of the way: This is a movie that combines a popular ’60s-’70s era genre, the crazy cult (sometimes with, sometimes without actual supernatural connections) that kidnaps and/or terrorizes some normies with a revenge flick. In the first half, a logger and his girl are living a peaceful (but eerie) life in a small cabin in the woods, when the girl happens to be spotted on the side of the road by the leader of a small cult which apparently travels the countryside getting (and occasionally sacrificing) new recruits. The leader becomes obsessed with her and summons demonic biker mutants to help the clan invade the hapless couple’s home. In the second half, the logger seeks revenge on the demonic biker mutants and cult.
Notable entries in this breed include Wes Craven’s first film, Last House on the Left and Who Are We Kidding? This Is An Awful Genre Full Of Crap.
The first thing that hits you about Mandy, though, is an earnestness combined with no small level of skill, somewhat reminiscent of Evil Dead. The movie sets the tone immediately—well, first with a King Crimson tune playing over a really long opening credits sequence of the sort that hasn’t been seen much in three decades—but then with Red (Nicolas Cage) felling a tree in a color-muted forest and driving home while President Reagan opines about America’s rejection of pornography and moral degradation. The year is 1983. Red turns the dial away from the Gipper (to his ultimate misfortune).
His wife, Mandy (whose name I swear we don’t hear until the cult leader intones it 40 minutes later) is an artist and, if her t-shirts are to be believed, a fan of the darker musical arts like Black Sabbath. Mandy (Andrea Riseborough, Never Let Me Go, The Death of Stalin) has a scar on one side of her face going down from her left eye, which is never explained, and she apparently draws fantasy art, which we never see but which really impresses her husband.
They’re happy, after a fashion, though a pall hangs over them that is not entirely attributable to the score by frequent Denis Villeneuve collaborator Jóhann Jóhannsson (to whom the film is dedicated). It’s almost as if everything has already happened and they’re powerless to stop it. This part of the movie is filmed with a lot of basic camera effects: Double-exposures, trails, color…uh…de-correction. The camera pans up to the sky occasionally revealing a heavy metal album cover.
Actually, the whole movie could be described as a series of heavy metal album covers. In the second half of the film, which actually eases up on the psychedelic camera effects, there is animation that feels like it’s straight outta the 1981 movie Heavy Metal, presumably as dreamed by Red. Why? Well, why not? (I mean, I’m guessing that’s what Mandy’s art—that we never see—looks like, but that’s not really an explanation.) But this is just one of many “why”s.
Why, when Red tracks down the demonic mutant bikers in the house they’ve invaded, is there a smoke-filled bottomless pit adjoining the kitchen, down which one of the bikers falls never to be seen again? Why does the cult operate out of a giant empty barn with a huge cross carved in the back, but also a surprisingly deep underground cavern? Why does the clandestine drug chemist not only know exactly what Red wants without Red ever speaking a word to him? And why is he so swayed by Red’s unspoken argument that he lets out his caged tigers in shame? Are the demonic mutant bikers actually demons and/or mutants? What is that liquid they demand as payment for their services, the merest taste of which utterly disorients Red?
If you care about these questions, this isn’t the movie for you. These things happen because they’re cool, and we all know how this story plays out so why belabor the action with boring details? The movie teeters on the edge of pretentiousness but then pulls back with deliberately goofy moments: Red and Mandy are enthralled watching Don Dohler’s “Night Beast” on their 12-inch tube TV; Red has a showdown with the beefy cult baddy in the form of a chainsaw duel—something I haven’t seen since Motel Hell; At the moment of deepest despair, with Red realizing Mandy is gone, there’s a startlingly plausible but really gross commercial for Cheddar Goblin macaroni ‘n’ cheese (directed by the guy who created “Too Many Cooks”); the movie has a few “chapter titles” all done in unabashed ’80s metal fonts; even the climactic gore effect is practical and right out of the ’80s.
I don’t know if I’d say the movie was fun so much as it is a lot of things from the sublime to the ridiculous and it embraces all of them.
Great performances all around: Cameo by Bill Duke, essentially reprising his Predator role. Linus Roache as Charles-Manson-by-way-of-Jame-Gumb. Andrea Riseborough manages a nice mix of haunted and haunting, vulnerability and strength. Everyone’s weird and creepy, which is appropriate.
And of course, Mr. Cage. The movie exploits Cage’s range, from his genuinely touching grief over the loss of his wife to his blood-soaked wild-eyed staring at things that aren’t there, which can’t help but draw laughs.
I can’t recommend it to everyone. The pacing was rather slow, all things considered. It is visually chaotic (though far less so than Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse). It is the platonic essence of a really bad genre that succeeds to the degree it does with sheer energy and artistry. But it ain’t formulaic—and in that sense it’s a cure for what ails us in current cinema.