Tuesday, 27 November 2018

Cult Cinema #12: Mandy (2018)

Mandy is possibly the most METAL film I've ever seen. Everything about it is designed to evoke that cultural moment where slasher horror, heavy metal and a certain sort of pulp fantasy – I'm thinking early period Michael Moorcock here, but he's only one of them – inspired albums about black swords and demon killers, and Iron Maiden could base their signature aesthetic around a snarling time-travelling zombie. It's crucially a very blue collar aesthetic, and that's important.


Mandy (Andrea Riseborough) works in a shop. She likes Black Sabbath and pulp fantasy novels, and she gets stoned and draws intricate fantastical scenes in her spare time, for her own pleasure. She's ordinary, but the film's surreal lighting and chapter graphics frame her ordinariness as the stuff of heroic fantasy. Her inner world is vast, magical. Mandy lives with Red (Nicolas Cage), a lumberjack. And the root of Mandy's specialness is pretty simple: she's happy. And so is he. They're ordinary people, happy, in love.
We find she's from a background of mundane misery (and see she has a scar on her face, but no explanation of how it got there), but now she and Red have each other, and Mandy's imagination flourishes, and is not wasted, not dependent on aspiration: it's hers.

And this is why, when a winnebago containing the members of the Children of the New Dawn, a Mansonesque cult in thrall to long-haired sociopath Jeremiah (Linus Roache), passes her on the road, the cult leader becomes obsessed with her. Using improbable, occult means and gaining the aid of a trio of ambiguously demonic bikers, the cult kidnap Mandy and torture Red. The acolytes drug Mandy and bring to Jeremiah, who attempts to seduce her into being his creature and, obviously into having sex with him. And she laughs in his face.

So Jeremiah, outraged by his humiliation, murders Mandy in an outrageously awful way, in front of Red, and then leaves Red for dead.

Red, improbably, survives. Crazed with grief, he embarks on a blood-drenched campaign of revenge.
Most reviews of Mandy concentrate on the campaign of revenge part, and it's really got its wild pleasures here: the way Red hand casts a special axe to use as his weapon; the part where he's in a logging yard and picks up a chainsaw to deal with one of the bad guys, only for the other guy to pick up one about twice as long and they wind up having a fantasy movie sword battle straight out of something like The Beastmaster, only with chainsaws (footnote: although it's also, I'm told, similar to a chainsaw fight in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre 2); the chemist (Richard Brake) who has this tiger in a cage, because you do, the analogue of the wizard in any number of fantasy B movies; the final confrontation in the temple that evokes nothing less than Conan facing down Thulsa Doom in John Milius's version of Conan the Barbarian (1982). There are so many references here to 80s genre movies, both fantasy and horror: Friday 13th gets a nod, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 gets a nod (as I said), there's a bit where Mandy and Red watch obscure creature feature Nightbeast, and so on.

But Cage is supporting cast for the first half of the film. Mandy is its protagonist until then. She dies half way, Red goes mad with grief and then resolves to take revenge, and then, pretty much exactly halfway through, we get the film's title card. Mandy's death and Red's reaction to it are the pivot for this film. Every review of Mandy I've seen has of course talked mostly about Cage and followed up with how good Riseborough is, and Cage is perfect for this film, truly, since his style of acting, demonstrative and wilfully artificial, suits the aesthetic that governs everything, and the way in which it's supposed to parallel a heroic fantasy.
But the film is about Mandy. And after she dies, we still see her: she appears in visionary animated sequences where her fantasy art comes alive, and the way in which the plot unfolds is the stuff of pulp heroic fantasy. The bikers are strangely orclike, the successive lieutenants who Red carves his way through are versions of fantasy tropes – the vizier, the witch, the big mean henchman – and in the final scenes the world itself morphs into Mandy's internal world. Even the setting of the film signifies it: The Shadow Mountains, 1983AD. Cosmatos's first movie, Beyond the Black Rainbow, was also set in 1983AD, and I'm inclined to think they're supposed to be set in the same world, and I'm also inclined to expect a third movie (footnote: there's also the whole thing in both movies about how you drop the wrong sort of acid and see into the capital-B Beyond, you wind up turning into something inhuman and psychopathic, which happens to both Barry Nyle in that earlier film and the Demon Bikers in Mandy).

This is not the same as 1983. OK, so we hear Reagan's "spiritual awakening" speech (footnote: archive media of Ronald Reagan, ironically used, is another point of commonality with Beyond the Black Rainbow – and it sort of makes sense that it would be, since there was always something fantastical about Reagan, something otherworldly and unreal) but that comes in right at the beginning, and of course the truth of Reagan's spiritual awakening is a whacked-out bunch of Manson wannabes. 1983 was a different era, but  when you stick an AD on it, you make it grandiose, mythical. The Shadow Mountains sounds like the sort of place that only exists in a work of Big Map Fantasy, and of course there really are Shadow Mountains, they're in California, but we're not in those Shadow Mountains, we're in a fantastical mirror of them.
Mandy is dead, but the whole story is dwarfed by her private imagination, and then consumed by it. It's a trope of this sort of fantasy (and horror, and action movie) that women get disposed of, so that the hero can get on with the business of bloody revenge, and Cosmatos's film might embrace that, but nonetheless Mandy isn't just given just under 50% of the film to be its protagonist, she is one of the only two characters in the film who can be said to be fully characterised, and the other one isn't Red, who, while he gets all of the film's best lines, is defined by Mandy.

Red is the first named character we see, yes, but he's a red herring (no pun intended). During the opening credits, we see him finishing work, and these scenes are the only ones that are lit naturalistically in the entire movie, the only scenes that look like they're in a real world. And immediately following, Mandy, in close up, takes a good deep toke, and we're led through her art into the world of the film, which is defined by her imagination, an imagination that extends even beyond her death and swallows the world.

The other complete character in the film is Jeremiah Sand, the cult leader. The conflict of the film is driven by his seeing her and immediately desiring her.

Why should he? Well, partly that's because the film is about her, but also partly because that's how a cult leader like him works, which is why I'm even writing about this film here.
Jeremiah's grandly named Children of the New Dawn really amount to a gang of misfits in a Winnebago. You get the impression that they have been around for a while, that they're like the Manson Family would have wound up if they'd gone without being caught until the eighties. And when groups like this survive, it's because members have come and gone. A lot of who goes and stays depends on how they're treated and how much abuse they're prepared to be able to put up with – Brother Swan (Ned Dennehy) is a trusted lieutenant, for example, who's clearly signified as having been in the group a long time, and gets the “inner circle” treatment, while Mother Marlene (Olwen Fouéré) is someone who maybe ten years ago was a frequent sexual partner for Jeremiah, only he's sick of her and showers verbal abuse on her, and she takes it because she's so beaten down and codependent that it's all she can do.

The dynamics of Jeremiah's cult are really well sketched, and although shown relatively briefly, demonstrate how an abusive and charismatic figure, even a faded one, can retain control over a group. He verbally abuses and harangues them, and divides them: he doesn't tell Brother Swan, for example, to offer a “lardass” member of the cult to the tender ministrations of the bikers, he says to Swan “why don't we do this?” and elicits the man's laughing agreement. This is the sort of move that both comes naturally but also cements Jeremiah's control over the man, since he is part of a decision, a life and death one, over a member of the group, and privileges Swan over the other member, sending the message: you are trusted more than the others, because I am consulting you over these decisions.

And that's a classic tactic of the abusive cult leader.
The cult leader needs to control, but he's also a collector. He gets bored with acolytes, or finds they were never what he wanted. He's in thrall to l'objet petit a (that is, Lacan's concept of the thing you want that you can't have which you construct in your imagination so you either can't have it or, if you get it, find reasons to conclude that it wasn't the thing you wanted after all).

But he's the leader of a two bit sex-drugs-and-death cult. Groucho Marx famously said he'd never want to join any club that would take him. Jeremiah is the sort of cult leader who never wants a follower who's the sort of person who'd follow him.

Which is why, although on a shallow level it might seem absurd, Jeremiah sees Mandy and instantly wants her to become one of his stable of followers. He wants to have sex with her, sure, but he wants her mainly to follow him. And he wants her to follow him precisely because she is not the sort of person who would ever join a cult.

And he has her drugged by those improbable means (giant hallucinogenic wasp, right?) and brought to him, and he delivers his patter. And she laughs in his face. And why shouldn't he? He's the sort of person who thinks that the Carpenters made the best music ever. He's unimaginative, and small, and desperately needs adoration, only the sort of people who adore him are precisely the sort of people he holds in contempt.

So she laughs at him (and in a scene where she's still stoned out of her mind, and the sounds and vision is shown in the way that she's experiencing it).

The problem with unimaginative people with power, no matter how small that power is, is that they resort to unimaginative means to protect it, if it is threatened (footnote: So it turns out that Cosmatos wrote a graduate thesis on toxic masculinity and what it does under threat, which is interesting, I reckon). And so Jeremiah murders Mandy in front of Red in a theatrical and horrible way, and he grandstands and rants as he does so, and it's important he grandstands and rants, because he has been offended. So it's important to show the power he has. He stabs Red, helpless and bound with barbed wire, but he stabs him with a fancy knife he gives a fancy name to, and frankly, it could have been a basic shiv, but it matters that it's Grand and Important and Occult because the only blade worthy of him is Grand and Important and Occult. He makes Sister Lucy (Line Pillet) kneel in front of him and play Russian roulette, because he tells her to, to demonstrate the power he feels he should have, to reify it, not only to Red, but to his cult and to himself. Because he has been mocked. His rant is all about how Red and Mandy are trash, the overly fervent protestations of someone desperately insecure but with the power to shore himself up against his insecurities with violence and abuse.
And they leave Red to die, and of course he doesn't, he crawls home, and patches himself up, and finds his mate Carruthers (80s action stalwart Bill Duke, surely on Cosmatos's casting bucket list) who gives him ammunition and advice. And then Red handcasts a badass axe, which is treated with all the reverence of a runesword, and goes for the bad guys, and takes them out one by one.

Until he reaches Jeremiah. And Jeremiah, met with Red, tries the Thulsa Doom tactic (and another footnote: the direct similarities between Mandy and the 1982 Conan the Barbarian are neither rare, nor are they, I think, coincidental) where he claims that he made his antagonist a hero and that it was all intended for Red to end up here, and he should follow him, and then he hectors and harangues, and then he begs.

Because he's pathetic. And this brings us back to why this all happened in the first place, why he became obsessed with her at first sight. It's because he identified in her his shortcomings. Mandy is happy, imaginative, and secure enough in her self not to need external validation. And Jeremiah is miserable, bereft of imagination, and unable to function without having power over others. He recognises that, despite Mandy's apparent ordinariness, she is extraordinary, and being himself insecure, miserable and dependent on the regard of others, he cannot imagine being unable to possess her. Because he's the leader of a personality cult, and possessing others is how he operates. But you don't get to be the leader of a personality cult without being smart and perceptive as well, and Jeremiah can see how Mandy's apparent ordinariness is accompanied by those extraordinary qualities, in the way that a street magician knows in a split second whether his trick is going to work on any given passerby.
And the best part of Mandy – or at least the best part for me out of a whole bundle of great parts – is that he is defeated essentially because he's enclosed in her imagination, and faced by Red, whose vengeance makes a fantastical hero of him, the sort of hero Mandy reads about. Red isn't, for all that Cage plays the hell out of him, a particularly realised character, but he is nonetheless the vehicle of Mandy's imagination.

And look, this film serves largely as a corrective of the trope where the woman dies in order to give the hero an excuse to take revenge, both in films and in heroic fantasy novels, but in order to upend the trope, the woman dies in order to give the hero an excuse to take revenge. And the film, well, it's all about the aesthetic, but it uses the aesthetic that engulfs the whole thing to tell a story about how an internal imagination is vast, and consuming, and extends far enough to swallow the world, and how an abuser might try and fail to control that. And what Mandy has that Beyond the Black Rainbow didn't is real heart. For all that it's about ridiculous theatrics, it hurts. And I'm only about, oh I don't know, 65% sure that's even intentional, but that's the fun part of readings, it doesn't have to be.


Want to read more of my film criticism? We Don't Go Back: A Watcher's Guide to Folk Horror is out now!



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