For horror junkies, ‘Mandy’ is the guiltiest of pleasures

Nicolas Cage burns down the cinema screen in Panos Cosmatos’ relentless horror vision, even if its hallucinatory effects pale in comparison to its gorier elements.

In a dense forest outside the Shadow Mountains in 1983, Red Miller (Nicolas Cage) is a lumberjack living with his artist girlfriend, Mandy (Andrea Riseborough). Their bohemian lifestyle seems to be focused on recovering from his alcoholism and her traumatic childhood. When Mandy catches the eye of local cult leader, Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache), he orders his disciples to kidnap her. The Children of the New Dawn, a religious sect, further summon a murderous motorcycle gang known as the Black Skulls to ensure the capture of the near-mythological Mandy.

None of this matters in the grand scheme. Director Panos Cosmatos, whose previous work I’m unfamiliar with, stuffs the first half of his 2-hour movie with exposition in the form of heady conversation, trippy visuals and atmospheric sound. For viewers, this shallow conjuring of ideas sounds interesting, yet it never amounts to any implication of a real world context. As a result, the running time feels like it could be 20 or 30 minutes shorter. There’s too many vague monologues and slow fade-outs that don’t build hype for the action that comes later.

At its heart, “Mandy” is a thrilling story of revenge. If anyone is seeing it in a theatre, they know they’re paying to see Nicholas Cage in a role that best suits his brand of acting. That’s not a knock on the Oscar-winner, his acting style is as distinct as someone like Marlon Brando, one of his cinematic heroes. Maybe Cosmatos thought it was clever to withhold his star from much of the set-up and backstory in order to unleash him in a state of peak ferociousness. This approach mostly works; it’s exhilarating to watch as he rips through the final act despite the fact that everything leading up to his kill spree is exhaustingly faux meditative. Thankfully, Andrea Riseborough (Birdman) carries the other half of the movie with another one of her enigmatic performances; she lends herself nicely to this material even if it diservices her in the long-run.

What can feel like a sketch that has been stretched to feature-length is dressed up with sounds and visuals that add an arguable amount of substance to the piece as a whole. The color red (no coincidence with the character’s name) is used in divergent ways to express the couple’s loving bond and the imminent danger that threatens it. A few key scenes reminded me of the saturated imagery in George Miller’s “Mad Max: Fury Road,” but Cosmatos isn’t as commanding with his color palette in terms of propelling the narrative. A large portion of the imagery is drowned in tints and filters that are meant to be psychedelic, but mostly just feel like a blurry haze. As for the sound design, a constant humming and whaling in the background nearly overshadow what is an exceptional electronic score from the late composer Jóhann Jóhannsson.

Simply put, grandiose acts of violence lead to even more grandiose acts of violence. For a niche audience, Halloween comes early this year in the form of satanic cults, demon gangs and a crazed Cage. “Mandy” might not offer much in the way of enlightenment, but it is a surefire hit for horror junkies who know exactly what they’re getting themselves into - and a highlight in the past decade of Nicolas Cage’s acting career.

Edited by Siena DeBolt | sdebolt@themaneater.com

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