mandy: A Game-changing aesthetic nightmare

- Review by Hiram Harrington

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In my 20 years on this earth, I have seen my fair share of horror films. As a teenager, I devoured every vaguely spooky or gory motion picture I could get my hands on. Every film, from The Shining (1980) to Suspiria (1977), has shaped my understanding of the horror genre to a depth where there is rarely a twist or turn that can surprise me.

So, when I say that Mandy is one of the most powerful works of horror art I have ever witnessed, you know it’s not a lie.

Mandy centers on the horror experienced by Nicholas Cage’s Red Miller and Andrea Riseborough’s Mandy Bloom. They play a strange, but deeply loving couple living off the grid in a 1980s forest wilderness. One day, Mandy is spotted by Jeremiah Sand (a deeply unsettling Linus Roache), the leader of a Neo-Christian hippie cult called The Children of the New Dawn. Taken in by her charm, he attacks the couple with the help of a demonic LSD-altered biker gang in order to induct her into their group. After Jeremiah attacks Mandy for rejecting his advances, Red sets out on a path of bloody, drug-fuelled murder to avenge his lover.

Director and co-writer Panos Cosmatos constructs a narrative echoing with familiarity for the horror genre, especially for the “Rape-revenge” exploitation films that were all too common in the 1970s and 1980. The formula is much the same in Mandy: a “pure” woman is caused grievous harm by a man/group of men, and she/her defenders exacts terrible violence on the perpetrators. It is a problematic concept, but Mandy and Red seem to defy the archetypal virgin/protector dynamic. They discuss trauma from each other’s past openly, talk about the planets in sublime reverence, and display a physical intimacy that goes beyond sexual or romantic. They’re soulmates.

The Children of the New Dawn cult are deeply unsettling villains, utilising all manners of violence and intoxicants to appease their evidently deranged leader. Jeremiah never commits these acts himself, echoing sentiments of a Manson-like devoted following. The Black Skulls biker gang are equally terrifying based on their Mad Max-esque styling alone. This makes for a gory death match between themselves and Red as he goes on his rampage.

Beyond a shadow of a doubt, however, the film’s artistic direction is what steals the show. At the beginning of this review, I mentioned Dario Argento’s horror icon Suspiria, known for its revolutionary use of extreme-coloured lighting and a synth soundtrack performed by band Goblin. Mandy’s lighting scheme is soaked in saturated reds and trippy blues, with no diegetic explanation. Each scene is framed with an intense near-throbbing base sound, each sequence introduced on a glowing title card to divide the film into three main acts. It feels almost like a fairytale, surreal in its portrayal of the surrounding forest and sacrilegious in its distrust of authority.

Cage has been the punchline of too many jokes for the last decade of his career. Poor turns in The Wicker Man (2006) remake and in Ghost Rider (2007) left his return to the world of horror poorly anticipated. After the critical success of last year’s indie slasher Mom and Dad (2017), however, there was hope once more. It did not go misplaced. Cage’s turn as Red Miller still has moments of the campy rage notorious of his acting style, but they are blended with moments of genuine grief that fit perfectly with the over-saturated tone of the film. The real star, however, is Andrea Riseborough’s Mandy. Soft-spoken and in love with the world of the fantastic, Mandy is the not the typical horror love interest. Defying beauty standards, and standards of passivity for female figures, her sheer strength of character sets her apart from all others before her.

Mandy, while not a film for every audience, cannot be ignored as a landmark film for its aestheticism and character study. The visual construction is so unique, so stylised in its view of the forest and its gory slayings, that Mandy has elevated itself beyond slasher or revenge film. It’s art you can see, hear, and feel with every fibre of your being.