In theory, a movie like “Mandy” would be right up the same alley of brazen gorefests that have been known to captivate my morbid sense of voyeurism. Ripped from the familiar cloth as any number of audacious horror stories set in the lurid world of pulp fiction, the picture makes a bold promise from its very first frame: all that is about to happen will be unlike anything we have witnessed on screen – or, at the bare minimum, fresh enough to draw comparisons to Dario Argento and Mario Bava, the architects of the decadent excess we associate with Giallo. Indeed, countless critics and colleagues have hailed the picture as a triumph of its medium, a surrealistic experience where the framework of the familiar revenge formula is twisted into a fever dream of contemplative symbolism and thematic excess. And who wouldn’t want that, especially nowadays as the genre appears caught somewhere between the extremes of vague nuance and gratuitous overkill?
This was the obligatory spark that drove director Panos Cosmatos down this macabre rabbit hole, leading him to a world where ordinary people don’t merely run or scream their way out of situations, but stand still to bask in the uncertainty of them before their lives are altered by the ordinary impulses of murder and mayhem. Consider poor Mandy herself, for instance. When she is kidnapped by a cult of hyper-religious zealots at the halfway point of the film and then drugged into a paralyzing haze for the purpose of listening to the villain’s monologue, do you think she responds to it all by merely trying to escape or plead her way out? Of course not. That would be too obvious, too mainstream. Instead, she simply stares at him while he disrobes, assesses his physique, and laughs until his rage becomes uncaged. Would John Carpenter or Clive Barker have played the moment this way? Or William Friedkin? This one scene is the entire movie in microcosm, a mirror held up by a filmmaker who is bored by all perfunctory expectations that have led his genre of choice astray in these times of repetition and simplicity.
Where must this all lead now, then? Is there an undiscovered avenue in the labyrinth that still pulsates with fresh sparks? Some have taken the descent and managed to emerge with fresh, uncultivated takes. Cosmatos is not among them. His “Mandy” marks an intriguing turning point in the methods of recent horror, and those who will endure it are not likely to find easy comparisons to other pictures within the genre. But there also comes a point where style and symbolism must be relied on to elevate material instead of engulfing it. The movie is so thick with decadence, so completely absorbed by the unending awe and fascination that comes with the journey, that he is never able to create a tangible connecting point between the audience and the characters. Eventually, we simply find ourselves so frustrated by the meandering detachment of it all that we give up trying to reason with any of it.
The film stars Nicholas Cage and Andrea Riseborough as Red and Mandy, a couple of introverts living life in the quiet wilderness of some undisclosed locale, where they pass time by reading books, watching television, or quietly staring at one another while the other speaks in hushed profundities. They are likable enough, hardly in a position to harm or inspire loathing, but as is the case with all horror movies, comfort rarely lasts long. One day, while she is aimlessly wandering on a highway road near their property, a van belonging to a group of religious nutjobs catches a glimpse of her that spirals into a lethal obsession for Jeremiah (Linus Roache), the cult’s leader. He wants to possess her, capture her, do whatever it takes to absorb her into his lair of eccentric and downtrodden misfits. The desire leads to a bargain they strike with a nocturnal biker gang who are notorious for local abductions in the dead of night, who will deliver Mandy to Jeremiah while simultaneously ensuring Red is bound and gagged safely away from the action.
Still following along? It gets more fascinating. The bikers themselves, who are critical at both ends of the story, may not be mere bikers at all. Perhaps they are not even human. The movie plays it cagey with details, always obscuring their faces and physiques in shadows, while reducing their monosyllabic expressions to what can only be described as metallic growls on the wind. “Blood for Blood,” one of them announces early on, in a raspy inflection that might as well belong to a werewolf. How did they come to be? How did the cult know to hire them for their deadly deed? The uncertainty underlines the material, to inspire our collective fright even while casting doubt on the assurance of people, places and events that hold the movie together.
Needless to say, Mandy’s capture and eventual death will be the engine that drives Red to frenzied vengeance against his new enemies. But what is he up against, really? Certainly not foresighted antagonists, that’s for sure. A religious cult can hardly be expected to possess much common sense, I guess, but in a gathering of half a dozen observers, wouldn’t one of them at least suggest it would be unwise to leave Red alive at the end of captivity? The bindings he is held in are all but easy invites for escape. Other characters emerge for the sake of tonal foreshadowing, including a nomadic hermit who provides storage for Red’s dormant arsenal of battle weapons (how convenient), and an eccentric man in a tin shed who ominously looks at the camera while forecasting what is to come, just before he lets a tiger out of a cage to symbolically provide Red with the metaphor of his coming attack. Also not surprisingly, the establishing shot of the third act sees the lead assessing his hunting ground over a large cliffside, with a valley below surrounded by three high walls and a single entrance. If the movies have taught us anything about revenge over these last several decades, it’s that cornering yourself in when you’re the target of an angry madman doesn’t make for very compelling storytelling.
The movie is all spectacle and no deliberation. Every scene bleeds the aura of self-importance, every shot played up with over emphasis. This becomes monotonous and exhausting when there is nothing substantive holding it together. That is not to say the technical aesthetic is without some level of skill, however. I admired, for example, how Cosmatos strategically edits his character shots, dawdling on individual faces long enough so that their presence has a chance to anchor in our memory. The movie contains a lot of vibrant, refreshing color. The violence, meanwhile, has an alluring magnetism; whole sequences are staged in a way that removes their constraints from reality, so that when two men are essentially sword fighting while holding chainsaws, we can plausibly accept the possibility. The film’s greatest asset? Nearly all the shots are longer than the average jump cuts we associate with modern cinema. The camera intentionally holds focus on set pieces, faces, explanations, ambushes, blood splatters and emotional reactions without regard to time or the average attention span. That is one of the signatures of the great filmmakers like Tarkovsky and Kubrick, who knew that frequently lingering on a single focus was the key to opening the meditative urge of the more intellectual audience. Someday Cosmatos might find himself among those names – hopefully after he reaches a better understanding of balance.