(Cage Rage is a month-long weekly series celebrating our favorite works that star one of our favorite actors, Nicolas Cage. While Nicolas Cage is the gateway into these works, we will still be appreciating the entirety of the work itself, not just Mr. Cage.)
If you know cinema, odds are, you know the name Nicolas Cage. The man has proven himself to be something of an anomaly of the film world. His unique acting style has transcended the form of film acting from being solely about either naturalism or theatricalility, and has blurred the line into being something on its own.
Nic Cage has had many stages of his career. There were the oddball early films that put him on the map like Moonstruck, Raising Arizona, and Vampire’s Kiss. Then he became a blockbuster lead through the late-90s and early 2000s in films like Con Air, National Treasure, and the Ghost Rider movies to name a few. (also some stinkers like Next, The Wicker Man, and Knowing, but hey, who am I to judge?) But as it got closer to the 2010s, Cage found himself dealing with a wide array of tax issues, which led to the era of him appearing in a staggering amount of direct-to-video films just to pay off his debts. There are some gems among them to be fair, such as Joe and The Trust, or at the very least, stuff like Between Worlds and Primal are interesting. But for every one of those, there’s at least two or three films to take its place like Arsenal, The Humanity Bureau, or Pay The Ghost. (Just… Ugh.)
But near the tail end of this turbulent time for Cage, we were starting to see him begin to make some really interesting choices. Near the end of the 2010s, we saw a resurgence of Nicolas Cage headlining some really interesting genre films. Before we knew it, these oddball projects would contribute to something of a comeback for him, especially seeing him later pop up in voice roles in films like Teen Titans Go! To the Movies and Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse.
With this series, I want to take a look at some of the more interesting films of Nicolas Cage, especially ones adjacent to the horror genre. And what better place to start off than Panos Cosmatos’ acid-drenched fever dream… Mandy.
The work of Panos Cosmatos was actually introduced to me with his previous film all the way back at Fantastic Fest in 2011, Beyond The Black Rainbow. It might not have helped that I was a teenager when I first saw that movie, but it was a film where the style felt like it dominated over any story it had, and I was very put off by its deliberate slow pace.
Granted, I have not revisited the film since watching it with an underdeveloped teenage brain. But in general, I tend to steer away from a lot of slow-paced art films that feel much more interested in embellishing its own style or quirks instead of telling an interesting story. There have been some exceptions to this in the later years of my life, but usually I struggle with movies that I feel like test my patience.
With that in mind, when you look at something like Mandy, nothing about it should work for me. It’s slow, it has a very striking style with a lot of primary colors as its color palette, and it also was released in the midst of Nicolas Cage’s direct-to-video era, which as you can imagine, didn’t generate a lot of goodwill at the time.
To my real surprise, Mandy defies this expectation for me at every turn.
I watched this movie really at the behest of all the horror critics I know and trust, with some even proclaiming it to be the best horror film of 2018. At a different point in time, I would have brushed this off. But 2018 is notable as being the year that really began kicking the New Horror Renaissance into high gear. Sure, it can be argued that 2017 really changed the game with the release of Get Out, but 2018 would follow the model to give rise to the new wave of horror in both the mainstream and arthouse circuits. One of the things specifically out of 2018 was in fact the return of the slasher film, whether it’s titans like Michael Myers returning in Halloween, or new faces being introduced like Art the Clown in Terrifier.
Mandy surprisingly fits into this mold too. If Beyond The Black Rainbow is Panos Cosmatos doing his take on 70s science fiction films, Mandy is his version of an 80s slasher film. And what makes this movie so cool in how it mashes up the genres is that the slasher element has a twist.
To really examine further, we really need to jump into the plot, which is relatively simple and makes the film much more accessible despite its extreme presentation. The film is also broken up in three different chapters, almost like that of an 80s pulp novel. However, I would argue that the film is actually split into two distinctive halves, each one dedicated to both halves of the two protagonists, Red, played by Cage, and the titular Mandy, played by Andrea Riseborough.
Red and Mandy are a couple that live an idyllic life alone in the Pacific Northwest. Red is a logger and recovering alcoholic while Mandy works at a gas station and creates elaborate fantasy artwork that Red admires and loves. Matter of fact, keep that detail in mind about Mandy, because so much of the look of this movie evokes the same kind of imagery you’d see on paperback fantasy novels or the side of a stoner’s panel van.
Mandy is shown to have gone through a deeply traumatic and abusive life, thus making all the more sense as to why she takes comfort retreating into stories of fantasy and science fiction. But even with this knowledge, Red is so warm and gentle with her through their entire relationship. Even if they seem to be total opposites in lifestyle, they compliment each other in the best ways.
This makes it all the more tragic when, based on one passing glance, Mandy becomes the target of obsession for cult leader Jeremiah Sand, played by Linus Roache. The analogies to the Manson family are not subtle at all. Jeremiah is a failed folk musician who went on to form his own warped family, the Children of the New Dawn. He believes himself to have been personally touched by Christ to lead his family, so long as they tend to his twisted needs and desires.
To make this happen, the cult employs the services of a pseudo-demonic biker gang, the Black Skulls. As described by Carruthers, played by Bill Duke, later in the movie, the Black Skulls were originally drug couriers that found themselves afoul of some tainted LSD, which mutated them both mentally and physically, becoming sadomasochistic cenobite-type beings. “Ceno-bikers,” if you will.
After being given a human sacrifice, the Ceno-bikers proceed to abduct our dynamic duo, and the Children of the New Dawn drug Mandy (also sting her with a giant pickled hornet, what the fuck?), and present her in front of Jeremiah, who is “presenting” in his own right. He even plays some of his shitty music that’s all about, you guessed it, himself. However, Mandy does the sensible thing and laughs at his patheticness. With his manhood embarrassed, Jeremiah proceeds to torture Red and set Mandy on fire in front of him. Red is reduced to tears and agony as Mandy burns completely to ash in front of him.
Even after the most devastating moment of Red’s life, Cosmatos knows that he needs to break up the moments of tension in his film with some levity. Oftentimes, he does this by layering on more and more absurdity. Such is the case with the greatest creation of this movie… Cheddar Goblin.
Enjoy that weirdness while you can. Because as soon as Red comes to, the movies flips into the second half, and it’s punctuated by one of the greatest moments from Nicolas Cage ever wherein he relapse with a bottle of vodka and unleashes his rage and agony into the most gut-wrenching screams he’s ever uttered…
Here’s the thing to keep in mind with Cage. There’s this misconception that he’s a bad actor, which is far from the truth. What it comes down to is how he’s used. His, shall we say, “unique” brand of acting sticks out like a sore thumb in most commercial pieces that more or less play it straight. It’s only when the film around him is able to match his crazy that he feels right at home. And Mandy is the shining example of that.
The second half of the film is what really establishes what this is, a revenge flick. However, because of the horror-like presentation of the film, the way it operates is less of a Death Wish style film and more as a slasher movie where the slasher is also the hero of the movie. Cage even mentioned that one of his influences on his performance in the latter half of the movie is Kane Hodder as Jason Voorhees in Friday The 13th Part 7: The New Blood.
In a lot of ways, when I first watched this movie, the movie that immediately jumped to mind was the first Mad Max. We follow a reluctant hero who sets out on a revenge mission against a group of bikers, and the world may or may not be messed up in some way. The fact that this world feels so surreal and hostile actually makes all the more sense when Red ingests some of the tainted LSD later in the film. In effect, the movie makes a lot more sense if you look at it through the lens of the worst drug trip imaginable.
In fact, the movie often employs such surreal visuals that there are even moments of animation that punctuate moments in Red’s psyche that feel completely ripped out of a Heavy Metal segment. This deteriorating point of view could even call into question how much of the movie is actually even happening. A good example of this is when Red meets the Chemist, played by Richard Brake. Not only does he imagine eels at his feet, but who knows if the Chemist’s pet tiger Lizzie is even real?
Nonetheless, while the first half is slow on purpose to allow us to get a feel for the characters and this weird version of reality, it’s ultimately what makes the back half of the movie so utterly satisfying as Red one-by-one knocks off everyone that wronged him. Similar to how Cage’s other unlikely genre mash-up Pig crafted a existential drama through the lens of a revenge story, Mandy crafts an existential slasher horror movie that doubles as a revenge film.
And as if the movie couldn’t get any more metal, Red even forges one of the greatest horror weapons ever, the Beast.
There’s something to be said about how Red’s targets also reflect different sides of 60-70s counterculture, something that Cosmatos is an outspoken critic of. There’s the Ceno-bikers, clearly a reflection on the worst parts of the Wild Angels biker phenomenon that created its own sense of panic, both warranted and unwarranted. And then the Children of the New Dawn are as much a reflection of the Baby Boomer New Age movement as they are the Manson family, whom of which are a notorious by-product of.
This New Age belief system regularly employed the use of psychedelic drugs in order to achieve some sense of spiritual enlightenment. But just like in Black Rainbow, Cosmatos takes this conceit away from the “flower child” aesthetic and depicts it as something much more dark and disturbing. Jeremiah Sand and his “children” are the worst case scenario of this movement. Jeremiah fashions himself as the leader of the new world and will only accept the perfect mate to lead alongside him. And when that mate rejects him, it could be interpreted that he conjures the wrath of the devil himself, in this case, Red.
And sure, I may be digging too deep into the allegory of it all. But in a lot of ways, the film feels very David Lynchian in that it is less concerned with the function of the narrative structure, and more concerned with eliciting a reaction from its viewers. A reaction meant to invite any number of thematic interpretations. Mandy just has the added bonus of being super fucking gory to boot.
Mandy is not a film that’s interested in holding your hand. If anything, it challenges the audience to see if they’re willing to go along with Nicolas Cage in this neon nightmare that invites you to embrace its own insanity.
Surprisingly, my answer was yes. Absolutely.
Mandy is available on Blu Ray, DVD, and VOD. Now streaming on Shudder.