Mandy – Nicholas Cage’s horrifying, hypnotic remains of nostalgia

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Nicholas Cage as Red Miller in Mandy, 2018

As Nicolas Cage makes a return to the silver screen in an 80s themed gore fest, Getintothis’ Kieran Donnachie asks if Mandy is the film of the year, is it for everyone? The answer, apparently, is ‘God no’.

With its limited release and an even more limited marketing campaign, Mandy is a hidden gem as far as we’re concerned. Up until its release, it was thoroughly under the radar, perhaps only the most diligent of Nicolas Cage fans stumbled across the trailer.

The full spectrum of Cage was promised, from the cheesy action hero to the full mania that so rarely gets pulled out. Something to look forward to then? Yet also promised was another 80s nostalgia piece drenched in synth, film grain and fluorescence.

We’ve been driven insane by the near constant barrage of rose tinted visions of the 80s. More specifically the 80s of suburban white America. Remember arcades? Bikes in the summer? New Kids on the Block?

Great wasn’t it.

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What about rising homophobic hysteria with the AIDS crisis? The war on drugs decimating already marginalised communities? The birth of Thatcherism and Reaganomics, the fallout of which still hangs above us? Even the existential dread of a very real fallout from nuclear weapons?

Stranger Things, Super 8 and IT each paid homage to the Hollywood of the day, largely ignoring the reality of where it came from. Mandy does away with the reverential and selective memory. Its love for the time becomes purely technical. The lighting, visual effects and camera work take the style and run a mile with it.

Gone are the precocious kids and cookie cutter houses. The opening scene is of a forest, with lumberjack Red (Cage) at work. A title card places us in the Shadow Mountains, 1983. He drives home, silencing the radio as Reagan gives the usual good versus evil spiel.

His artist wife Mandy (Andrea Riseborough), sits at her desk drawing. They live away from society, in a personal haven from the moral panics and conservatism that defined America at that moment.

In the short time we spend with the couple, they’re plainly happy and comfortable. As with most of the characters in the film, little backstory is offered, nor is it needed. In fact, the script is slim on detail throughout. The screenwriters, Panos Cosmatos and Aaron Stewart-Ahn, are purposefully unforthcoming.

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It’s easy to imagine this being frustrating for some, but all the players in the plot are easily understood, whether through empathy or real-world analogues.

Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache) leads the Children of the New Dawn, a pseudo-Christian cult. Captivated by Mandy after a chance passing by, he orders the members to bring her in. The Manson Family comparison is obvious. The followers are equally sympathetic, exploited inductees, and despicable, blind followers.

Sand, the typical cult chauvinist, using or setting aside the women as he pleases. The brief glimpses we get of their ideology echoes the American brand of evangelicalism, so often mocked and dismissed, but twisted into flagrant evil.

It’s here the movie you desperately wanted begins to peek through, a weird and otherworldly playspace for Nicolas Cage. The aesthetic core of Mandy, sci-fi fantasy metal album covers, spills out onto the screen.

Using the Horn of Abraxas (an early Christian term for God) the cult summons a group of demons; essentially Hellraiser Cenobites with bikes. With them at the fore, the cult moves to take Mandy from Red. The ensuing quest for vengeance blurs reality further, with winding tunnels beneath half finished churches, pet tigers and bizarre drug trips.

Mandy Promotional Poster

Mandy, and it’s director Cosmatos, weigh the visual far more highly than plot. Everything seen and heard is in service of the atmosphere. The alien colour palette, the film grain, fog machine haze and the pondering cinematography are each woven together with the thread that is Jóhann Jóhannson’s score.

His usual ambient style is injected with a heavy dose of proggy sludge metal, creating a masterful and unforgettable soundscape for the film. It will sadly be one of his last, having passed away early this year.

There is so much to love about the surface level of the film. It’s slowness, likely off-putting for many, feels like a blessing for any wanting to drink in the movie’s mood.

Where usually this writer loves to plumb the depths of subtext for meaning, the film is too entrancing and allows no time to stop and think. Recalling too is difficult. We only remember it in dark landscapes or the odd tonal shifts of one-liners and the Cheddar Goblin.

What is Mandy about?

It was some thought before anything beyond admiration of craft came to mind. The reason all those 80s classics are horror films, the reason we remember the period so fondly rather than remember the truth. Mandy drips with terror, the horrific kismet that propels Cage’s character into madness feels unavoidable. It’s the perfect movie about the 80s. The film screams it, start to finish. The era was defined by it.

Fear.

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