For a few years now, I’ve considered Deathgasm the most authentically metal film I’ve ever seen, but Panos Cosmatos’s psychedelic freak-out Mandy may have just usurped that distinction. In Deathgasm’s version of heavy metal cinema, the demon-slaying D&D power fantasy that visually defines the genre’s iconography is depicted as decidedly fun & badass, an escape from the mundanity of teenage suburban boredom. Mandy’s vision of metal soundscapes is something much darker & more sinister, fully capturing the way a funeral-doom beat or a stoner metal riff can feel like a Hellish descent into the darkness of the human soul. Mandy dwells in metal’s emotional catharsis, bathing itself in the grotesque blood & grime of human misery. It only pauses to laugh at the absurdity of life’s continual embarrassments, finding a much more sinister humor in metal’s extremity than the gory slapstick of demon-slaying horror comedies like Deathgasm. That same absurdist humor was present in Cosmatos’s debut, the tongue-in-cheek psych horror Beyond the Black Rainbow, but the hideous emotional catharsis of this follow-up feels like new, freshly rewarding territory for the director. It also feels metal as fuck, just in a more devastating way than the badass power fantasy that descriptor may imply.
Nicolas Cage stars as Red, a gruff logger in alternate reality 1980s overrun with LSD cults, demonic bikers, and cosmic chaos. His heavy metal girlfriend (Andrea Riseborough) is the titular Mandy, an amateur fantasy artist who spends long stretches painting & drawing in the woods while Red works in remote wilderness locales. The tragic couple temporarily seal themselves away from the “crazy evil” of the outside world in a perpetual state of insular, marital bliss. We mostly see the world through Mandy’s POV in this early stretch, which filters reality through the D&D fantasy and heavy metal album cover aesthetics that also guide the art she creates & consumes. It’s in the second half of the film that reality breaks completely. The acid cults, biker demons, and cosmic menace that command the world outside take Mandy away from Red, whose grief takes on an ugly, punishing violence as he exacts grotesque vengeance on the “crazy evil” that destroyed his blissful home. On paper, the film’s plot sounds exactly like the macho revenge power fantasies that have lingered on the big screen at least since the Death Wish-style thrillers of the 1970s. In action, it’s a slow, gross descent into the hell of personal grief; nothing about Red’s revenge on the world’s Evils feels macho or badass. It’s all bleak, hopeless, and haunted by the memory of Mandy – all while monster doom riffs & washes of punishing synths (provided by recently-deceased composer Johann Johansson) overwhelm the soundtrack.
Besides its bifurcated POV, it’s the relentless overload of those brutal sights & sounds that differentiates Mandy from typical revenge thriller fare. Like in Beyond the Black Rainbow, Cosmatos throws himself head-on into the most sensory concerns of filmmaking indulgence, approximating what a Guy Maddin film might look like if you were Robo-tripping at 3am. As someone made helpless by the simple combination of synths & neon lights in any genre cinema, I was automatically charmed by the film’s punishingly loud soundtrack & washes of intense, artificial colors. Cosmatos himself seems to be taken with these indulgences even more than your average 80s-nostaglic genre enthusiast, turning the combo of neon & synths into an almost fetishistic religious ceremony. Mandy is so gorgeous & deafening that its aesthetic indulgences become a grotesque, horrifying display. This is less of a revenge thriller than it is a Hellish nightmare, a dream logic horror-show that drifts further away from the rules & sensory palettes of reality the deeper it sinks into its characters’ trauma & grief.
Like Vampire’s Kiss, Drive Angry, and Knowing before it, this is a film that’s going to be best remembered for Nic Cage’s more extravagant, meme-ready freak-outs. I highly doubt anyone solely looking to laugh at those stray dialed-to-eleven moments from the notoriously absurd actor are going to leave fully satisfied by the slow, traumatic doom metal march to oblivion they find instead. While 2018’s Mom & Dad is a meme-friendly party movie worthy of being shared with friends over beers & jeers, Mandy is more of a headphones listen, a solemn knockout that leaves you in a stupor. Nic Cage’s over-the-top, absurdist humor shines through in isolated moments of cartoonish what-the-fuckery, but when considered in the context of the hideous grief his character is working through, the effect is just as ugly as it is amusing. His performative extremism is less of a for-its-own-sake novelty than it is in service of Panos Cosmatos’s auteurist vision of a heavy-metal emotional Hell. Nic Cage may slay biker demons with a chainsaw & a self-forged axe in his personal war against religious acid freaks in a neon-lit, alternate dimension 1980s, but Mandy is not headbanging party metal. It’s more stoned-and-alone, crying over past trauma to doom riffs metal, where the flashes of fun & cosmic absurdity are only reminders of how cruelly uncaring & meaningless it can feel to be alive.