Panos Cosmatos’s Overlooked Emotional Hellscapes

My most immediate reaction to Mandy when sent stumbling from the theater this past September was that it was a kind of emotional & narrative breakthrough for director Panos Cosmtos. By comparison, I had remembered his debut feature, Beyond the Black Rainbow, to be less plotty & more emotionally detached. Upon revisiting that debut with the rest of the Swampflix crew for our most recent Movie of the Month discussion, I no longer believe that to be true. There’s plenty of deeply-felt emotion running throughout Beyond the Black Rainbow; it’s just something I had forgotten in retrospect while considering the film’s more immediate surface pleasures: its gorgeous washes of color, its overwhelming synth score, its eerie psychedelic mutation of early 80s genre pastiche, etc. Beyond the Black Rainbow is just as emotionally bleak as Cosmatos’s follow-up, and both films actively subvert any potential attempts to reduce them to bro-friendly 80s genre nostalgia by sinking into those painful emotional hellscapes at a gruelingly slow pace. The colorful, synthy textures of those hellscapes wouldn’t mean a thing without that deep hurt at these two films’ cores, which is something that’s easy to forget when praising more immediately rewarding images like The Sentinauts or The Cheddar Goblin.

You would think that Mandy would be the more difficult film to take seriously on an emotional level, given its pedigree as an over-the-top Nic Cage curio. It’s easy to lose sight of the film’s pathos when praising Cage’s chainsaw-wielding revenge mission against a demonic biker gang or the fake commercial for boxed mac & cheese created by the folks behind Too Many Cooks. Mandy dares you to not take its emotional core seriously, opening with a knock-knock joke in its first lines of dialogue and interrupting Cage’s Oscar-winning mode of sad restraint for his more meme-worthy freak-out mode in a lengthy bathroom-set meltdown. Even the central narrative conflict that drives that emotional meltdown and the concluding revenge rampage recalls macho genre tropes in the home invasion & rape revenge tradition that would indicate a detachment from raw emotion in its exploitative violence. However, the central overriding tone of Mandy is emotional pain. The demonic chainsaw rampage that concludes its narrative is not made to feel satisfactory or badass, but is rather a grotesquely macho expression of frustrated emotion, an unhealthy processing of loss. The film opens in a romantic nirvana shared between Cage & Andrea Riseborough, a peaceful domesticity that cannot be fully mourned once it’s lost to the “crazy Evil” of the world outside. For a movie that’s likely to be remembered most for its heavy metal brutality & Cheddar Goblin buffoonery, that frustrated mourning commands a surprising amount of Mandy’s screentime – whether in a lengthy monologue about a traumatic childhood memory or in an extensive shot of Nicolas Cage crying through a barb wire mask, as if he were paying homage to the messages-from-home scene from Interstellar in a Hellraiser sequel.

That same tactic of lingering on silent, distraught faces was already present in Cosmatos’s arsenal in his debut. Beyond the Black Rainbow risks losing its pathos to the same macho genre pastiche & sensory pleasure indulgences as Mandy, especially in its co-option of the woman-in-captivity thriller narrative. It also loses a lot of its potential for a potent emotional core to its deliberate lack of dialogue; there are seemingly more lines spoken in Mandy’s early scene of stoney-baloney pillow-talk about outer space than there are in the entirety of Beyond the Black Rainbow. The emotional textures of the two films are also drastically opposed: Mandy finds its pathos in a violently disrupted utopia of marital bliss, while the only romantic pairing in Beyond the Back Rainbow is defined by a seething, resentful anger. It’s in that quiet, jaw-clenched resentment that Beyond the Black Rainbow finds its own tones of emotional devastation, however, depicted through the same lengthy gazing at distraught facial expressions that we’re confronted with in Mandy. Although the emotional core of Cosmatos’s debut is largely calm & silent, it’s conveyed with such devastating conviction from its two central performers (Michael Rogers & Eva Bourne) that it lands with thunderous impact. Stuck on either side of the observation glass in a go-nowhere science research project—one as captive subject and the other as studious captor—the two central characters in Beyond the Black Rainbow are visibly, absurdly miserable. The captive’s misery manifests in deep, pensive sadness while the captor’s misery takes the form of seething, resentful anger; either way, they’re both feeling a lot, which is something that might not stand out in initial viewings of the film, given the flashier, plentiful sensory pleasures that threaten to drown it out.

Panos Cosmatos has explained in interviews that he thinks of both films as art therapy – using the subliminal tools & methods of cinematic expression to cope with the loss of his parents and to reflect on the domestic tones of his own romantic life. Yikes. I don’t know that I can see any direct, concrete allegories for what he’s saying about those topics through either of these works, nor do I believe the filmmaker is even attempting to achieve that kind of direct, concrete expression. The emotional extremes of Beyond the Black Rainbow & Mandy bleed through the two films’ visual intensity as an evocation of pain & mood. It’s a much more difficult effect to pinpoint or explain that the enormity of Johann Johannsson’s score or the hilarity of The Cheddar Goblin (an image that itself is even used to contrast a character’s misery); but once you pay attention to the emotional torment at the core of Cosmatos’s art, it becomes just as deafening as anything else at play.

For more on November’s Movie of the Month, Panos Cosmatos’s psychedelic debut Beyond the Black Rainbow, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, and our examinations of the influences it pulled from Phase IV (1974) & Dark Star (1974).

-Brandon Ledet

 

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Mandy (2018)

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.

-Brandon Ledet