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

 

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

Mom and Dad (2018)

Over-the-top Nicolas Cage performances are often conversationally boiled down to a single moment of absurdist novelty. Entire movies are remembered solely as “the one where Nic Cage yells about the bees,” “the one where Nic Cage angrily recites the alphabet,” or “the one where Nic Cage stares at imaginary iguanas.” By that measurement, Mom and Dad will surely be remembered as “the one where Nic Cage destroys a pool table with a sledgehammer while singing ‘The Hokey Pokey.’” It’s that exact kind of delirious lunacy trash-hungry audiences pray for in every Nic Cage cheapie, a novelty he stubbornly withholds in most of his direct-to-VOD dreck. Admittedly, though, the “Hokey Pokey” scene in Mom and Dad is only a brief diversion (in a movie composed almost entirely of brief diversions). He doesn’t even sing the entirety of the novelty dance song before he runs out of energy, just barking out a few lines in a single angry burst. The absurdist novelty of that moment cannot be undervalued, though; it truly is a wonder to behold. It’s also just one minor detail in a much larger, nastier tapestry of unexplainable violent outbursts. Mom and Dad thankfully amounts to much more than merely being “the one where Nic Cage destroys a pool table with a sledgehammer while singing ‘The Hokey Pokey.’” It’s also a wickedly fun satire about modern families’ barely concealed hatred for their own, a chaotic portrait of selfishness & self-loathing in the modern suburban home.

Cage stars opposite Selma Blair as middle-aged parents struggling to find fulfillment within a traditionalist family unit. Light banter barely disguises parents’ & kids’ seething hatred for each other as they lie, cheat, steal, and insult their bonds into tatters. This tension transforms into externalized violence when an unexplained supernatural event compels all parents of children everywhere to murder their own offspring in an epidemic of blind rage. Some of the widespread fallout of this event is captured in flashes of news coverage and in sequences of blood-splattered mayhem as parents swarm like zombie hoards to pick up their kids from schools & hospital nurseries. Mostly, though, the violence is contained to the suburban housing development where Cage & Blair’s rabid parents live. They chase their children around their home with various domestic objects, hellbent on murdering the ungrateful little brats while still doling out weaponized barbs of parental advice & commands. Meanwhile, memories & daydreams yank the audience outside the chaos of the moment to consider how the self-loathing midlife crises that preceded this bloodbath aren’t actually all that different from the violence itself. These relationships were never healthy, even when they were covered up with a smile instead of the buzz of an electric-powered jigsaw. This is an inversion of the dark humor we’re used to seeing in pictures like Cooties & The Children, where the kids are the otherworldly creatures to be feared. Here, parents are made to fear themselves, especially in regard to their unexamined jealousies & resentments toward their own offspring, who still have their glory years ahead of them instead of bitterly fading in the rearview on the road to selfless familial sacrifice.

Judging by the general negative reaction to last year’s similarly cartoonish home invasion horror comedy The Babysitter, I suspect many audiences will be frustrated by the frantic tone & editing rhythms of Mom and Dad. This is, paradoxically, a hyperactive movie with zero narrative momentum. Individual moments may indulge in the sugary energy of a breakfast cereal commercial and the whole thing is scored with a barrage of playful pop music, but its commitment to tangential asides & abrasive flashbacks often keeps its story static. Fully enjoying Mom and Dad, then, requires a forgiving appreciation of its pitch-black comedic nastiness, a wicked sense of humor where every parent is an untrustworthy monster and no child, neither newborn nor middle-aged, is safe from the malicious creatures who spawned them. I do think the movie plays it a little safe when it comes to explicitly depicting that child-endangering violence onscreen, especially in comparison to the recent cheap-o monster movie Clown. What it lacks in shock value brutality, however, it makes up for in a gruesome tone & worldview. The movie hides behind tongue-in-cheek touches like a 70s exploitation-themed credits sequence & stylized dialogue like “My mom is a penis,” but just under its ironic camp surface rots a charred, bitterly angry heart, one with no respect for the almighty Family Values that mainstream America holds so dear. To be honest, it’s a dynamic I find much more honest & relatable than the Family Above Everything messaging offered in feel-good-films like Coco. Even if you’ve never had a family member chase you down the hallway with a meat-tenderizer, Mom and Dad’s violent, deep-seated resentment is sure to resonate with you on some level (especially if you’re a middle-aged parent with ungrateful teens at home).

Show up for Nic Cage destroying a pool table with a sledgehammer while singing “The Hokey Pokey;” stay for the pitch-black humor about “successful” adults who find their manicured, suburban lives with the right career & the right family bitterly unfulfilling. Nic Cage is literally barking mad in this picture and is destined to steal much of its spotlight, but Selma Blair & Crank director Brian Taylor match his energy admirably at every step. This is a deranged collaboration among that unholy trinity and no family bond, no matter how sacred, is safe in its satirical war path. Mom and Dad may occasionally stumble in terms of pacing or tone, but you have to respect this kind of gleefully taboo social anarchy, especially coming from a comedy.

-Brandon Ledet

Outcast (2015)

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This is not the first time I’ve been burned this exact way before, but there’s an incredibly cruel lie in Nic Cage’s top billing in the period action cheapie Outcast. If anything, Cage’s role in the film is as a glorified cameo, mostly leaving Hayden Christensen & a cast of unknowns to their own lackluster devices. There’s some vague traces of entertainment value to be found in seeing a once-a-moody-teen Anakin Skywalker all grown up, high on opium, and getting pissed on, but by the time Nic Cage returns late in the film, ravenous for scenery to chew, it feels like a huge cheat. At one point a character admonishes Adult Anakin’s opium addiction by reminding him that the drug “dulls a man’s senses.” He responds that, “Some things are better dulled.” This is advice Outcast takes way too close to its exceedingly dull heart, over-stuffing the screen with long traveling sequences and underwhelming martial arts when all I really wanted as an audience was Nic Cage sporting a terrible wig & accent. Normally it’d be unfair to punish a movie for not being what you expected, but when you promise Nic Cage antics as your main attraction, you best deliver.

Here’s what we are afforded, Cage wise: early in the film he appears sword-fighting in knight’s armor; he then disappears for an entire hour, returning only for a few, sparse, bizarrely hilarious speeches that make you wish his character (“The White Ghost”) were the focus of the film, as promised. Seeing an armored Cage wield a sword definitely has a novelty to it, as I don’t think it’s something I’ve ever encountered before, but the moment is fleeting. When he returns to sweat & curse & act like a martial arts pirate it’s a godsend. He describes things as being “thick as flies on a farting goat’s ass”, tells crazy stories about his human prop wife, and makes direct references to his distractingly artificial hair. If we had a whole film of this stuff, it might’ve actually been worth the time & money. Alas, it wasn’t meant to be.

Unlike actually-enjoyable films like Vampire’s Kiss & The Wicker Man, which are done a disservice by being reduced to memes, Outcast might be best viewed as a YouTube highlight reel. Endless traveling montages & a piss-soaked, opium addicted, too-adult Anakin Skywalker are all well & good in their own place & time, but it’s just unfair to deliver such trivialities when there’s a foul-mouthed pirate Nic Cage just begging for more screen time. Stylistically, the film doesn’t have much going for it either, recalling a decade-late Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon knockoff with enough superfluous Dutch angles to give Battlefield Earth a run for its money. That could be a forgivable offense, though, if they had just delivered what they promised.

Side note: The score’s main theme sounds hilariously similar to Taylor Dayne’s “Tell It to My Heart”. Either that or I was just desperately looking for ways to occupy my mind.

-Brandon Ledet

We Found a Dozen Nice Things to Say About Left Behind (2014)

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Watching the 2014 version of Left Behind was one of those epiphany moments where a movie is bad (not a fun bad, just bad) but why were we expecting anything different? A reboot of a humorless Christian franchise trying its little, judgmental heart out to save our doomed, sinful souls from the definitely-going-to-happen-any-day-now Biblical Rapture doesn’t exactly sound like a laugh riot. The inclusion of human enigma Nicolas Cage gave the series the promise of campy appeal, but he was in quick-paycheck mode and did little for the film’s lifeless, dour tone. Similarly, any weird potential in the idea of a worldwide, supernatural, people-erasing event is severely undercut by the film being the first in a planned series and the budgetary decision of bottling most of the action on a single airplane. Instead of the amused chuckling we naively expected, we met most of the film with irritated silence.

It’s a little unfair to beat up on a film based on our off-base expectations, though, so instead of giving Left Behind a negative review, we decided to catalog the things we actually liked about the movie. It took some careful deliberation but between the two of us we came up with an even dozen nice (or at least entertaining) things to say about Left Behind.

1. Although the movie doesn’t include any patented Nic Cage Freak-Outs™, it does feature Cage delivering the following line to his Atheist daughter: “If your mother was going to leave me for another man, it might as well have been Jesus.” A calm, collected Cage isn’t exactly the shot in the arm this movie needed, but we really liked that line.

2. Cage has exactly one more entertaining moment later in the film. As the passengers on the airplane he’s piloting are freaking out, confused about their Raptured loved ones, he utilizes his National Treasure puzzle-solving skills and gets to the bottom of what’s going on. The clues that lead him to discovering the phenomenon’s Biblical source: one missing passenger’s watch reads “John 3:16” and another’s datebook has a scheduled Bible study penciled in.

3. The Rapture itself was kind of interesting (even if by default), especially the image of disappeared children’s clothes falling to the floor while the balloons they were holding float toward the heavens.

4. We may have unfairly described the film as humorless above. It does attempt an embarrassing, mildly reprehensible line of comic relief involving an angry dwarf character. Most of the gags are misfires politically & morally, but there is one that is just genuine, wholesome fun. As the passengers are trying to figure out if the Raptured have actually disappeared or are just invisible, the dwarf tries to give one of the missing a wet willy. It’s pretty funny.

5. Speaking of morally reprehensible, the same dwarf character mentioned above is unceremoniously tossed out of the airplane once it lands by a Muslim man he’d been bickering with for most of the runtime. It’s a gag that’s transgressive in its complete disregard for decency, but it’s still entertaining in its own deplorable way.

6. Nic Cage’s daughter is just as frustrated with her mother’s newfound Christian faith as Cage is. When she discovers that her mother’s warnings of The Rapture have come true she angrily smashes the disappeared woman’s Bible through window glass. It’s a great image & one that would befit the most melodramatic Lifetime Movie blowup.

7. Speaking of Nic Cage’s daughter, she looks eerily similar to his mistress in some ways. It’s cool that he has a type.

8. Cage’s totally happy, not at all depressing family unit is only shown in one place in a single image: a hilariously awkward family portrait that makes two separate appearances in the film. The shoddy Photoshop on the picture is an embarrassment, Cage himself looking like he was airbrushed into the picture. It’s one of the film’s only interesting images because it’s so jarringly fabricated and it’s totally bizarre that they felt the need to feature it twice.

9. In yet another bizarrely fake image, there’s a CGI plane that’s crash-landing looks like it was borrowed from a PowerPoint presentation. It’s ridiculous.

10. Just in case you don’t know how to feel at any point during the movie’s consistently over-sentimental, maudlin proceedings there’s an oppressive, violin-heavy soundtrack there to remind you how to feel at every moment. It would be annoying if it weren’t so over-the-top in its persistence.

11. The same way the violins never let you forget exactly how to feel, there’s a character that contantly reminds everyone around him that he’s an “investigative journalist”, which would be a ludicrous, ill-advised thing for a real-life investigative journalist to do, but it is pretty funny in this context.

12. All joking & sarcastic derision aside, there are a couple decent shots in the film. Exactly a couple. One image of Cage’s daughter backing up a truck & one of her running across a bridge at night felt like glimpses into a drastically different, frankly much better film. Combined together, they amount to maybe 5 seconds of footage, but they do look fairly nice in comparison to the artistic void that surrounds them. As with every other item on this list, we were deeply grateful for the fleeting flashes of vitality in a movie that was severely lacking both in life and personality.

-James Cohn & Brandon Ledet