Festival Favorite "Mandy" Is Midnight Movie Hell

If filmmakers Nicolas Winding-Refn (“The Neon Demon”) and Rob Zombie (“House Of 1000 Corpses”) pooled their most indulgent creative instincts, the upshot might look something like “Mandy” – a wearying shock rock horror-thriller whose overblown violence and psychoactive visuals play like a big screen flirtation with hypoxia. The psychology therein might seem titillating, but the end result is awfully one-dimensional. Only midnight movie completists need apply.

Written and directed by Panos Cosmatos (“Beyond The Black Rainbow”), the ’80s-inspired feature stars Nicolas Cage and Andrea Riseborough as Red and Mandy, a couple who have built a life of quiet reflection in the wilderness. Act one is a meditation on their disaffection with the outside world, with the late composer Jóhann Jóhannsson’s Vangelis-inspired score serving as an agreeable place setter. Riseborough delivers a moody, unsettling monologue about a childhood trauma, and for a while “Mandy” maintains its dark allure.

Except Cosmatos, wielding color filters and fog with the restraint of a carnival barker, must fulfill his movie’s promise of carnage. He sets a tired revenge narrative into motion and things go off the rails into an abyss of grisly violence, never to return.

With the help of a quartet of demon biker creatures, a deranged cult leader-slash-folk singer named Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache) and his handful of followers abduct Mandy. Points for Cosmatos, still: the biker creatures are frightening, as glimpsed in flashes of electricity as they jolt Red and Mandy from their slumber. And a monologue from Sand is skillfully photographed. A close-up of him is superimposed over a close-up of Mandy, their faces melding into dancing streaks of blue and magenta.

But then the writer-director gives us the worst kind of whiplash: a horrifying moment of realism where Mandy is burned alive in front of Red.

Cage, given to onscreen freak-outs, gets several here, predictably going on to hunt down Sand and his minions in a fever of rage. The movie’s surprises are front-loaded, its back half overflowing with easily foretold beheadings and skull-crushings. Some will find perverse fun in the bloodshed; most won’t, fated to a futile search for the appeal of this overlong exercise in dubious style, no substance.

Gore movies can be a joy. Sam Raimi’s original “The Evil Dead” remains a thrilling trip into borderline aberrant horror, its infamous “tree rape” sequence still upsetting newcomers nearly forty years later. Conversely, “Mandy” is a hodgepodge of drug-trip imagery, nostalgia pandering, and cruel violence: a project so thirsty to be a cult classic that it racks up low-hanging fruit by the wheelbarrow full.

Sundance audiences are at least partially responsible. Their rose-colored festival enthusiasm for the film and subsequent hype will leave many unsuspecting viewers holding the bloody bag. Cosmatos can have the rest of the blame. He’s made the most distasteful genre picture in years – an unsolicited jumble of grindhouse sludge and arthouse flourishes that only proves a film can be both brutal and boring at the same time. Avoid, unless you’re a glutton for sub-B-movie punishment.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Bad)

Release Date: September 14, 2018
Studio: RLJE Films
Director: Panos Cosmatos
Screenwriter: Panos Cosmatos
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Andrea Riseborough, Linus Roache, Ned Dennehy, Olwen Fouéré, Richard Brake, Bill Duke