We alternate between phases of celebrating Nicolas Cage for his capacity for gonzo madness and disdaining him for the 14 straight-to-video movies he makes each year. We currently seem to be in the former phase. On Friday August 10th MIFF is screening a Cage-a-Thon at The Astor, an all-night Cage marathon that will feature Raising Arizona, Red Rock West, Vampire’s Kiss, The Wicker Man, Drive Angry and Con Air. There’s an awful lot of gonzo madness in that lineup.
The inspiration for this marathon is the new Cage film that will kick it off: Mandy, Panos Cosmatos’ follow-up to his psychedelic 80s throwback horror Beyond the Black Rainbow. In it, Cosmatos goes even beyond Beyond. This is a downright hallucinatory vision that feels like it stepped sideways out of time from the year in which it’s set, 1983. It’s a horror, it’s a comedy, it’s an exploitation film, and it’s Cage with a capital C – with all capital letters, really.
Our bug-eyed hero plays a lumberjack who lives in the Pacific Northwest woods with his Black Sabbath T-shirt-wearing girlfriend/wife, Mandy (Andrea Riseborough), who sports a wicked pair of those glasses women wore back when they didn’t care about looking like male teenage nerds. Their isolation takes them off the grid and gives them a much-appreciated solitude, but it also makes them vulnerable to the unholy collaboration of a van full of acid-taking hippie cultists, and a band of bikers who might have escaped from a Toxic Avenger movie. They want Mandy for purposes that cannot be good.
Cosmatos has brought every trick in the book to make this look like a forgotten exploitation flick, dug up on VHS in the cult section of the video store. It’s got gothic chapter titles that recall the typefaces used in Stranger Things. It’s got a fantastically queasy use of the colour red in its smoky skies and environments. It’s got images that leave ghostly imprints of themselves on the screen after the characters’ movements have taken them elsewhere. Some of its most frightening scenes involve horrors you can only vaguely see as shadowy shapes. It’s got grunge on its grunge.
The film also unleashes the lunacy that is Nicolas Cage, assisted by a multi-pronged axe-sword hybrid that he smelts himself. As much as Cosmatos takes his inspiration from the same grindhouse movies that Quentin Tarantino loves, he’s also indulging in the type of horned beast mythology that adorns the covers of heavy metal albums and fantasy novels.
Mandy, in fact, reads one such novel in this film. As reality swims in and out of focus, these craggy landscapes seem to jut into existence. The more unhinged Cage gets, the better he fits into this landscape, and the more he himself resembles the biker who pursued H.I. McDunnough in Raising Arizona 31 years ago.
You could get a really tight 90 minutes out of the 120 minutes of Mandy, but when the flab is this deliriously constructed and passionately imagined, it’s hard to be too critical of it. Mandy is bonkers. Just enjoy.