Margaret Atwood once wrote: “Men are afraid women will laugh at them. Women are afraid men will kill them.” In director Panos Cosmatos’s Mandy, witchy woman Mandy Bloom (Andrea Riseborough) is kidnapped from her forest dwelling by a cult to satisfy the sexual and spiritual demands of its sadistic leader Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache). After he drugs her and reveals all of himself in attempt to woo her, she cannot help but laugh at all his considerable shortcomings and the absurdity of the religion he’s created with himself at the center. So, he burns her to death and leaves her partner Red Miller (Nicolas Cage) for dead. Big mistake.
From there forward Mandy is a bizarre and hallucinogenic journey through living hell (and back?) as Red wreaks absolute vengeance for Mandy’s murder against Jeremiah and his followers, some of whom seem to be actual demons from the netherworld, Hellraiser style. The Black Skulls, with their obscured faces, horrifying body armor, and rumbling motorcycles always backlit with red, have been keeping me up at night from terror.
But Mandy is more than just a revenge movie. It’s not every year I have the privilege of using one of my favorite words — phantasmagorical — to describe visual media. The first was Peter Strickland’s In Fabric, which premiered at TIFF. And phantasmagoria is the word that kept running through my head over and over again as Mandy’s world sucked me in. The production and light design are sensational, with shifting ethereal colors and patterns that transported me into these fantastical deep woods where many terrible events take place. The cinematography by Benjamin Loeb is magnificent. And because Mandy is set in 1983, the haunting synth score by Jóhann Jóhannsson gives the film a sense of place in history, even as it careens into an imaginary world. The effect is stupendous.
While Mandy is a horror movie, it’s also a fairy tale. Not the sanitized ones Disney has cartooned, but the original grim stories that featured grotesqueries, cabinets of curiosity, and violent dark deeds that often entangle a long-haired, big-eyed maiden in their schemes. Mandy Bloom is an enchanting woman, with her thigh-length black hair, the one black pupil of her right eye, and the puckered scar that bisects her left cheek. Mandy draws detailed dreamscapes inspired by the fantasy books she loves to read and dresses like she’s about to go to CBGB nightclub for heavy metal night.
Mandy’s partner, Red Miller, is a woodsman and metalsmith who has a troubling past that keeps him in nightmares each night. They live in a cabin in the deep woods with a nearby lake where Mandy night swims like a fairy crossed with a mermaid. Their relationship is filled with the tenderness of two wounded souls who have finally found comfort in each other’s arms, only to have it all snatched away by a gang of monsters who claim to be working the will of God.
Mandy is a revenge narrative, horror movie, fairy tale, and ultimately a love story. Red’s deep love for Mandy, and hers for him, bookends this film with such depth and warmth that this aspect —not necessarily the gory deaths and vile creatures and ugly payback —really threw me off balance.
As the titular character, actress Andrea Riseborough brings breathtaking empathy into this role. We don’t know a lot about her through words, but Riseborough’s eyes are windows into Mandy’s soul and show us everything she has been through. Similarly, Nicholas Cage hasn’t been this raw and vulnerable in a performance for a long time. He crushed this role better than his character crushed heads.
As (false) prophet of the Children of the New Dawn Jeremiah Sand, Linus Roache is almost unrecognizable. Like Riseborough and Cage, Roache really went for this balls out — literally. Roache in extended full-frontal, offering himself to Mandy and being rejected, is the only nudity in the film. I am an immediate fan of any production that takes a step toward remedying the disproportionate female to male ratio of full-frontal nudity in visual media.
But even more than all this amazing, Mandy is loaded with social and cultural commentary. Set in 1983 with an evangelical cult kidnapping women for its leader, Mandy shows an immediate parallel to real-life events of that time, from Jonestown to Heaven’s Gate. The religious hypocrisy as it particularly relates to sanctioned violence against women is relevant even now as the Trump regime and its cronies work to dismantle reproductive and other rights for women.
Red’s friend Caruthers (Bill Duke) talks about something malevolent that has been growing out in the woods where the logging is taking place. Deforestation and environmental destruction are what lead to Jeremiah Sand finding a portal to hell that inspires his project, all the while as he spins evil energy into a story about God. Watching Mandy in the political climate where the president of the United States flat-out denies climate change and a recent UN report about its consequences that reads like a real-life horror movie is terrifying as all get out.
White male entitlement is peak in Mandy, as Jeremiah sexually abuses the young women he kidnaps simply because he believes he is a vessel of God and it’s his right. Drug abuse and addiction also play a key part in this narrative. Jeremiah is the weirdo pervert he is because of the long-term effects of LSD abuse, and he continues to use drugs to keep his cult compliant. Red Miller is in recovery, which is one reason he and Mandy lived alone in the woods in the first place, away from the temptations of alcohol-fueled society.
Director Panos Cosmatos has done some magnificent worldbuilding in Mandy. It has such a vivid and detailed tapestry I was sure it had to be based on a book or graphic novel. Nope. It’s an original screenplay co-written by Cosmatos and Aaron Stewart-Ahn. This beautiful and terrifying movie reduced me speechless as it unfolded in its series of powerful archetypal characters and events. I already can’t wait to go back into this darkly gorgeous, mystical, and yet human vision. Cosmatos is like a Swedish-Italian-Canadian Guillermo del Toro.
Mandy is filled with so much homage to the horror, sci-fi, and fantasy genres, it’s obvious Cosmatos loves these kinds of stories as much as the people like me who are his target audience. This film already had me at the concept of a 1980s-inspired revenge story, but experiencing how much more Mandy is than straightforward vengeance has absolutely stolen my dark little heart. This film deserves every bit of praise it’s received and then some.
Ultimately, and along with everything else Mandy brings to the table, this is a movie about good versus evil. We watch as good must descend into the depths of depravity for justice, begging the question: What is good? Do we succumb to evil, becoming it when we use evil’s own weapons to fight it? Let me know if you find an answer.
Mandy is available for streaming exclusively on Shudder.com.
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Sezin Koehler is a multiracial Sri Lankan American, uncertified Scream Queen, and Frida Kahlo devotee who writes about foreign films, horror, social justice, and representation for Black Girl Nerds. You can also find her on Twitter ranting about politics (@SezinKoehler), or Instagramming her newest art creations and tattoos (@zuzukoehler).