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The surrealist horror film Mandy pits Nicolas Cage against murderous hippies

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Nicolas Cage appears in Mandy by Panos Cosmatos Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Welcome to Cheat Sheet, our brief breakdown-style reviews of festival films, VR previews, and other special event releases. This review comes from the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.

Director Panos Cosmatos once said that his 2010 debut film Beyond the Black Rainbow was “a sort of imagining of an old film that doesn’t exist,” inspired by a childhood obsession with the box art of horror movies he wasn’t allowed to watch. His new follow-up Mandy, which Cosmatos describes as a “companion piece” to Black Rainbow, feels like a pulpier and more self-aware exploration of the same premise — with a strong helping of Dungeons & Dragons and heavy metal.

Sometimes Mandy is a serious horror film. Sometimes it’s an over-the-top pastiche. Sometimes it’s a vehicle for a typically scenery-chewing performance by its lead actor, Nicolas Cage. And while that combination could easily be grating, the film’s generally strong pacing and Cosmatos’ colorful dreamscapes keep it from tipping into outright schlock.

What’s the genre?

Trippy, throwback action-horror. Mandy mixes visual and musical cues from films like The Keep with an extraordinary amount of blood, a surreal twist on classic evil-cult tropes, and Nic Cage in full wild-eyed rampage mode.

What’s it about?

In 1983, logger Red (Cage) and pulp artist Mandy (Birdman’s Andrea Riseborough) are living a secluded backwoods existence. Then, Mandy catches the eye of Jeremiah Sand (Vikings’ Linus Roache), a failed folk singer turned cult leader. Sand captures Mandy with the help of an occult biker gang called the Black Skulls, but even drugged and confused, she laughs at his attempts to awe her. Tearful and humiliated, Sand burns her alive as an injured Red is forced to watch.

When the ashes cool, Red assembles an arsenal of awesomely improbable weapons and swears revenge on everyone involved in the killing, tracking Sand through a world that becomes nearly indistinguishable from one of Mandy’s fantasy paintings.

What’s it really about?

Cosmatos has said that both Mandy and Beyond the Black Rainbow helped him work through his parents’ death, and like many revenge stories, Mandy is about a man dealing with grief by trying to regain control over the world. Red’s mythic journey turns Mandy’s death into something more than a random killing. Armed with a scoped crossbow and a hand-cast battle-axe, he goes up against humans that seem one step away from literal supernatural evil, in a place where no one even mentions the existence of legal authorities — let alone the possibility of appealing to them for help.

And as with Black Rainbow, the real threat in Mandy is corrupted ‘60s mysticism. The self-aggrandizing but terminally insecure Sand, who chose godhood when he couldn’t reach stardom, is like an ‘80s revival of Charles Manson. The Black Skulls have obtained seemingly preternatural strength and resilience through hyper-concentrated hallucinogens, which they accept (alongside human sacrifice) in exchange for service. Meanwhile, Mandy, who sketches magical worlds while wearing a Mötley Crüe pentagram shirt and reading a pulpy fantasy novel, provides a healthy counterpoint to Sands’ curdled and self-serious spirituality.

Is it good?

Mandy combines the most absurd aesthetic excesses of ‘70s and ‘80s horror films with the most absurd thespian excesses of Nicolas Cage, and the movie works best if you’re already fond — or at least tolerant — of both. Its first act slowly amps up the sense of dread around a happy relationship that’s obviously doomed, maintaining a sense of mystery around Sand’s cult and the Hellraiser-esque biker gang. Sand initially comes off as petulant but menacing, an at-least plausible target for the affection of his fawning acolytes. The film lingers on mundane conversations about Mandy’s favorite planet, or portentous references to the “Horn of Abraxas,” a sacred artifact that’s shot under eerie green light regardless of setting. It’s just silly enough to feel deliberately dated, while unironically drawing on the tropes that made those old films so successful.

But after the pivotal home invasion scene, the filmmakers throw off any pretense at restraint. Cage stalks around scenes in feral rage, at one point simply sitting and pouring an entire bottle of liquor alternately on his wounds and down his throat while screaming. A character explains the bikers’ ridiculous origin story with deadpan seriousness. Scenes get foggier and more lurid; after Mandy’s brutal but non-explicit murder, other characters spray gouts of blood as they’re slashed, stabbed, or crushed to death. A few moments apparently exist just to drive home the film’s self-aware weirdness, like Red stopping to watch a full-length commercial for something called Cheddar Goblin Mac ‘n’ Cheese, whose mascot is a graphically vomiting green puppet.

Cage’s comically non-sequitur quips (“You’re a vicious snowflake!” he snarls at one biker), combined with periodic close-ups on his meme-worthy manic grin, contrast strangely — and not always successfully — with Cosmatos’ otherworldly aesthetic. But they keep Mandy grounded while the rest of the film drifts through slow shots of hazy landscapes. The only moments that genuinely don’t fit are a series of animated dream sequences, which look flat, cartoonish, and far too modern.

Mandy flags at the end, simply because Sand comes off as too pathetic to provide much tension as an archvillain, and the film doesn’t deliver narrative revelations that match its increasingly stylized imagery. It also doesn’t leave you with the haunting sense of tragedy that Black Rainbow evoked, or do much to complicate the “man avenging dead lover” subgenre. But overall, it’s a strikingly lovely — and surprisingly coherent — fever dream.

What should it be rated?

A definite R, for reasons that include full-frontal male nudity and the aforementioned bloody murders. But while there are certainly gross moments in Mandy, the film generally doesn’t take itself seriously enough to be deeply disturbing. And until the final scene, it’s less gory than many of the earlier works it invokes.

How can I actually watch it?

Mandy doesn’t appear to have a theatrical release date, but it seems sure to reach theaters sometime in the next year.