Mandy (Panos Cosmatos, 2018)

HE’S A LUMBERJACK AND HE’S NOT OKAY

Pacific Northwest, 1983 A.D. Outsiders Red Miller and Mandy Bloom lead a loving and peaceful existence in near isolation. When their pine-scented splendour is savagely destroyed by the sadistic Jeremiah Sand and his cult “The Children of the New Dawn,” Red is catapulted into a phantasmagoric journey filled with bloody vengeance and laced with fire. Armed with a hand-forged battle axe and an insane thirst for revenge, Red won’t stop until he has destroyed Jeremiah and his disciples.

From the visionary mind of Canadian filmmaker Panos Cosmatos (Beyond the Black Rainbow), Mandy is an ultra-hard, stylishly told hell-trip with heavy metal symbolism, demonic motorcycle mutants, buzzing chainsaws, and a phenomenal performance by Nicolas Cage as an unstoppable, single-minded avenger. Arrow Video proudly presents this modern grindhouse classic for the first time on 4K Ultra-HD Blu-ray.

LIMITED EDITION CONTENTS

  • 4K (2160p) UHD Blu-ray presentation in Dolby Vision (HDR10 compatible) approved by director Panos Cosmatos
  • High definition Blu-ray (1080p)
  • Original DTS-HD 5.1 surround sound
  • Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
  • New audio commentary with Panos Cosmatos and filmmaker and critic Sam Ashurst
  • Behind-the-scenes featurette
  • Interview at the Sundance Film Festival with producers Lisa Whalen, Josh Waller, Daniel Noah, and Elijah Wood and special guests Nicolas Cage, Vince Neil from the band Mötley Crüe, and Panos Cosmatos
  • Acid Wash, new interview with cinematographer Benjamin Loeb
  • It’s Gobblin’ Good!, new interview with director Chris Casper Kelly and special effects artist Shane Morton on the Cheddar Goblin commercial
  • And Red All Over, new interview with designer Richard Kenworthy of Shynola on the film’s title cards
  • Standing on the Edge of Time, new interview with animation director David Garcia
  • The Blade and the Beast, new interview with weapon maker Tim Wagendorp
  • Deleted and extended scenes
  • Teasers and trailers
  • Concept art and stills gallery
  • Rewind This!, a feature-length documentary with audio commentary by director Josh Johnson, producer Carolee Mitchell and cameraman and editor Christopher Palmer
  • Soundtrack CD with music composer Jóhann Jóhannsson
  • 10″ vinyl single of “Amulet of the Weeping Maze” by Jeremiah Sand
  • Fold-out double-sided poster featuring original and newly commissioned artwork
  • Four retro-poster photos double-sided, postcard-sized lobby card reproductions, alternative posters and promotional images
  • 44-page collectors’ booklet featuring new writing on the film by Travis Woods and an introduction by Panos Cosmatos

We all know Panos Cosmatos’ Mandy (2018). Those of us that care about the Arrow Video label certainly know Mandy. We know about Red Miller and Mandy Bloom’s idyllic existence in the Pacific Northwest’s Shadow Mountains. We know about the havoc wreaked on them by deluded messiah Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache) and his Children of the New Dawn cult. We know about Mandy’s murder and Red’s rage-fueled, drug-fueled, madness-fueled vengeance. We know about the chainsaw fights, the tiger, the Black Skulls, and the Cheddar Goblin. No film of this millennium seems more immediately positioned for the status of cult masterpiece than Mandy but questions arise about what exactly Cosmatos’ hallucinatory revenge flick is. As Dan Fox observes, Mandy contains elements of hicksploitation, bikesploitation, psychsploitation, rocksploitation, and the cannibal film, yet even those evocations fail to adequately define the film. Most critics seem satisfied to embrace Mandy’s irreducibility and wrap their praises in the film’s mystique. With that in mind, let MMC! propose an approach to Mandy that offers something of a summarizing view – Mandy is an acid western, albeit one long on the acid and short on the cowboys.

The observation that any film is “actually a Western” is sure to induce an eye roll in many, so humour this tiny blog for a moment and recall that Sam Peckinpah once remarked that “[t]he Western is a universal frame.” Mandy’s simple conflict (the pursuit of vengeance against a group of traveling marauders) resembles an archetypal Will Wright western plot that swaps out a logger for a cowboy hero, bikers and hippies for outlaws, chainsaws for six-shooters, and ATVs for horses. Still, the semantic substitutions made in Mandy may be a bridge too far for Western purists (although I doubt said purists are keen on the acid western subgenre either). It may be easier to suggest that in the same way that the western is mutated by the acid western, Cosmatos acidifies Reagan-era action films and revenge thrillers, the period where Panos’ father, George P. Cosmatos, made Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) and Cobra (1986) and when Michael Winner’s Death Wish (1974) transformed into a five film franchise. Within Mandy, we see the acid western’s preoccupation with outsiders and outlaws, its countercultural attitudes, its generational biases, and its inherent deliriousness, but let’s unpack that a bit more.

Pauline Kael originally coined the expression “acid western” in an offhand and derisive comment included in her review of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s notorious midnight classic, El Topo (1970). While not usually considered the first film of the subgenre (that distinction is typically given to Monte Hellman’s The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind, both from 1966), El Topo has come to epitomize the acid western with its truly transgressive approach sex and violence and its heavy mix of religious, pagan, and occult iconography. Mandy’s mysticism is decidedly mythic in orientation and Cosmatos approaches it from both classical and pop cultural perspectives. The film introduces these themes in an early and seemingly innocuous moment when Red (Nicolas Cage) and Mandy (Andrea Riseborough) compare favourite planets. Mandy likes Jupiter, with its surface of storms and its massive spot capable of engulfing the entire Earth. She is, of course, describing Red himself, alluding to the planet’s Great Red Spot and to her partner’s capacity for unstoppable violence, something that will ultimately suffuse the film in his namesake colour. Red corrects his choice from Saturn to Galactus, the gigantic foe of the Fantastic Four who is greater than all planets because he eats them. Red is, of course, describing Mandy and her all-consuming wrath, one that he will lead like one of Galactus’ many heralds (less a Silver Surfer and more a Scarlet Sawyer). Red’s association with Jupiter and his role as a messenger is recalled later in the film when the Children of the New Dawn’s acid-maker (“The Chemist,” played by Richard Brake) describes him as a “Jovian warrior sent for from the eye of the storm.”

Mandy is full of portentous names, statements, and references that underline its quasi-mythic atmosphere. When confronted by Jeremiah Sand’s less than impressive presence and asked what she sees, Mandy remarks, “I see the Reaper fast approaching.” High on a micro-dose of the cult’s acid and the sting of a preternatural insect, her comment resembles the statement of an oracle, one that refers to her forthcoming demise at the hands of the Children of the New Dawn and that warns of their destruction by Red who will later be armed with a crossbow nicknamed “The Reaper” and a hand-forged axe/scythe combo simply credited as “The Beast.” Items like “the Horn of Abraxas” and “the Tainted Blade of the Pale Knight straight from the abyssal lair” (with which Sand stabs a restrained Red in the side Spear of Destiny-style) sound as if they were lifted straight out of Lenora Tor’s Seeker of the Serpent’s Eye, the fantasy novel that Mandy reads and that draws an obvious connection to the classic sci-fi and fantasy publisher Tor Books. Red’s world is increasingly shaped by the influence of Mandy, most explicitly in a series of fantastical animated dreams that concludes with an enactment from the Tor novel. There, Mandy draws a bright green stone from a fallen tiger-man, another association to Red given his tiger face T-shirt and a post-credits illustration by Bloom of Miller and a tiger in profile.

Mandy concludes with Red’s entry into the subterranean lair of Jeremiah and with Red’s eventual departure with a vision of Bloom and their shared drive into an otherworldly landscape. The conclusion recalls Orpheus’ journey into the underworld, although Red’s descent may be less about reclaiming Miller’s lost Eurydice and more his delivery of her encompassing vengeance. While Pauline Kael may have coined the acid western term, it was Jonathan Rosenbaum who popularized it in his celebratory review of Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man (1995). For Rosenbaum, the acid western had a central concern with liminal existences and the passage into the afterlife. Red’s revenge-focused vision quest certainly feels like a passage that leads from one reality (ours) to another (Mandy’s fantasy world). Reflecting the acid western’s tendency toward open endings, it’s difficult to tell by the film’s end whether Red has gone mad from heartbreak and drugs, has transitioned to an afterlife due to drugs and bodily trauma, or has literally transcended to some other planet or reality. By the time he reaches his final confrontation with Sand, Red speaks in a terrifyingly deep and resonant voice and expresses himself in words fitting for a prophet of destruction and not a simple logger. Before crushing Jeremiah’s skull with his bare hands, he declares, “The psychotic drowns where the mystic swims. You’re drowning. I’m swimming.” By the end of the film, Red Miller is unquestionably transformed, even if what that is remains unclear.

There is an inherent unwieldiness to the acid western which is partly associated with the excesses of the Spaghetti Western and to a certain degree of non sequitur absurdity epitomized in Robert Downey Sr.’s exceptionally bizarre take on the life of Jesus Christ, Greaser’s Palace (1972). Mandy’s most exceptional moment of WTF-edness surely rests in its Cheddar Goblin commercial. Staggering into his home after witnessing Mandy’s immolation, Red is confronted with a television ad wherein a green puppet goblin vomits mac and cheese on happy kids. Created by special effects artist Shane Morton and Too Many Cooks (2014) creator Chris Casper Kelly, the freakish surrealism and uncaring indifference of the commercial unlocks Red from his daze, unleashing his primal anger and soul-deep anguish in a bravura scene in the couple’s tacky bathroom. It is here that Nicolas Cage’s performance must be commented upon. Mandy is often cited a hallmark rendition of “Cage rage.” Mixing over-the-top acting with chaotic intensity and hostility, Cage’s Red has his moments of exceptional, verging on hilarious, fury — downing slugs of vodka in between sobs and screams while wearing a tiger shirt and a pair of tighty-whiteies, or when repeatedly shouting into the face of an attacking Black Skull biker, “You ripped my shirt!” — however Cage’s demeanour does shift midway through his vengeance into a Jason Voorhees-inspired blankness that prefers stoicism over a roaring frenzy.

While often portrayed as awkward and dissonant, Mandy uses Cage’s idiosyncratic style to ground the film’s bizarre, unreal aesthetics, tethering them in something undeniably personal and preventing the movie from drifting slowly into a magenta-coloured oblivion. Cosmatos riffs on his star’s “Cage rage,” subtly organizing the film around it. The film avoids handheld shots to remove any sense of subjectivity, thereby spotlighting Red all the more. In the bathroom breakdown, Cosmatos presents the scene as a three-walled “theatre of the absurd,” shot with uncharacteristically warm and even light, decorated with shag carpeting and ochre hideousness, and putting a daft twist on Red’s excess of emotion. The crucial nature of Cage’s star persona to Mandy’s success encourages the belief that the role was always intended for its star, however Cosmatos wrote the film imagining a younger actor as Red and intending Cage for the role of Jeremiah Sand. Thankfully, producer Elijah Wood intervened and had the pair meet so that Cage could discuss the role with Cosmatos and demonstrate his understanding of the character. And it should also not be assumed that Cage’s rage is some accident of his personality. Cage worked with David Sellers, a screaming coach, to ensure that his bellowing was pitch-perfect.

For Taryn McCabe, the acid western turned the frontier into a manifestation of internal realities, making it a space for death and destruction, not redemption. Speaking about The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind, McCabe states, “These films are not so much stories as they are portraits of damaged minds.” And while Mandy is chockablock with deluded, poisoned, and possessed minds, the film originates out of the grief of Panos Cosmatos himself. Cosmatos has been quite open about the role of Mandy and its predecessor, Beyond the Black Rainbow, as a means for him to process the deaths of his mother, Swedish sculptor Birgitta Ljungberg-Cosmatos, and his movie director father, George P. Cosmatos. Wrestling with his despair, Panos found himself seeking out the catharsis of ’80s revenge cinema and as he developed Mandy, he found himself letting in more and more “stuff” from his youth — horror content (chainsaws, Cenobite-looking bikers, the Friday the 13th reference to “Crystal Lake”), heavy metal music (that bone-shaking score by Jóhann Jóhannson, that battle-axe designed to resemble the “F” in the logo of extreme metal band Celtic Frost), and comic books (Galactus, Heavy Metal). It’s fascinating to think that the processing of grief, of letting it in and coming to terms with it, was a process for Cosmatos that ran in parallel to the genre-mixing and cultural inflections brought to ’80s revenge films, to their acidification, that turned Mandy into a revenge film distinctly his own. It’s also intriguing to consider that Cosmatos based Red and Mandy on two real individuals from his childhood: a drug cop neighbour in Guadalajara, Mexico, with an affinity for aviator sunglasses, Harley Davidson motorcycles, and Magnum .44s and a bespectacled, metal head, carnival worker he fell in love with as a child and from whom he bought a ZZ Top velcro wallet.

Grief and the acid western are natural bedfellows. Acid westerns reverse the western genre’s usual ethos, resisting triumph and redemption and focusing instead on pain and suffering. The distinction holds a political dimension as it rejects the western’s violence and suppression which underpins American imperialism and ideas of manifest destiny. Red appears coded in Mandy as once connected to such a vision of America. His ride from a logging site in an open-doored chopper feels indexical to the Vietnam War and to the position of Huey door gunners, and the appearance of Bill Duke as Red’s buddy Caruthers recalls the veteran actor’s associations with ’80s military action flicks like Commando (Mark L. Lester, 1985) and Predator (John McTiernan, 1987). Red also appears to potentially bear his own traumas from this damaged history as a turned down drink from another logger and a hidden bottle of vodka in his bathroom potentially suggests past alcoholism. It is then fitting that Red turns off his truck’s radio as it plays Ronald Reagan’s March 1983 speech “Remarks at the Annual Convention of the National Association of Evangelicals” wherein he touts “a great spiritual awakening in America” and “a renewal of the traditional values that have been the bedrock of America’s goodness and greatness.” And with Jeremiah Sand as the film’s only locus for organized religion and authority, Cosmatos makes clear his link between the acid western’s view against institutional false-righteousness and the pernicious threat of toxic masculinity.

The confrontation between Mandy and Jeremiah makes real Margaret Atwood’s assertion that men’s deepest fear of women is being laughed at and women’s greatest fear of men is being killed. Bloom is already presented at this point as a character knowledgeable to the risk inherently posed by men, with her scar that resembles the cracked face of a porcelain doll and her childhood memory of her father smashing baby birds in front of her (starlings, another cosmic reference to go along with the film’s opening song “Starless,” a song by King Crimson from their album Red – still more red references). Sand’s initial view of her, a prolonged, red-soaked slo-mo of Mandy passing by his van, is as nightmarish a representation of Laura Mulvey’s gaze as can be imagined and it’s no surprise that Jeremiah demands that she be his. Mandy’s ultimate undoing is her refusal to become Sand’s object, laughing at the would-be messiah as he stands before her basking in the wonder of his open robe and flaccid penis. (I suspect that Sand’s admiration of The Carpenters and his hippie-dippy song would have been enough to inspire metal head Mandy’s derision, but Sand’s naked humiliation is obviously his breaking point.) Cosmatos, who feels he may be “allergic to testosterone,” maintains that “[t]he male ego is a terrifying, terrifying thing…. If it’s shattered, it becomes even more dangerous.” It was Mandy that the director wanted “to be the one to essentially destroy him” even if Sand’s physical death followed later. Red’s pursuit of Jeremiah in turn becomes the raging return of harmed manhood and conquering masculinity, a monster that cannot be repressed once again and that ensures by a shattered skull that Sand’s shattered ego will never recover. When Red finally declares to Sand that “I’m your God now,” it is both a description of Jeremiah’s now subordinate position and an acknowledgment of a longstanding truth about the type of divinity Sand truly worshiped.

I love Mandy. It was my #3 film of 2019, behind only Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Shoplifters and Paul Schrader’s First Reformed. Still, I hadn’t really thought about an Arrow Video edition of the movie until I saw Mandy’s amazing German Ultimate Edition (Blu-ray + 2 DVD + CD + LP) and its 3-disc Mediabook (Blu-ray + 2 DVD). Why does Germany get these wonderful releases while I have a North American Blu-ray with only a making-of featurette and some deleted/extended scenes? MMC! hopes Arrow Video could get into the Mandy business, especially now that the label is releasing UHD editions of titles. There is obviously a bounty of special features already out there and Arrowheads would go absolutely mental for a UHD presentation of Cosmatos’ mind-melting visuals. I mean, can you think of a better use of UHD?

Credits: This imagined edition includes the making-of featurette and deleted/extended scenes from the current North American Blu-ray and ports over a substantial amount of content from the German Ultimate Edition while also adding some newly imagined material. Arrow Video “podcast man” Sam Ashurst was selected to join Panos Cosmatos for an audio commentary given their interview which aired on the Arrow Video podcast. We’ve imagined an interview with cinematographer Benjamin Loeb given his past interviews on the film’s making, including Iain Marcks’s Mandy: Edge of Darkness” for American Cinematographer and the AFC article “Cinematographer Benjamin Loeb discussed his work on ‘Mandy’, by Panos Cosmatos.” An interview with Chris Casper Kelly and Shane Morton on the Cheddar Goblin commercial seemed natural given the numerous discussions on its making, such as Jennifer Vineyard’s oral history at Thrillist, Jake Kleinman’s “True Story” for Inverse, Ben Travis’ “Anatomy of a Cheddar Goblin” for Empire, and many others. The feature on the title screens was inspired by Christopher Barker’s interview of Richard Kentworthy for Semi Permanent and we’ve imagined featurettes on the film’s animated sequences and weaponry as well. Travis Woods was chosen for a booklet essay based on his wonderful analysis at Bright Wall/Dark Room, “(S)he Eats Planets: On Mandy, Grief, and Mandy.”

There are a lot of generic reviews of Mandy out there, but there are some great writings as well.  This post was greatly informed by Dan Fox’s “‘Mandy’: An ’80s Revenge Horror Soaked in Colours Graded to Their Most Vivid Limits” for Frieze, Walter Metz’s analysis at Walter’s World, Jordan Crucchiola’s “This One Scene in Mandy Makes It the Best ‘Ban Men’ Film of 2018″ for We Make Moves, Sasa Miletic’s “Acting Out: ‘Cage Rage’ and the Morning After,” Dan Zinski’s article “Nicolas Cage’s Mandy Performance Was Inspired By Jason Voorhees” for Screen Rant, Jacob Hall’s article “That ‘Mandy’ Scene With the Macaroni and Cheese Commercial May be the Greatest Cinematic Moment of 2018” for /Film, Ryan Reed’s Revolver article “‘Mandy’: How Heavy Metal Inspired 2018’s Most Psychedelic Action-Horror Film,” Alci Rengifo’s Riot Material review “Visions of Fire and Fury In Panos Cosmatos’s Mandy,” and Mary Beth McAndrews’ “Recognizing the Predatory Gaze in ‘Mandy'” for Film School Rejects. This proposal also owes debts to the work of others on the acid western, particularly to writings by Jonathan Rosenbaum, Ethan Warren’s “The Gospel of The Psychedelic Six-Gun” for Bright Wall/Dark Room, Taryn McCabe’s “Monte Hellman and the birth of the acid western” for Little White Lies, and Sue Matheson’s A Fistful of Icons: Essays on Frontier Fixtures of the American Western.

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