People will often invoke drugs as a sort of lazy shorthand for things that are mildly odd, but the films of Panos Cosmatos are psychedelic in the truest sense of the word. The movies seem to breathe, the soundtracks rhythmically pulsating in concert with a haze of film grain that ebbs and flows. Colours hypnotically increase and decrease in intensity until a handful of hues threaten to overtake the entire frame.
Cosmatos’ 2010 debut, Beyond the Black Rainbow, was a meticulously designed love letter to the sort of horror and science fiction movies that he imagined existed from seeing their lurid covers in video stores as a child. His follow-up, Mandy, sees Nicolas Cage descend into an acid-soaked, blood-drenched hell of grief, insanity, and revenge where it’s never entirely clear just what is actually happening. “I wanted there to be a little bit of a grey area about whether this is closer to our reality or whether there’s something more to this world, that these sort of artefacts, these cursed objects actually do have powers,” Cosmatos told P.TV. “There’s really nothing that specifies that they’re working as advertised in a mythological way. It’s possible either way.”
For my money, you’re better off going into this movie knowing absolutely nothing about it but, briefly summarised, this movie can be described as ‘Nic Cage on acid hunts down the leader of a cult to get revenge’. Like in Beyond the Black Rainbow, drugs play a big part in Mandy. “Thematically, the drugs allow for a certain exploration of other worlds in a way that wouldn’t necessarily be possible without that being a part of the storyline. It almost takes the characters and transports them into a kind of a mythological realm.” This is something, it seems, that has sprung from his own personal experience. “I don’t smoke weed anymore but, back when I did, it got very dark eventually. Every time I got high it would be like a horrible mythological battle of my fragile mind versus the dark infinity of the universe.”
The themes aren’t the only part of the movie that are the product of Cosmatos’ subconscious: Nicolas Cage‘s starring role as the flannel-wearing and axe-wielding protagonist Red Miller came about thanks to a dream Cosmatos had. Cosmatos originally envisioned Cage as the villain (cult leader Jeremiah Sand, played by Linus Roache) having re-written some of the part with Cage in mind. When Cage came back saying that he wanted to play Red, Cosmatos almost wrote Cage off. “I was so fixed on the idea of him playing the villain that, to me, that was the end of it.” But it didn’t last long: “I had a dream a few weeks later where I was watching a portion of the film where [Cage] was playing Red Miller and it was like the gods spoke.”
Watching the film, it’s hard to imagine Red being played by anyone else, Cage does an incredible job of articulating Red’s, well, inarticulate fury: “I’ve always loved the vastness of him, almost a Dadaesque performance art approach to acting in film. . . The amazing thing about Cage is that he can go into these outlandish realms and fully make you believe that he’s feeling and experiencing these things, he has an incredible range.”
‘Outlandish’ is definitely a way to describe the space Cage inhabits in this film. Even the early parts of Mandy that are ostensibly grounded in a familiar reality are heavily stylised, part of Cosmatos’ desire to make movies that are “rich with texture” and “visually juicy”. A lot of this visual texture comes from film grain, something Cosmatos names as one of the most important visual elements of film, saying that he remembers from watching movies as a child losing himself in the “hypnotic pulsating of the grain”.
Unlike Beyond the Black Rainbow, which was shot on 35mm, Cosmatos was forced to go digital after the insurance company refused to underwrite the project if it was shot on film. “It was a real kick in the balls. . . I had to make a decision between whether I wanted to be a religious fanatic about shooting on film or could I get what I want shooting digitally.” Almost paradoxically, shooting digitally made it somewhat easier to achieve the film look he wanted, because they didn’t have to remove the grain from the footage if they wanted to change it. “You can choose what grain you want, it’s almost like its own visual element, where you can completely control the intensity and the size of the grain. . . . It removes a lot of finicky work, so you can focus on telling the story.”
In a movie filled with cults, demon bikers, and a blood-soaked and screaming Nic Cage, one of the weirder elements is the surprise inclusion of Casper Kelly, the creator of Too Many Cooks. Kelly is responsible for the Cheddar Goblin, a vaguely unsettling pastiche of 80s TV commercials and food products. “It was a joke that me and the producer came up with after hanging out for hours on end in a windowless room. Eventually, we realised that we were so in love with it that we had to find a way to put it in the film. We called our friend Casper Kelly and basically straight up asked, ‘We have $1,000 to do this Cheddar Goblin commercial, can you do it?’ and he said ‘Absolutely.’”
— Cheddar Goblin (@CheddarGoblin) September 7, 2018
Mandy is violent, dark, funny, beautiful, hypnotic, and incredibly engaging, and I would 100% recommend going to see it. Thanks to Madman and Monster Fest, you can catch one of many screenings of the film across the country on Friday, September 21st. Details about cinemas and tickets can be found here.