Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Mandy (2018, Panos Cosmatos)

Mandy, the 2018 horror film from Panos Cosmatos, is just as psychotropic in its reality-bending imagery and psychedelic coloring as his 2010 horror film, Beyond the Black Rainbow.

The credits open with King Crimson's Starless, and not only is the main character named Red (Nicholas Cage), but a red filter or the color red often dominates the scene, much of it being lathered in blood. Although crimson and red is probably merely a coincidence, it sets the tone well for what is to come with its gloomy melodies. Even the lyrics seem to suggest some of the themes of the movie—starless relates to the celestial imagery, bible black to the odd pseudo-Christian cult (more of a countercultural bastardization of Christianity) and occultic elements, and the imagery of eyes recur throughout the film.

The two main characters are nestled away in "The Shadow Mountains", an idyllic setting, along with their peculiar cabin (appears to be vernacular architecture) with walls comprised of many different-sized windows. They're secluded from society other than the demands of their work. Red is a logger, and Mandy (Andrea Riseborough) is a fantasy artist working a dull job at a convenience store, who paints scenes with women and strange creatures, similar to many depictions in mythology, such as paintings like Jupiter and Io (Corregio)Admittedly not much more than that is unveiled about the dyad, but it's suggested Red may be a recovering alcoholic (I considered PTSD at one point, since Red's age is right for him to potentially be a Vietnam veteran) by most reviews and media reportage. Mandy likely suffered from abuse—there's a scar on her cheek that's never explained and she tells a story about her childhood: her father presented all the children with a pillowcase, filled to the brim with young starlings, all of which were subsequently smashed by the father with a crowbar before their eyes.

The tale she tells about the killed starlings is foreshadowing for what inevitably leads to the second half of the film, just like the fire imagery from the lakeside camp that blurs Mandy's face as she emerges from the water and walks closer to Red, and the dead baby deer she finds when wandering alone through the misty morning sunlight of the forest—it appears to her like a sacrifice, and there are many more to come.

While walking to work, Mandy is spotted by Sand and his cultists, the Children of the New Dawn, as they drive past. He is enamored by her. He requests for one of his underlings, Brother Swan (Ned Dennehy) to bring her to him. Swan uses the Horn of Abraxas to summon the Black Skulls, a motorcycle gang consisting of strange humanoid creatures resembling the cenobites from Hellraiser. They seem to have the wickedest desires of humans, without much of the actual humanity. They are controlled by Sand's cult with LSD.

Sand attempts to initiate Mandy into the cult once they've kidnapped her, but it all fails, and leads to tragedy. They leave Red to die, his hands bound and bloodied by barbed wire. There are some allusions to Christ here. The wound in Red's side is much like the Lance of Longinus piercing Jesus's body, and the barbed wire and bound hands bring to mind the nailed hands and the crown of thorns. Sand remarks that Jesus's big mistake was not choosing a sacrifice in his stead. Thus ends the first half of the film.

Before continuing onto aspects of the second half and where most of the problems emerge, I'll delve into some of the context and symbols that recur throughout the film:

The film is set during 1983. Ronald Reagan is the president. He's featured on the Radio while Red drives home: "There's a great spiritual awakening in America. A renewal of the traditional values that have been the bedrock of America's goodness and greatness. An overwhelming majority of Americans disapprove of pornography and abortion—". Red shuts the radio off, and the ominous drones of Jóhann Jóhannsson's soundtrack drowns everything out.

Looking back, it's hard to think of Reagan's speech as being accurately reflective of the 1980s. Red is apolitical and a flat character, but it's assumed he saw it as vacuous pandering as well. Since 1973 we've had 50 million abortions. And Cosmatos seems to later poke fun at the declaration by prominently featuring a porno throughout a fight sequence with Red and one of the Black Skulls, the TV finally exploding orgasmically from a shotgun blast. There was a nihilism brought about by the counterculture movement and the sexual revolution that was never quite abated. Megachurches flourished, a high amount of people claim to be religious but either irregularly attend church, are very casual in their beliefs or shamelessly behave in ways that conflicts with their stated religion. Televangelists and their flock were conjoined to the hip with the neocons. The alternative religions or spirituality birthed out of the counterculture was equally hollow and even more hedonistic. Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache) and his cultist followers seem to represent the darker elements of that bygone era, merged with the Satanic Panic of the 1980s. Similar to Manson, Sand is also a psychedelic folk singer and artist, and he plays his music during the initiation with Mandy in a disorienting scene. The entirety of the cult seems to be based on the false transcendentalism of hallucinogenics.

Mandy and Red speak of the galaxy, the planets that inhabit it. This is another important point in the symbolism. Mandy favors Jupiter because of its raging storm—the great red spot, peering back at its viewer like a large red eye—big enough to swallow the earth. Red's favorite is Saturn, but he takes it back and says his favorite is Galactus. Of course, the names for the planets came from Roman mythology and the planets feature heavily in myth and the occult, so there are a multitude of possible meanings. As for Galactus... I'm not sure that's a planet—according to wikipedia, that's a cosmic entity from the Marvel universe that devours planets. Clearly this is more of a dorky pop culture reference, though it may have some other significance.

Saturn relates to the god Saturn (Chronos in Greek mythology) and Saturnalia—a festival in honor of the god Saturn. Sacrifices are a core part of the festival. The death of Mandy is essentially a sacrifice.

Mandy is reading a book called Seeker of the Serpent's Eye:

Under the crimson, primordial sky, surrounded by the jagged black rocks of the ancient volcanic mountain, the wretched warlock reached into the dark embrace of the fissure until his hand touched a smooth glassy surface. Cold as ice. His fist closed around The Serpent's Eye. Slowly he withdrew it and held it before him in the fading light of the blood red suns. It glowed from within. A ghostly emerald light.

Strange and eternal. 
It's quite deliberate that while Mandy reads the passage, she has a one-dollar bill inside the book as a bookmark. U.S. currency is notable for Masonic imagery—a semi-secretive group steeped in occultic elements—the bill features the all-seeing eye of God/the Eye of Providence. The pyramid is also similar to the A-frame/triangular/pyramidal church at the end of the film.

The serpent's eye is important in occultism, and suggests the red eye of the storm of Jupiter. Both the knife used to stab Red and the Horn of Abraxas glow and an eerie green in close-ups—so it may be possible items associated with magic are represented with green colors.

This particular literary passage is also shown in animated form (though modified a bit) when Red is hunting down the cult. Before the animation starts, Red lays down in a field to sleep, a woman, who appears to be Mandy stands over a sleeping (or dead) monster/demon, and pulls from a wound (roughly it might be the location where Red was stabbed) an object that looks like a shining emerald, dripping a green substance upon her body. It's suggested that Red is this monster.

The Horn of Abraxas is also interesting. I'd recommend this article:

So exploring the rabbit hole of the Gnostic Gospels helps provide even greater insight into the demon called Abraxas. Our boy Abrax (that's what the cool kids call him) is considered a trickster demon. He takes on many forms and seeks to confuse, confound, and control humans through a form of spiritual subterfuge. Some scholars also make the argument that while he may not be considered THE eternal god by many theologians he is seen as the temporal form of THE God's present form. So like he is not the all-powerful God we need,he is the all-powerful God we have right now.
We also associate Abraxas with snakes and serpents. If we pay careful attention to the beginning of the movie we are treated to the titular Mandy reading from the Eye of the Serpent. A clear reference to the importance of serpents in demon lore generally and Abraxas specifically. The Gnostics believed Abraxis had two serpents as legs and often drew images of him having reptilian features. As things go from kind of strange to completely bonkers we are introduced to the demon bikers. These actual Hell's Angels are clearly servants of Abraxas by way of Jeremiah Sands, who might just be Abraxas. Shortly after defeating the demon bikers but before confronting Sands and company Cage visits a tiger keeping, drug making, guru who shows Cage the darkness around him by way of hundreds of large black centipedes. Those could easily be considered serpents for our purposes. 
Now, returning to the second half of the film, it becomes a generic revenge film:

He smelts a battle axe (will most likely become a popular replica weapon) and reacquires his crossbow from a man, Caruthers (Bill Duke), who functions as a wise man of sorts (referring to the theory of the hero's journey). He provides information to develop the Black Skulls.

At this point, the film is nothing but Red hunting down those who wronged him, with plenty of graphic violence. His descent into madness provides only further dehumanization and brutality—this is the closest he has to a character arc.

Only by tasting the LSD is he led onward to meet the chemist (Richard Brake), heading deeper underground into tunnels that lead to what appears to be another world with the church of the cultists—perhaps it should be referred to as an underworld. One might even think of Valhalla Rising during much of Red's transformation into an axe-wielding murderer, blood-soaked and garbed in a tattered vest, and wading through a warped series of visions barely resembling the reality he once knew.

The scene with the chemist is also filled with meaning. "Joven warrior sent forth from the eye of the storm," says the chemist. This comment connects the aforementioned references to Jupiter, which is Mandy's favorite planet. There is a tiger released from the cage—in earlier scenes, Red is wearing a shirt with a tiger on the front. The chemist says Red "exudes a cosmic darkness" and asks if he can see what he means. Red is standing in a pile of black, squirming leeches. Not only do they evoke his state of mind and his current place in the world, and how far he has fallen, but they also bring to mind the serpent mentioned previously because of their serpentine appearance.

Additionally, the dialogue from the chemist bares some similarity to portions of what Jeremiah Sand related to Mandy, his recollection featuring a mysterious interlocutor whom Sand speaks of in vague terms. The chemist tells Red how right he is, seemingly as a non-sequitur. The chemist says how they have wronged Red. Red is in a state of pain and despair, similar to how Sand once was, but now he knows what to do, for the chemist has guided him. Both Sand and Red seem to have been set down the path they're on with aid from drugs or those who concoct them, just as hippies and gurus sought enlightenment through drugs, specifically hallucinogens.

When he finds Sand's church, he has to go underground once more, deeper—equivalent to the multiple circles of hell in Dante's Inferno.

Caruthers mentioned that a special batch of LSD altered the Black Skulls—warped their minds. By the end of the film Red has power beyond that of a normal human, much like the Black Skulls—he crushes a man's skull with his bare hands by squeezing alone... he speaks in a distorted tone similar to the Black Skulls, and he declares that he is now the god that Sand refers to.

There are some details of the film that are not clear to me, but we could potential infer a sort of progression that the main characters is going through. He backtracks from Saturn being his favorite planet—he goes with a bugman reference of Galactus, perhaps a reference to his life before things went awry. Then there's the planet he first identified, Saturn, which links to Saturnalia and sacrifice. Next is Jupiter, the planet Mandy named—most importantly, the chemist recognizes him as a Joven warrior. He seems to move beyond this stage at the end by becoming less human—identifying as a god—a darker, more esoteric one than the familiar gods of Greek/Roman mythology. Something dark and sinister like the Black Skulls, but perhaps greater.

The final frame is that of a painted image of an alien landscape with multiple planets and seemingly it's an entirely different universe Red has found himself in altogether.

While I found scrutinizing all the different esoteric elements of the film interesting, and it's a fascinating audio-visual experience, the second half is still rather underwhelming with its cliche story of revenge and drawn out action. The humor, specifically the one liner about Nicholas Cage's ripped shirt, is a bit off-putting and detracts from the grim atmosphere. There's the chainsaw battle that is a silly homage to Evil Dead and just slows the pace down further. And looking back at the length of the film, it feels overlong at two hours.

The animations are particularly awful, and they would have been better off using practical effects akin to The Thing (John Carpenter) or From Beyond (Stuart Gordon). The sequences, being drawn, look nothing like the other visual and are quite jarring, not to mention a bit stiff. Thankfully they are not common.

For those who are concerned with dialogue and ample amounts of characterization, character development, or story, there really is not a lot to be found here. It's very much style over substance—perhaps the style is the substance, in some twisted logic.

No comments:

Post a Comment