Mandy: A Review

 

SPOILER ALERT: This review contains spoilers, including a discussion of the (absolutely predictable) ending of Mandy. Proceed with caution if you haven’t seen Mandy, or go watch it yourself first (but don’t spend too much money doing so). 

This is what I remember: Nicolas Cage in a bathroom. His pants are gone, and he’s wearing some sort of yellow shirt, which is covered in blood because the cult-leader stabbed him in the side with a knife that should’ve been big enough to ensure us that he, Nicolas Cage, really shouldn’t be moving around as much as he is in this scene. Cage seems to be handling the situation well, although I should probably call him Red, since that’s the name of his character. Red, pantless, stabbed, witness to the recent and gruesome burning of his lover, and locked in a bathroom, produces a bottle of vodka from a cabinet, takes a few swigs, and begins screaming.

On second thought, I simply have to call him Nicolas Cage rather than Red, because this scene is just so damned Cagey it’s destined for inclusion in some future YouTube “Nicolas Cage’s Worst Acting Moments” compilation video (you know, right there alongside pretty much all of Deadfall and The Wicker Man’s “not the bees!”). The scene, in short, is brilliant. This is the part when that satisfying sense of “now this is what I came here for!” really kicks in.

Which isn’t to say the movie is worthless up until the bathroom scene. The slow-burning beginning, complete with lush forest scenes filtered through Mandy’s trademark hallucinated wash of red and blue (Suspiria anyone?) seems pretty damned promising. The dialogue is a hazy mess of half-glimpsed memories and LSD-fueled rambling, the cult members are truly unsettling, and oh, there’s a motorcycle gang of metal-armored cenobite things you just know Cage is destined to battle. At this juncture (that is, up to the bathroom scene), my passion for Mandy’s delightfully surreal B-movie vibe just about equals our buddy Cage’s for torture scenes.

So what’s this movie about? Basically, Cage… er… Red’s girlfriend, Mandy (Andrea Riseborough), has snagged the eye of Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache), a freakazoid cult leader with ties to the cenobite biker things that seems to be centered around drugs (hallucinogens, specifically). Sand gets his goons to subdue Cage and snatch Mandy so they can feed her the “chemist’s best,” (one part LSD, one part sting to the jugular by a giant wasp they keep in a jar of liquid). Mandy trips, Sand shows her his penis, and she laughs. Predictably, this pretty much kills Sand’s buzz, so he orders his cult to kill her with fire in return. Cage gets a front-row seat to the whole event before they finally leave him to die. It should come as no surprise that he’s able to free himself from his bonds and hand-craft a wicked solid steel battleaxe in his forge before departing on a revenge mission which promises to be like no other. All this happens within the first 45 minutes or so.

Great. Sounds like a wrap. Time to sign off and move onto the next film, right?

God, I wish it were that easy.

I wanted to like this so bad it hurt, especially during the scene where Red goes to his friend’s trailer (the friend is Caruthers, played by Bill Duke) and gets entirely filled in on the legendary history of the Black Skulls (the above-mentioned cenobite-biker-thing gang) by way of a supposedly “incidental” conversation. Caruthers even gives Red their location. That’s right. All the integral aspects of Red’s revenge plan are conveniently provided in a short, hamfisted dialogue that seems cut and pasted from the script notes to save someone the effort of revealing things in a more interesting way. Sloppy? Fuck yes, but that wouldn’t have been enough to sink entire the ship.

After the disheartening Caruthers dialogue, Red spends about three seconds searching for the Black Skulls. In essence, there’s no “hunt” for the demon bikers at all, despite the fact that Mandy has delightfully taken its time up to this point. Red kills one of the Black Skulls with a crossbow, then gets captured… again, and when he wakes and breaks out of his bonds… again, he makes surprisingly quick and easy work of these scary-looking monsters before heading off to hunt the human element of the Children of the New Dawn cult. “Wow, that was quick. Surely you skipped something…” you say. Actually, I didn’t. Compared to the first part of the movie, the revenge scene progresses in a sloppily brisk-paced series of predictable and rather unimaginative kills.

Yes, I really do “get it”–this movie isn’t supposed to be polished squeaky clean. As I said at the beginning of this review, Mandy promised to play to Cage’s worst impulses, and I readily acknowledged and applauded this bold aim. Make no mistake, Red’s revenge scenes are definitely cringeworthy, and if I’m going to be completely honest, I did enjoy the animated shorts of Mandy that appear intermittently throughout the second half.

Still, cool visuals and Cage killing people isn’t enough for greatness. It feels like the second half of this thing literally had no script. Even worse, Mandy fell into two devastating plot miscalculations that could’ve been easily avoided. Caruthers, as I mentioned, shouldn’t have furnished the whole backstory in one fell swoop. Much of the film’s tension revolved around the mystery of the Black Skulls who seemed to materialize in the forest only with the initiation of an occult ritual. Having some random character whose sole function is to explain the whole thing away the moment Red hints that he’s had a rough night was a bad idea, since it evaporates that much-needed tension in a strikingly uncreative way.

Above all, Red shouldn’t have killed the Black Skulls first. I get that Red had to kill cult leader Sand last, but shouldn’t a gang of cenobite-demons decked out in Gwar-level heavy metal armor have been end-of-level “bosses” protecting Sand rather than easily-disposable grunts? Given the narrative tension generated by these things, this misstep is truly unforgivable. Again, it would’ve been so easy to have Red kill the human cult members first (who don’t pose any additional difficulty to Red, despite the fact that he faces them last) and to face the obscure Black Skulls in a final encounter that Mandy tried so hard to build up to during its earlier scenes. As it stands, unfortunately, Mandy expends all its narrative power right at the onset of Red’s revenge, and the rest of the movie drags along on a whimpering limp.

Ultimately, I’m glad I didn’t give into my impulse to buy this thing before watching. In a discussion at IndieWire’s Sundance Studio, director Panos Cosmatos says that he’s working against the “Tyranny of Perfection,” which he defines as the need “to be seen as utterly precise and perfect or seen as a failure.” Cosmatos goes on to say that he likes “rough edges on things,” and I don’t see anything inherently wrong with this. Particularly in horror films, rough edges can lend an endearing quality to a film that might have been forgettable otherwise (big fan of The People Under the Stairs, here), and that’s exactly what I expected (as I’ve repeated ad nauseum now) with Mandy. In this case, at least from a writer’s perspective, the latter half of Mandy feels less “rough” than rushed and underdeveloped.

Yeah, rough edges are cool, but effective storytelling is vital. Almost anything seems to go as long as you tell a good story. At least when plotting your narrative arc, no one will fault you for striving for perfection.

 -Justin A. Burnett

Horror Lives (No Matter What Vogue Tells You)

 

It would seem that every year something has to be declared dead. Last year, people were postulating that Minecraft was on its way out, yet game sales hit 122 million copies in the very first quarter.

The year before, Forbes was saying that rock was dead (I guess they forgot that shock rocker Marilyn Manson beat them to the punch 18 years earlier). Even one of our own brood, Mr. Zakary McGaha, claimed that horror was dead earlier this year (McGaha can be excused for his rash remarks for two reasons: 1) he is very young and 2) he is a massive horror fan).

If you’re going to declare something dead, you need to know what you’re talking about. There’s a reason you won’t find Silent Motorist Media declaring the end of, say, fashion in 2018. When the “clickbait” phenomenon infiltrates even “respected” publications, however, the first thing we can expect is an influx of sensationalist claims regarding every aspect of entertainment from people as far from qualified as Kanye is from being a professional plastic surgeon.

In a short but hardly sweet hatchet piece for none other than Vogue.com, Taylor Antrim—a writer whose name conjures an image of some silver spoon-sucking snot throwing a temper tantrum because he didn’t get his mid-morning flan—makes sweeping generalizations about the year that horror has been having.

Yeah, you know. The year that David Gordon Green’s Halloween sequel broke box office records and horror magazines returned to print. That year.

In this passive-aggressive hit piece, Antrim postures like he’s a horror fan, but he seizes every opportunity to invoke that word invented by the Oscar-baiting mainstream, “thriller.” This comes off less like a fan lamenting the loss of quality horror movies and more like someone pushing the idea of the genre being fungible.

In fact, most of his lament centers around claims that 2018’s horror movies aren’t really horror films, as if pushing boundaries and challenging audience expectations hasn’t been a major aspect of horror’s success throughout the past decade (even though he openly lauds Jordan Peele’s “masterpiece” Get Out to the point that he claims it “should have won that Oscar”). At the same time Antrim also criticizes Halloween for being a “retro slasher.”

So, either the new stuff ain’t horror, or it’s too traditional? Antrim is a profoundly difficult horror fan to please. Either that, or he’s simply more interested in making grand statements about the genre than making sense.

“Remember when horror was good?” he asks, as if he’s recalling a faint and distant memory. Paradoxically, he mentions movies like Hereditary, which prove that horror is still as vital and boundary-pushing as ever.

Clickbait-y horror site Bloody Disgusting was quick to fire back, writing, “Typical for pieces of this sort, the article has no clear point and builds up to nothing; mostly, it’s supported by the writer’s viewing of Winchester, The Nun and Slender Man, three not-so-great films that offer only a fraction of horror that was put on display this year.”

As we mentioned before, it’s not like this is the first time someone has suggested that horror is seeing its demise, but it’s definitely the first time that someone so grossly out-of-touch has dared to say it.

As our resident poet and fellow horror fanatic Josh Darling puts it, “How adorable it is that Vogue magazine has an opinion on horror. That’s like a mongoloid’s opinion of quantum physics—completely irrelevant. I can hear the mental stutter of ‘…but, but, but…Vogue is a well-written and important magazine.’

“Yes, okay, maybe, but that statement isn’t all that true. Vogue is a well-written fashion magazine. What Vogue has to say about horror is about as on point as what Fangoria has to say about fashion week in New York.”

Darling quickly adds that if horror were doing so poorly, magazines like Fangoria and Rue Morgue wouldn’t be returning to print after going digital. He also notes that Antrim isn’t exactly a known member of the horror community: “Mr. Antrim wrote a book that is a ‘fast-paced literary thriller,’ not a horror novel. He doesn’t have degree in film. He does have an MFA in writing, and the bulk of his work is lit fic, not horror or any of its sub-genres.”

Obviously, that didn’t stop Vogue’s Executive Editor from weighing in on the subject. Antrim says that television is where the action is, but even here he misses the boat, claiming that it has yet to yield anything really interesting.

Clearly, Antrim hasn’t watched the latest season of the SyFy creepypasta anthology, Channel Zero. And it’s particularly ironic when he rips on the Hulu horror antho Into the Dark, given how the first two installments have captured the “fun,” and “dark delight” that Antrim calls for in his article.

As if “fun” and “delight” are the essential qualities of horror in the first place. Antrim explicitly singles out Hereditary for lacking these elements. I suspect Antrim thinks art should be more like a Polaroid of a birthday party than a representation of despair, suffering, or any of those other inconveniently serious aspects of existence. For such a fan of horror, Antrim sure seems more than ready to nullify most of genre with his yardstick of “fun” and “delight.” To be sure, no one would accuse The Exorcist or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or The Devil’s Rejects of being fun, at least not in the traditional sense of the word.

As for horror on the small screen, you’d have to be one twisted fucker to say that The Monsters are Due on Maple Street or Five Characters in Search of an Exit were fun.

Of course, it shouldn’t come as a great shock that a Vogue editor would talk about TV when the subject is horror cinema. After all, ever since True Detective and Breaking Bad broke new ground, TV has been sooo in vogue. You can barely go a day without hearing about how long form storytelling is “where it’s at” or how television is experiencing a renaissance … whatever the fuck that means.

But what is surprising is just how desperate Antrim is to convince readers that he knows horror. When he writes “I really do see all these movies,” you want to pat him on the head and say, “sure you do, pal.”

That sense of begrudging pity for the man swiftly dissipates when he says, “…just living through 2018 has felt a bit like a horror film.”

As Randy from Scream would say, “fuck youuuuu!”

If Vogue pays for such hackneyed “observations,” we would all do well to bone up on the world of runway models and Versace gowns.

Antrim wraps up his disgraceful piece with the suggestion that people go to the horror genre for a semblance of control. What could be further from the truth? When I think back to the first time I saw Eli Roth’s Hostel in the movie theater, and how I damn near crushed my girlfriend’s hand during the ball gag-and-chainsaw sequence, I don’t remember any sense of control.

Instead, I remember feeling like a gasket that was about to blow. And when that ball gag finally came out and Magnum PI started nipping at his would-be executioner’s fingertips, I remember feeling a brief sense of relief, followed in quick succession by another wave of tension.

While the environment in which we experience horror does remain controlled, we watch horror in order to dissolve the divide between the plastic world of art and the horror of existence to the greatest extent possible. The semblance of control is exactly what we want to lose.

This is the point of horror: to take us to dark and dangerous landscapes where we feel as cornered as the characters, where we can vicariously experience the brutality and madness they undergo. It’s a cinematic dance with Thanatos, an artistic experience of our inherent death impulse, like doing poppers with Dionysus on the edge of a very tall building when the moon is hiding behind the clouds.

Antrim ends his piece by saying, “Here’s to the golden age of horror returning in 2019,” a sentence that’s essentially an oxymoron. As our own Josh Darling points out, “many horror fans will tell you the Golden Age of horror happened already. It started in the 70s and ended in the late 80s.”

Others would point to the Hammer horror films of the mid-fifties as the golden age, but that doesn’t negate the fact that there are hundreds, if not thousands, of horror titles released direct-to-DVD every year, and not all of them are garbage.

More and more, we see limited run or direct-to-streaming horror that surpasses its theatrical counterparts in almost every way. This year’s Tales from the Hood 2 stands out as a straight-to-video flick that is largely superior to its predecessor, both in terms of special effects and storytelling.

Other 2018 horror entries that have kicked major ass include Mandy, The Strangers: Prey at Night, Unsane, Annihilation, Upgrade, The House That Jack Built, Incident in a Ghostland and Overlord.

And that’s just to name the most prominent examples of good horror that did great this year. There are plenty of awesome low-budget horror movies being turned out every single day. Shit, even YouTubers are getting in on the action and at least one horror fan successfully crowdfunding the unofficial Friday the 13th sequel that we’ve all been waiting for (whether we knew it or not).

We watch these movies and we enjoy the hell outta them. Not because they’re all great, but because they all explore something that no other genre is able to tap into.

Kurt Vonnegut once said, “the most exquisite pleasure in the practice of medicine comes from nudging a layman in the direction of terror, then bringing him back to safety again.” And that does a pretty damn good job of explaining the practice of all great horror auteurs.

They do not seek to offer viewers control. They’d rather pull a Hitchcock and play the audience like a piano. And we love them for it. Here’s to being out of control.

Bob Freville, Justin A. Burnett