Since its debut at Cannes earlier this year, the ultraviolent, hallucinatory revenge flick Mandy has emerged, remarkably, as one of the best-received films of 2018. Perhaps even more remarkably, this unforgettable masterpiece of blood, fire, and demented vision—opening Friday (September 14)—all began with a trip to Victoria’s Jaycee Fair when filmmaker Panos Cosmatos was nine years old.
“I went to a stall to buy a ZZ Top Velcro wallet, and the woman behind the stand was a sort of metalhead wearing wire-rimmed glasses,” Cosmatos recalls, calling the Georgia Straight from Montreal. “And in a childish way I instantly fell in love with her.”
He was so stricken that he handed over his money and then walked away minus the wallet, and that, says the Vancouver-based director, “was the very core gestation of Mandy”. It’s also a familiar creative strategy for Cosmatos, whose 2010 debut, Beyond the Black Rainbow, was a similar transmutation of pop-cultural fixations, emotional memory, and deeply felt life experience. The result was like a violent sci-fi version of Proust financed by Cannon Films. It remains utterly unique.
“Just making Black Rainbow was like my minimum requirement before death, so that I could die with some honour and not in total shame,” offers Cosmatos, rather disarmingly, given that the renown he earned allowed him to cast Mandy with Andrea Riseborough as the metalhead in wire-rim glasses and Nic Cage as the man who’ll literally advance from one impossible dimension to the next to avenge her death.
His leads both step up with thrillingly committed performances. As does Linus Roache as psychotic religious-cult leader Jeremiah Sand, whose influence extends to a murder-hungry quartet of “trans-dimensionally aware” mutants called the Black Skulls. Cosmatos calls them “Pacific Northwest acid demons”, and again, it’s the filmmaker’s own backyard that’s been relocated to Mandy’s fictional Shadow Mountains, a just-left-of-familiar landscape of moss and pine through which Cage’s Red Miller pursues Sand and his acolytes.
Muses Cosmatos: “In the night there’s sometimes a sort of cursed quality to the Pacific Northwest. In my mind the Shadow Mountains is some weird pocket of Cascadia.”
Mandy also scales up the very strange and subtle humour we encounter in Rainbow, and Cage, in particular, is given a couple of moments that land in the more remote regions of the absurd. Cosmatos happily professes his love of lowbrow comedy, but the comic voicing here is nowhere near the throwaway splat-stick of ’80s horror.
“At one point in my life,” he says, “what I wanted was to be Sam Raimi and just make Evil Dead over and over again, and I think there’s a little bit of Ash in Red. But at the same time, I wanted to take a character like that and really milk the maximum operatic suffering and emotion out of him, and make it feel tangible and believable to some degree.”
Reaching once more into his intimately personal mythography, where the tacky becomes talismanic, and the gaudy is imbued with deep meaning, Cosmatos recalls visiting a Mexican market in 1981 and finding “all these bootleg versions of American toys, like a Stormtrooper that looked completely wrong, but in some way was compelling and fascinating in its own right. I want my films to have that kind of feeling to them. That they’re a sort of deformed Stormtrooper action figure of a movie.”