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Nicolas Cage in Mandy
Nicolas Cage in Mandy

Mandy is the Nic Cage-starring revenge thriller that’s already a cult hit

Speaking to Italian-Canadian director Panos Cosmatos about his beautiful, doom-laden epic (which is already drawing Rocky Horror comparisons)

“When I die, bury me deep, lay two speakers at my feet. Wrap some headphones around my head, and rock and roll me when I’m dead.” These are the words that open Mandy, a doom-laden, heavy-metal revenge thriller from the depraved imagination of director Panos Cosmatos. It's 1983 AD, and the world is polluted with hazy reds, dirty blues, and an all-consuming ocean of psychedelic post-production effects. Here, in the pits of the Shadow Mountains, humans seemingly move in slow motion, a dirge of guitar feedback ripples through the fog, and we witness other not-so-subtle hints that hell might actually be a place on earth. Well, the devil does tend to have the best tunes.

In Mandy, the kaleidoscopic environment also doubles as a playground for Nicolas Cage. The explosive actor’s often blood-soaked character is Red Miller, a desperate logger who’s pushed to the brink when his wife, Mandy (Andrea Riseborough, here as a goth style icon), is kidnapped by a biker gang. The resultant quest for vengeance involves an improvised axe, a live tiger, and a full-on chainsaw duel. Add in some hijinks involving LSD, cocaine, and some literally animated sequences, and you’re left with a hypnagogic mind-fuck and a rocking soundtrack to match. Think the Bang-Bang Bar scene in Fire Walk With Me, or the episode of The Simpsons where Homer swallows a hallucinogenic chilli.

Mandy came from grief and depression,” Cosmatos explains. “I wanted this to be an outward volcanic expulsion of the emotion of my first film.” The director, who’s flown into the UK for the London Film Festival, describes his 2010 debut, Beyond the Black Rainbow, as an inhale, whereas Mandy is the much-needed exhale.

It’s somewhat of a surprise that Cosmatos is a little introverted, and speaks with gentle clarity. You can imagine his serene, thoughtful energy smartly meshing with the “Cage rage” of his leading man. The pairing evidently works. Cage was a fan of Beyond the Black Rainbow, and took a pay cut in order to play Red Miller. “He’s an actor with amazing range,” the director grins. “He’s demonstrated small, delicate character stuff with Alan Parker’s Birdy, to the more absurdist, Dada-ist expressionist humour of Vampire’s Kiss. I wanted to utilise the full range of that in this film.”

There’s one moment, in particular, when Cage, trampled and beaten, crawls around a bathroom floor without any trousers on. The method actor downs an entire bottle of vodka, and emits a primal scream that could register on the Richter scale. The scene is a single unbroken take, and the frame shuffles awkwardly when Cage stumbles around. It’s as if the camera has discovered an animal in the wild and is attempting to keep up. 

Similarly inviting is the music. The film’s opening sounds are “Starless” by King Crimson. But for the most part, what you hear are rich, consistent blasts of prog-metal conjured up by Jóhann Jóhannsson, to whom the film is dedicated – it’s the composer’s final project before his tragic death in February. Like Cage, Jóhannsson adored Beyond the Black Rainbow, and requested a meeting with Cosmatos. On paper, they may not seem like an obvious pairing: the Oscar-nominated scores of Sicario and The Theory of Everything aren’t entirely in the key of Mandy. “But after talking to him for 15 minutes,” Cosmatos recalls, “I realised he was an Icelandic metal-head, and we had a lot of the same cultural touchstones growing up.”

“I made this film in the hope that it would fulfil something for an audience that wasn’t being spoken to. Being compared to The Rocky Horror Picture Show is a huge compliment” – Panos Cosmatos

To start with, Cosmatos sent Jóhannsson an eclectic playlist. It included Queen’s Flash Gordon soundtrack, Van Halen’s “Sunday Afternoon in the Park”, and a “very gentle, beautiful Spanish guitar instrumental by Black Sabbath”. For the actual recording, Jóhannsson invited along Stephen O’Malley from Sun O)))) and Randall Runn as the producer. Cosmatos wanted “a disintegrating rock opera”, and the subsequent, atmospheric droning defines the film: it’s suffocating, incessant, and yet irresistible, like being repeatedly whacked on the head with a lava lamp until you, too, are eager to sign up to the cult of Mandy.

Which is to say: Mandy has become the cult movie of the year. Since its limited release in America, the low-budget thriller has exceeded expectations: fans are packing out cinema screenings night after night, despite the film’s availability over there on VOD. So much so, Business Insider felt compelled to declare Mandy “the next Rocky Horror Picture Show”. Meanwhile, on Twitter, genre-hounds are demanding more theatrical showings – and cinemas are responding positively. It really proves that once you take a dose of Mandy, you can’t wait to get your next fix.

The film’s absorbing aesthetic means it’s a bit like listening to an album, and so a second spin feels natural. “I think people are drawn to it as a novelty,” Cosmatos theorises, “and then they’re emotionally connecting with it. I’m hearing about people going back multiple times. I made this film in the hope that it would fulfil something for an audience that wasn’t being spoken to. Being compared to The Rocky Horror Picture Show is a huge compliment.”

For all its animated sequences (inspired by The Mystery of Rampo), and the now-viral Chedder Goblin advertisement (it was guest-directed by the guy behind Too Many Cooks), Mandy’s storyline keeps things conventional. The “man avenges his dead wife” logline isn’t anywhere near as adventurous as the film that surrounds it. “To me, the storyline is the fuel on the hot rod, to make it go forward,” says Cosmatos. “I’m more interested in the textures. A lot of films mistake convolutedness for complexity. To me, a simple story can be a powerful spine to build around.”

That final point becomes most apparent when Cosmatos returns to his earlier remark about Mandy emerging from a place of grief. Dazzling colours, a headphone-worthy soundtrack and Nicolas Cage can please audiences, but to gain Rocky Horror Picture Show cult status, a movie needs genuine feeling. That sincere, emotional core bleeds throughout the film’s attention-grabbing visuals. 

“My mother died in 1997,” Cosmatos explains, “and I spiralled into this self-destructive vortex of trying to annihilate my consciousness. I was afraid to face the grief of losing her, because she was somebody I loved more than anybody else in the world. Then, when my father died, it became clear pretty fast that if I didn’t deal with this, it was going to destroy me. So I finally went into therapy, and I quit drinking. That allowed me to gain some clarity.

“I had this moment where I was sitting in my house, and I imagined myself in that room, ten years into the future, and I still hadn’t made a movie. It was such a jarring and depressing potential reality, that it basically lit a fire underneath me – and I almost immediately started to work on Black Rainbow. Because I wanted to die a death that wasn’t totally dishonourable.” He laughs at the Mandy-appropriate note we’re ending the interview on. “So, I’m OK to die now.”

Mandy is out now in UK cinemas, and out on Blu-Ray, DVD and Digital Download on October 29