Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Acid Etched Damascus: MANDY

In MANDY, Nicolas Cage proves his levels of fearless crazy have no bottom (or top, same thing), and Canada's Panos Cosmatos proves his debut film BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW was no psychedelically-distilled Ativan fluke or one-off experiment. Like Cage, Mandy is insanity brought to high art. It's "strange and eternal," druggy with slowed-down sound, psychedelic movement trails, pineal-buzzing drones, rock and roll violence, a fusion of fantasy and reality in which Cage goes so nuts he becomes a demon before our very eyes. As Red, a woodsman (aka lumberjack, for the chainsaw hath replaced yonder axe), Cage starts out soft and intimate, deeply attuned to his lady faire and full of gentle weird jokes. After she's dead, man, he gets mad, walks with his gut out, his butt lit, his eyes covered with shades instead of goggles when he uses his home forge, guzzling his shower vodka in his underwear and pouring it over his open wounds, howling in a way that's totally new for the actor and it's like nothing cinema has ever heard the like of--not nasal and hysterical but deep, tragic and genuinely scary. He rides a demonic ATV through the wild north woods in the dead of night; he fights chainsaw duels; he burns churches; he does every drug in sight. Crushing skulls, losing his shit over a demon ripping his favorite shirt, saying wild shit like "a psychotic drowns where a mystic swims" and telling super-cool Bill Duke he needs his crossbow back because he's hunting "Jesus freaks" (spoilers why). To paraphrase Mrs. Crummles in Nicholas Nickleby, he's too... tremendous!

And so is the Mandy. It's saturated with a pleasing palette of deep reds and blacks, and propelled by Jóhann Jóhannsson's score, a bed of murky drones and synths both thumberling and quiscubescent (two words I just invented). King Crimson's "Starless and Bible Black" slithering like syrupy warm serpents down the river lane of the opening credits. Jóhannsson's score isn't quite as instantly riveting and tripped out as Sinoa Caves' for Rainbow, it's more varied, moving from romantic minor key Eno-ish dalliances to thunder god forge burbling, eerie droning. But when old Nic preps for war, joint or cigarette in mouth, goggles on, gut out, in flow pulse-quickening synth cycles that sound like an old flying saucer getting kick-started deep in the woods with no ears to hear it. We finally learn what that quiscubescent sound freels lorick! (New words for new sensations).

The plot finds us in--as the first chapter title explains 'the Shadow Mountains - 1983 A.D. That AD is a key right there, for this is a story that could be told in the wild west of 1883 or some Middle Ages Belgian schwarzwald (where it was films), aside from its one Piscean foot being in the world of Mandy's current fantasy novel, and her interest in the planet Jupiter. The Shadow Mountains are the kind of place so deep only truckers, loggers, drug manufacturers, and the assorted good and evil forces and businesses they engender, dwell. It's a kind of old growth paradise, especially shot through with hazy lavender and pink sunlight streams which bathe the life and pad of Red and his artist wife Mandy (Andrea Riseborough) in haunting lights - every frame of their existence is gorgeous. Happy as could be, they live as any of us would at the time, if we could--with great sound editing capturing their intimate whispers, talking about Galactus, Erik Estrada, Jupiter, the stars--real intimate talk, like the film, rooted in reality, the stars, and pop culture. With her glasses and crow's feet proudly un-Botoxed, her Bette Davis x Peter Lorre eyes staring right into him across the water (they live "out on Crystal Lake") and their backyard campfire, distant howls or human moans too abstract to investigate, Jóhannsson droning over them all Vangelis Blade Runner "Love Theme"-ish dreamy - it's a new kind of paradise, the nightmare nipping at their toes... we're deep in it with them, with Nic, staring at Mandy through the flames like she's the anima princess of his dreams.

She is, and the film follows her all the way into the mystic. With her mind alive to the infinite, taking weird Antichrist-style sojurns into the chthonic woods, via her dreams and the novel she's reading about serpents eyes and red skies, Mandy is perhaps open enough to the oceanic currents that she gets ensnared in the neural network of Manson/ Papa Jupiter (!)-ish cult leader Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roche) who takes it as divine right that he should have her as part of his flock (They are 'the Children of the New Dawn'). Ere long the horns of Abraxas summon a gang of evil demon bikers, somewhere between the Cenobites, the gang in Mad Max, and the radio active ash-blackened New Mexican derelicts in the new Twin Peaks. And well, that's when it gets really interesting, because one thinks they have this movie all figured out -- some variation on any of Nic's angry cult-busting, child or bride-rescuing/avenging adrenalin junkets, like Drive Angry--but the left turns start coming, we veer into the realm of deep myth - with his gone eyes Red walks 'the demon path' like Lone Wolf sans Baby Cart, violence overtaking him in a kind of supernatural shock like Dustin Hoffman in Straw Dogs and/or Shauna Macdonald in The Descent as well as, of course Max von Sydow in Virgin Spring. The side that didn't want war always takes the first hit, but the sting of the slap wakes their fury, and nothing's scarier than a civilized human who suddenly has nothing left to lose. That sounds cliche'd, but it's only when the filmmaker forgets the archetypal roots, the forge, the legends and myth underwriting their own variation, forgets the moon and paints the finger, that it becomes hackwork (like a dozen Cages what shall be nameless).

As Cosmatos' fantastic feature debut 2010's  Beyond the Black Rainbow, mixed elements of classic Canadian sci-fi horror films (Scanners, Blue Sunshine), here the threads seem to be Valhalla Rising, The Virgin Spring (there's definitely a Norse mythology undertone at play) and that Canadian classic Heavy Metal, along with Ralph Bakshi, and The Wall (via animated dream sequences), but the same style and mood--a slow druggy deep woods where people seem to swim through the LSD atmosphere and a psychopath uses strong psychedelics as a means of control and reality-bending--and the same theme: the way under strong drugs, murder and torture, can come as easy and peace and love (depending on the dosage and your gullibility), and how the descent into dark archaic demonic madness is always just a drop on the tongue or in the eye... away; the monsters of the fantasy novel you're reading are right there, outside your window while you sleep. Elements right out of Mandy's current book: the Loc-nar-evoking Serpent's Eye jewel; the 'Horn of Abraxas that summons the Black Skulls; the "tainted blade of the pale night, straight from the abyssal lair," monstrous demons slavering while they talk in rumbly inhuman voices, their ATVs roaring like otherworldly beasts, their LEDs beaming like the eyes of dragons, they manifest from the woods like Mandy is the gatekeeper of reality, the dream of the dreamer, turned nightmare. Starlings smashed in sacks or set ablaze - all horrors doubling back along the Moebius ouroboros.

This archetypal warp seems to be, now that Cosmatos has made two films using it, a genuine new, and profound style. Deep immersion into a druggy slow motion bizarro world awash in deep ASMR whispery intimacy creates space for both the stars, the page, and the woods to merge into one; reality bending and warping match the perceptions of the totally tripped out, take it from me. I was there. For every peak, a valley... and some so dark it takes getting even darker to find the light again.

Saturated in dark red and blacks, with all sorts of deep dish manipulations of light and sound, Cosmatos creates a magical zone where idealism has crashed into the trees and Canadian and US indie horror and sci-fi films from the 70s all find their sequel, a zero sum flashpoint. Just as Tarantino turns to the Shaw Brothers, New World, and the Italians for his pastiche palette, Cosmatos turns to the wilds of Canada and NYC: Cronenberg, Lieberman, Barker, De Palma, Bakshi, Cohen, he turns to Frazetta and prog rock album covers, and most of all, to what Terence McKenna would call the 'heroic measure' of psychedelics for his inspiration. The wild fumes of 20x salvia divinorum and the LSD - ecstasy - amphetamine concoctions of trans-dimensional Berkeley chemists. The sort of stuff where you take it on Friday and by the following Wednesday your tuned-in wife's wild mystical artwork is still moving on the page, the wild willowing branches of the endless tree that becomes tentacles and tendrils reaching for the inner light. You make Gandalf seem like Gob Bluth. It might take a month to totally fade, but by then you've taken other things, kept the ball rolling...

Nic, powering up for battle (i.e. guzzling vodka in the bathroom and screaming).
These aren't your average hackwork stepped-on ecstasy capsules or weak-ass doses. These are special variants, super-charged by Berkley chemistry majors going down a way more psychedelic rabbit hole than your boring ass meth manufacturers. Many who went into the hole thanks to sampling their wild concoctions (like DOM, and Ethyl) wound up lost in the woods, spinning like Susan Strasberg suddenly able to hear again at the end of Psych-Out - 'til the right cult found them (Manson on the dark end, the Rainbow Family on the other; when I was doing DOM in the mid-90s, even Burning Man was still just an insular Wickery cult rather than a midlife crisis tourist spot). The few who rode the snake all the way and--resisting the temptation to stay egoless in the ecstasy of blind guru-worship, joining the flower people, or 'the Children of the New Dawn' and following a failed acid folkie into oblivion-- climbed out of even the ego trip of egolessness and became themselves again, only shinier -- the gunk of the moment's residue cleared away under the acid washing. In Rainbow, Cosmatos shows the previous decade's deep dish mid-60s LSD experiencers--seeking to use consciousness to make inroads into western medicine--had by the early 80s lapsed into babbling junkies; here we see how mystics and seers with their joyous followers in the 70s devolved into delusional hungry ghost cultist members, all too passive and fucked-up to question the ease with which some pitch-shifted pitch and an LSD-spiked light show won their soul over to a charismatic psychopath. That was what acid users often weren't prepared for. There was a reason the CIA used it in mind control experiments - it left an unsuspecting person's hard drive decrypted and wide open for hacking.  If drugs didn't open their mind enough to see that it was their own mind opening, on its own, then how could they not let some scammer take credit? I saw them all the time at Dead Shows in the 80s... only there in a more benevolent, large-scale way - music dissipating the Satanic darkness; but it wasn't hard to see the power that band had, the way so many people were willing to be subsumed in the larger ego --a nice way to live if you surrender fully, until you're exploited, which, how can you not be? Be it groupies letting themselves by horribly abused by Led Zeppelin up in the Edgewater, misled German boys charging into Belarus all amped up on Pervatin, or Manson's women singing at their own trial, total belief in false gods provides the ultimate in permissive highs, obliterating all traces of empathy, self-regard, and sanity in a giddy headlong rush.

No, my children, it's not Richard Lynch
Mandy's LSD-quaffing cult leader villain, Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roche) is reminiscent of Richard Lynch in God Told Me To as much as Manson, or anyone whose charisma is enough that their psychoses rubs off on their followers, giving people a feeling of 'permission' for their darkest violent impulses. Roche has some very chilling moments facing a mirror, both shaming himself and giving himself a pep talk, where he goes from a kind of panicky infantile shame (we sense, as with Manson, a very rough abusive childhood) to dead-eyed sociopathy that's truly chilling, as are some Mansoneque vocal cadences (in the sound mixing his voice seems to echo along several dimensions, slightly doubled and delayed, the way movements give off trails. Some of the best druggy effects in recent memory occur when Mandy wakes from her abduction to find a solid dose of acid going into her system via forced eye drop and then a sting from a weird -- soaked in bizarre honey-style psychedelics--gigantic hornet, placed against her jugular ("the cherry on top"). It's so trippy that Laura Palmer's drugged excursions with Leo and Jacques north of the border seem like Normal Rockwell paintings by comparison. It's part of the reason Jeremiah's weird combination of seduction, initiation, brain-wash, flashing and insecure first date resume (playing his songs for her like an insecure weed dealer - hear it on Spotify - Amulet of the Weeping Maze!) as he trues to lure Mandy into the fold, is so disturbing --with all that power, he's still just a pathetic guy craving sex and adoration. His turning from semi-optimistic to darker than midnight is a riveting example of the way blind faith leads to atrocities, a psychopath allowing his flock entry into a dream state of us vs. them permission reminiscent not just of Manson but Naziism, in ways hard to shake off.

99% of all great horror/genre films remember people
watch TV, and they keep their sets on all the time.
The few non-cultists met on the journey include the still badass Bill Duke as a trucker friend of Red's who reports word coming down from the big rigs, and the attuned-to-cosmic-purposes and wavelengths LSD manufacturer (Richard Brake), who sets Lizzy the tiger free in a scene that's so open-eyed and openly acted in and around a hint of slow motion as to attune one to a whole weird electric plane. With the addition of the 'Cheddar Goblin' on TV (If I learned anything from Terence and Phillip it's that Canadians love their Kraft Dinner), the tiger, grizzly hallucinations and Jupiter, deep into dark mountainous tunnels, the Pagan Nordic warrior vs. the onset of Christianity the original death cult, this dark fairy tale becomes part Mad Max in addition to Robert E. Howard, and every fairy tale wherein the remote isolation and woods absorb the screams and buzz of chainsaws, planets and skies change colors and size, and thus wild outlaws can run around pillaging and destroying in the lord's name without a soul to stop them, except one man, made insane with rage and loss, who might fashion a Norse God-style weapon, retrieve his crossbow from Bill Duke, and ride into battle, even he--mind reeling with blood loss and agony, can stop and stare mindlessly at a Cheddar Goblin commercial, repeating the slogan as if a mantra (2). Grief and suffering heat a man to a cherry red blade ready for an oil quench and a sharpness test. This is not what the blade does to this railroad spike; it's what this railroad spike does to this blade. But forged in the anguish of murderous Jesus freaks, that spike is going to be gutted.

Though filmed in the wilds of Belgium, presumably the black forest region where Hansel and Gretl were chased by Suspiria witches, it's clear this is a film with the wild depths of the Canadian provinces in its heart - dark forest lands that maps can't do justice to, as if our entire USA is engulfed in old growth and chilly salmon-stoked streams, wilderness where meth and LSD labs and wild ATV-riding nightmares run amok. We forget how vast empty country is, our minds pull towns closer together like a wormhole. But if you've ever driven across country, in the North, Highway 80 or 90, you've seen it - the vastness, the emptiness, like it's a whole separate dimension. That vastness coupled to the deep old growth forest vibe is what makes dark Nordic folktales spring to life when enough residents are high as hell or have done enough astral voyaging in their lives that they can shrug off massive doses of the 'good stuff' and laugh mercilessly at the penis of their insane captor. And yet are no different than people you probably know, that cool couple (4) who exist casually in that gulf between blue collar outdoors jobs and white collar education, who love all the things they do and are humble and just out for the same things the rest of us are. The self-imposed dream exile of the Jesus freaks and Black Skulls, these makers of dark myth, are the real losers.

That may be the highest auric ray inherent in the glow of Mandy, the idea that if the average dude with his 9-5 outdoor job, who just likes kicking back with his old lady on weekends, not starting any trouble, might feel outgunned, out-"lived," by all the wild and polyamorous maniacs out there, maybe it's really the reverse. The 9-5 job-working couples eating dinner in front of the TV are more mythically dense, loom larger on the horizon of glory, than all the murderous hippie Jesus freaks out there combined. If we 'normals' can slow our roll down, bring our Iron John larger-than-lifeness to even the smallest detail in our daily life (instead of letting it just evaporate in a boozy haze), if we can live so minutely that just taking out the trash can reverberate with druggy slow-tempo grinding, the analog synth score in our headphones filling each woodland shadow with dragonly menace, maybe the glowing green gem we somehow lost during the 90s via Bjork, Portishead, DJ Shadow, Moby and Massive A.- all that spinal fluid-draining MDMA heartbreak (3) will turn up at last. Maybe the warm amniotic fuzzy completion that lies even beyond duality and total union with the OMmmm was just waiting out in the backyard for us to finish dinner, so we can race back outside and resume the game before it gets too dark to see the ball.

Maybe, deep inside some shrieking hippie's gut pocket, that ball is still waiting --back there in 1983 AD--back when we were still reading paperbacks and watching arial TV, still rocking to guitar solos on warm analog LPs and cassette mixes, still smoking brown, seedy weed, and riding through deep forest canopy full of insect life; art was still made on paper and canvas and computer programs were loaded via cassette tapes full of grating dial tones or big floppy discs. Cut open that hippie dragon and pull that gem out, Nic Cage!

He has.

Always kind of half-assed around the edges, and hammy, as if he was fumbling around on a radio dial of insanity looking for his 'One True Signal' - something deeper and wilder than anyone had ever tuned to before. Never picking a station 'til he found it, he could drive the backseat static crazy. Well, here he found it- here he's busted through all that white noise at last. This is no longer a manic Crispin Glover kind of crazy or a method free-style crazy, but a crazy from the masculine diaphragm, laughing and hollering and roaring in the face of dragons like Blue Babe just ate the Bunyan. We are delivered unto the glory of the Iron John myth. From steel first softened via the nascent Men's Movement of the late 80s, hammered in the Forged in Fire of the anvil-ringing now, the Iron John wildman archetype Nic now embodies passes every strength and sharpness test, slicing through carcasses of false prophets and rows of gossipy phantasm apples. It's not what the man will do the world, it's what the world will do to the man. And Nic isn't even dulled after a brutal leg chain chop.  He will cut. He will kill. The serpent's eye is lifted from the abyssal lair in the belly of the beast. Strange and eternal, Mandy of Jupiter ascends.

Dad, if only I ever got to see you working.


1. See SHINING Examples: Pupils in the Bathroom Mirror (10/11/11)
2. The Cheddar Goblin commercial is very gross (he vomits mac and cheese on lucky kids' heads, but makes a great counterpoint to Red's horrible loss, and is made by the genius behind the beloved Too Many Cooks.
3. It took me ten years of mourning to accept that warm 'first night' rush would never come back. Craig got it all down so beautifully I cry to this
4. See also: The Devil's Candy (2015)

The Acidemic Nic Cage Reader (Knowing, Kick-Ass, Drive Angry, Bad Lieutenant, Vampire's Kiss) 
Tales from the Benway Pharmacy (Beyond the Black Rainbow, The Machine)
Manson Poppins: The Deathmaster


  1. Saw this yesterday after reading this.

    I'm not a big fan of ultraviolence, even cartoonish violence, but I did love the space the film pushed me into, sort of that von Trier/Winding Refn space where anything could happen and we're detached from our usual filters and morality.

    The visuals were so fantastic- the tracers on Mandy's face in the red/blue tripping scene were wonderful. And scenes like "You ripped my shirt!" and, well, lighting the cigarette off the burning head made me laugh.

    It's one of those films I can't believe got made and thanks for giving me the push through your great writing to see it.

  2. I do not get it. A straight line (the plot) with lots of colors and some cartoons is still just a boring old straight line. So, I'm going to watch it again.

    1. Hahah - yeah it's a familiar tale, but consider it in line with Mandy's fantasy novel she's reading, and the parallels between that and Nordic myth and the dawn of Christianity when it was still a blood cult running amok in the East

  3. Sorry for the belated comment, but just a quick note to say thanks so much for this post Erich - absolutely fantastic writing.

    This film is so densely packed with unfathomable cultural/mythic resonance, it's great to have someone of your particular talents on hand to crack it open like a coconut.

    Personally, I couldn't help but start to see it as some kind of psychedelic '..Alfredo Garcia' in the days after viewing, but there's enough hidden in there for probably every single viewer to pull out their own favourite threads and connections and start waving them around... which is nice. Can't wait to watch it again.


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