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There aren't many films that exceed the level of hype they generate, particularly when the hype is as white-hot as what Mandy received after its 2018 Sundance debut. At best, you can hope they live up to the effusive praise, and at worst you fear being the only one in the room shrugging as the credits roll, or giving everyone around you a "Really? This is what you're into?" side-eye.
Mandy didn't just exceed the well-deserved hype. The first time I saw it — months later than I should have, I'm sad to say — it made me forget there was hype. The weight of expectations and opinions and even my brain's ability to compare Mandy to other movies as I was watching it simply melted away along with the rest of my brain.
Mandy is just that mind-meltingly rad.
Director Panos Cosmatos' film, about a grief-stricken logger (Nicolas Cage) who goes on a quest for vengeance after his love (Andrea Riseborough as the titular Mandy) is murdered by a mad cult leader (Linus Roache), is the closest thing I've ever watched to a prog metal concept album in movie form. It's full of images that Ritchie Blackmore and Bruce Dickinson and Ronnie James Dio might see when they close their eyes in the heat of a debaucherous concert spectacle. It's the Most Metal Movie of 2018, packed with moments that make you want to raise your horns up to the sky, and then raise them higher because the movie just did something even cooler a few seconds later.
Mandy is full of WTF Moments, but if we're going to talk about a WTF Moment to rule them all (for me, at least), we're gonna have to talk about the chainsaws.
The plot is simple: Red (Cage) and Mandy live a quiet life in the woods. A cult leader spots Mandy and has her kidnapped by an LSD-crazed biker gang, Mandy humiliates the cult leader, the cult leader burns her alive in front of Red, and Red goes off to seek revenge. The quest for vengeance makes up the meat of the film in a string of increasingly violent vignettes in which Red burns through the people who wronged him one by one.
I could go on all day about what happens from there, as we watch each blood-soaked encounter through the camera's dreamy eye: The forging of the custom battle axe, the crossbow in the dark, the moment when Red cuts the flaming head off one of the bikers and then lights a cigarette straight from the severed head, and on and on. Each moment is the kind of thing that captivates cinephiles with an uncompromised sense of style, and also the kind of thing that makes 13-year-old horror fans around the world lose their minds over how gnarly it is.
Cosmatos' decision to have Red take on the bikers first and the relatively tame cultists second might at first seem like a foolish decision. After all, when you've fought pain-craving cannibal bikers with spikes in their heads, is there anywhere to go but down? Mandy's heavy metal fairy tale landscape is littered with human monsters as well, though, and by dispatching the hideous ones first, Red is then prepared to face the creatures that wear prettier, happier faces. And we as an audience think it will be easy for him.
At first, it is. Red deals with the right-hand man of the Children easily and brutally, and then dispatches another member by throwing his ax at the defenseless man's head. Then, with his ax embedded in a skull, he sees something familiar... a chainsaw. The film's opening tells us that Red is right at home with a chainsaw; it's the tool of his trade, and there's a big muscly cult member a few feet away (sitting, aptly, on a pile of fresh lumber) who could use a little trimming.
It's here — right at the moment when we feel Red is invincible, clutching the tool he knows better than any other — that the chainsaw doesn't start, and the cult member reveals his weapon of choice is a bigger damn chainsaw. Red roars with blood-streaked fury as the saws collide, and sparks fly as the two seemingly mismatched men dance around each other. The saw motors and guitars on the score roar in unison as we sit forward, suddenly very aware of our great hero's mortality again but even more aware that what we're watching is something we never saw coming even in a movie this jam-packed with moments that feel like metal songs come to life.
It works so well that while watching it for the first time, I forgot that there's a whole other horror franchise devoted to messing people up with chainsaws. Somehow, for a brief moment, in one amazing WTF sequence that ends in an eruption of blood, Mandy became the ultimate chainsaw movie as well as the ultimate trippy revenge movie.
All that, and it also managed to give us Cheddar Goblin. Mandy rules.