ON CULTS AND A FILM CALLED MANDY

If we consider Mandy a slasher film, I think it’s arguably the greatest yet. I first saw it at a bar where they had a Sunday evening horror showcase. The manager was somehow hooked up with the film promoters and ran an event complete with beer specials and “44” t-shirts.

A great time was had by all, and since then it’s been one of those movies that I watch from time to time like putting on a favorite album. Any thoughtful viewing will likely come to the conclusion that the film is more than an excuse to watch gratuitous violence inflicted on stock victims. And yet the same time, it doesn’t apologize for how much fun gratuitous violence can be. Director Panos Cosmotos and producer Elijah Wood pull punches on neither action nor emotional complexity. I guess that’s why Amazon’s Prime Video adds the category ‘arthouse’ to its tags.

The storyline could be called simple—man takes revenge on his lover’s murderers. A bizarro Jesus cult and a maniacally drug-addled biker gang burn her on a rope. Some would write this off as shock horror of the worse kind. But the poetry of the camera work and the couple’s life in their forest hideaway that might be California or might be a moon of Jupiter has an additional draw for those with a taste for the surreal.

I’m not aiming here for a review of the entire movie, but rather to point out what I’d consider one of its more inspired moments (there are many—the Cheddar Goblin, the chainsaw duel, the forging of the ax-hammer, to name a few). But the scene where Mandy (played by Andrea Louise Riseborough) faces her abductors while tripping on high-octane LSD is one of the most effective artistic indictments of cult psychology ever rendered.

Cults, as villains go, are popular in film and fiction, but they are not always drawn well. In this case, Jeremiah Sand (played by Linus Roache, who will always sort of be King Ecbert to me) makes quite a spectacle with his violent lunacy. But the brilliance occurs when he tries to impress Mandy while she’s tripping.

He’s already had his goons beat up Red Miller (Nicholas Cage), her ‘rough and tough’ yet ‘humble and recovering-addict’ of a mate. Now Sand tries to close the sale by playing her tunes from his old band while she’s high. He plays the hippy music and basically relates, yeah that’s me on lead flute.

This is where I would point out that burning somebody alive isn’t necessarily so bad, in fact, Riseborough does a commendable job giving a look somewhere between get me outta here and please kill me now. At first, things only get worse when Sand stares at her and tries to convince her to be his lover. Their expressions transform, and as the acid flows, we see an amazing blend of their faces. The ordeal is pretty obviously her realization of how pathetic the man is, how much he tries to elevate his ego by seeing his reflection in those he abuses and over whom he has power, as if the more beautiful his prize, the better the rush he gets from destroying it:

But she obliterates his plans to make her a victim with a single action. Though she is high on hallucinogens, her state heightens, rather than diminishes, the truth. When the cult leader follows up his pitch with exposing himself in all his full-frontal glory, Mandy laughs. At first, it’s a natural really dude? kind of laughter. It then takes on an aggressive and vengeful kind of ring, as if to say, whatever you do, you can’t change certain facts. Here Mandy’s own revenge sets in motion the violent acts that follow. You can burn a human being, but you can’t burn the truth.

I’ve often wondered how anyone could do anything but answer a cult’s sales pitch with anything but vengeful laughter. Perhaps that’s why the more successful cult leaders value their big catches, the rich and famous, politicians, business elites, and even star actors. And yet Mandy’s point remains free for the taking—you don’t have to have an eight-figure bank account to make an asshole feel small. All you have to do is laugh.

Carl R. Moore is the author of Chains in the Sky and Slash of Crimson and Other Tales (published by Seventh Star Press)

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