Panos Cosmatos’ 2010 debut feature “Beyond the Black Rainbow” was the kind of movie that divides genre fans into two camps, the enraptured and the infuriated. Visually striking but awfully murky in the realms of plot and meaning, it signaled the arrival of a talent that might prove formidable, or might turn out to be all style and no substance.
Fortunately, his followup “Mandy” maintains all of “Rainbow’s” aesthetic fascination while considerably stepping up the pace and narrative coherency. It will again appeal primarily to artier fan sensibilities — this hallucinogenic mashup of Satanic-cult horror and revenge thriller isn’t exactly multiplex fare — but anyone with a taste for Nicolas Cage in full gonzo mode should get some fun out of its fever-dream progress.
The first half hour or so is more or less a portent-filled romance, with lumberjack Red (Cage) and pulp-fiction cover illustrator Mandy (Andrea Riseborough), two misfits who’ve blissfully found each other in a Pacific Northwest-looking rural area circa 1983. Out walking one day, she’s spied by a van full of religious freaks under the spell of Jeremiah (Linus Roache), whose Messianic delusions have made him leader of the Children of the New Dawn. Senior personnel in his scary-pathetic band of acolytes are the fanatical Brother Swan (Ned Dennehy) and groveling, witchy Mother Marlene (Olwen Foure.)
One glance was enough for Jeremiah to decide Swan & co. must “get that girl I saw” for the Master’s pleasure and spiritual fulfillment. A demonic biker gang whose members resemble “Hellraiser” creatures is summoned, breaking into the protagonists’ hippie-crafted home to abduct Mandy. Once captured, she’s dosed with psychedelics and introduced to the tribe. However, her response to Jeremiah’s assumed magnificence proves less than properly worshipful. Stung, he turns his wrath on the couple, with Red forced to witness his true love’s demise.
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Though amply trippy, this first act is fairly poker-faced in its use of rich atmospherics and the frighteningly berserk villains. But once a left-for-dead Red manages to free himself from quasi-crucifixion, “Mandy” develops a devilish sense of humor and over-the-top excess well suited to one of Cage’s classic wild-man turns. Generally coated in gore, flaunting a range of weapons from chainsaw to crossbow to hand-forged ritual axe, his crazed avenger hunts down the perps, starting with the not-quite-human motorcycle gang and then proceeding through the ranks of Jeremiah’s “church.”
In terms of disorientating techniques, Cosmatos throws in everything but the kitchen sink, from filters to superimpositions to strobing — adding great gobs of post-production effects to the already arresting widescreen images of DP Benjamin Loeb and the contributions of production designer Hubert Pouille and other key design collaborators. There are even brief animated sequences in a “Heavy Metal” idiom, by Paris-based Banjo Studio. The soundtrack is equally highly worked, though dominated by Oscar-nommed Icelandic composer Johann Johansson’s original score, which sports a variety of textures apt for a movie that often feels like a vintage prog-metal concept album illustrated.
All this should be too much of a good thing, particularly at two full hours’ length. But Cosmatos’ control over his array of stylistic devices is orchestral, even if the story content is gleefully trashy. The eventual fountains of blood and other splatter effects are deliberately over-the-top, underlining that this sophomore feature, though impressively creepy at times, has a degree of self-mocking fun that the more pretentious “Rainbow” lacked.
Beyond Cage at his inventively manic best, there’s an almost unrecognizable Riseborough hitting intriguingly odd notes as the offbeat love interest, while the members of Jeremiah’s warped posse are individualily perverse in ways that recall the “Mad Max” universe. “Mandy” has so many enjoyably whacked-out elements, it comes as an actual surprise that Barry Manilow’s titular 1974 No. 1 hit is not among them.