Mandy is the first Nic Cage film to take place inside an album cover, which is at the very least a step up from all those recent vehicles that seemed to take place solely inside Nic Cage's fraying consciousness. Its notional real-world setting is a leafy forest (Belgian, redressed as American) circa 1983, but an epigraph attributed to the Grateful Dead ("When I die/Bury me deep/Lay two speakers at my feet/Put some headphones in my head/And rock 'n' roll me/When I'm dead") and ochre Roger Dean skies suggest the film's imagination is stuck firmly in the groove of 1974, year of King Crimson's "Starless" (the soundtrack's opening cut) and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (of which, more later). It's here we find Cage's beardy logger Red Miller living in secluded bliss with the titular Mandy (Andrea Riseborough), who is almost exactly the kind of gal someone who's spent long, late nights poring over dog-eared Michael Moorcock novels might imagine themselves shacked up with, and doing anything for: pale and gaunt, generally clad in band T-shirts, with pupils that appear to be in a permanent state of dilation. Trouble comes to this retro paradise once those eyes meet a passing glance from one Jeremiah (Linus Roache), a fey former folk rocker who's used his fifteen minutes of fame to surround himself with a collection of variously goo-goo and gaga acolytes, one of whom is forever caught with a corner of his drooling mouth agape. Quite what Jeremiah is doing in this neck of the woods is unclear: looking for trouble is the best guess the film can afford. Suffice to say, he gets it.
It's during these gang scenes that Mandy - directed by one Panos Cosmatos, who turns out not to be the lost member of Aphrodite's Child, but the son of Rambo: First Blood Part II and Cobra director George Pan Cosmatos - begins to flaunt the heaviest influence it wears on its sleeve. Stroboscopic light flickers, the brooding sound washes, pools of red light warning of danger and carnage up ahead, the sense of an evil that comes from deep within a forest and extends far beyond the eyeline of mere mortals: parts of the film resemble the most flagrant David Lynch tribute act since Chris Sivertson's mildly maligned Lindsay Lohan vehicle I Know Who Killed Me back in 2007. Cosmatos does, however, enter into pockets of weirdness Lynch hasn't gone near over his fifty-year career. Jeremiah may dispatch his minions to wrest Mandy from Red's manly arms and make her his-all-his, but the minion-in-chief, a balding nondescript who goes by the name Brother Swan (Ned Dennehy), subsequently delegates the task by using a gizmo known as "the Horn of Abraxas" to summon a gang of latex-clad hell monsters; these demons, almost certainly the least fathomable and explicable characters to be found in any mainstream feature released this year, appear to obtain or sustain their supernatural strength and powers from quaffing a fizzy grey liquid out of jam jars more readily deployed nowadays in Shoreditch cocktail joints. Again, your guesses on this front will be as good as mine. To those very Seventies fixtures rape and revenge, Cosmatos appends a third r: randomness.
On some basic, fundamental level, Mandy is hoary, blokey bollocks - the kind of hoary, blokey bollocks often found adorning the lyric sheets of certain prog albums, recounting the Mythic Quest of a Righteous Hero, slaying Bad Men with his Mighty Silver Broadsword in the name of a Deathless Love. At the packed Friday night screening where I caught the film, it was notably the young male horror aficionados who guffawed at the extreme Cageness of it all, while their attendant Mandies wandered off in search of the bathroom, appearing in no particular rush to return to the site of battle. (In a couple of instances, it was the young women who initiated the walkouts.) Yet it's hoary, blokey bollocks delivered with a conviction that, for at least some of the running time, is forceful and often impressive, the work of a filmmaker entirely cut off from modern movie trends, pushing on with creating his own world, his own legends. Flickers of a weird, self-aware wit are visible along the way. When Cage is finally unleashed on his foes, the first artefact his eyes fall on isn't that mighty broadsword - which he has to forge for himself - but a TV advert for a product called Cheddar Goblin. (Is this real? Did I imagine it?) There is an intense stare-off between Red and one of Jeremiah's minions in an LSD lab that has a yawning Bengal tiger in the corner. (Of course a yawning Bengal tiger.) And the film arguably peaks - both full-stop, and in its blokishness - with a scene in which Cage whips out his modest, common-or-garden chainsaw to duel with a foe packing... a ginormously bladed tool.
Those walking out might argue, and I wouldn't wholly disagree with them, that the film is at once too much and not enough, that Cosmatos has merely poured gore and kitsch (like the animated inserts of Mandy) over a perilously thin plot; that he's used elements such as the hell monsters to trick out what would have been an 80-minute B-feature back in 1974 to an artful two hours; that it is, in sum, as grabbily de trop as the moment when Cage bests one opponent with a kitchen knife, then takes a massive snort of coke off a fragment of broken glass. (Personally, I found the strong, silent type Cage sketches in the first half more radical and interesting than the blood-soaked avenger he develops/devolves into; fans have had to make extravagant claims for New Cage's unhinged acting style to justify their enthusiasm for the film entire.) It's both arresting, and the kind of film that film bros will be boring other people at parties with for decades to come - making the case for a vision that proves as oppressive over its two hours as spending any length of time in the bedroom of a weed-smoking adolescent who never opens his window and has at least a month's worth of dirty underwear under his unmade bed. You can, as I did, admire its visual poetry and unreconstructed bravura - but I do wonder whether prog horror isn't automatically a dead end, destined to be blown away by punk horror, with its shorter, sharper shocks, and its ability to be performed by anyone, not just the well-connected.
Mandy is now playing in selected cinemas, ahead of its UK DVD release on Monday; it also screens at the Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival this Saturday (PVR Icon, 8.45pm).