Thus is the general plot of Mandy, the newest film from up-and-coming director Panos Cosmatos, starring Nicolas Cage as lumberjack Red and Andrea Riseborough as the titular Mandy, his significant other who gets abducted, drugged, and immolated by Charles Manson-esque cult leader Jeremiah Sand, a rather Richard Lynch-looking Linus Roache. An art house film, the movie is violent, visceral, and surreal, with Nicolas Cage in top form as the vengeful Red. The film has been universally praised by reviewers and audience alike.
Aside from Nicolas Cage acting like, well, Nicolas Cage, one of the attractive features of Mandy has been the observation that it feels like a heavy metal album. Many reviewers point out this sentiment, such as Brian Tallerico at RogerEbert.com reiterating it feels like an “'80s heavy metal album,” Dennis Garvey at Variety equating it to a “vintage prog-metal album,” and Chris Nashawaty at Entertainment Weekly saying it is a “heavy-metal fever dream.” These observations are all correct, though a bit on the broad side without diving into “why” Mandy feels like a metal album.
There are many elements of Mandy that evoke various metal genres (in particular black metal). Overtly, first, there is the logo of Mandy with its branching serifs that looks as if they were either tree roots or bleeding wounds. Such root-like logos are common within the metal scene, as is evident in the logos for Leviathan, Darkthrone, and Rotting Christ. The movie begins with “Starless” by legendary prog-rock band King Crimson with aerial shots of a sprawling forest. Three-fourths of the movie will take place in this dark forest, with trees silhouetted against red lights and cosmic skies, each frame a metal album cover akin to Burzum’s Filosofem, Darkthrone’s Panzerfaust, Cradle of Filth’s Dusk and her Embrace, and the split single “Ulverytternes Kamp / Mourning” from Ulver and Mysticum.
The leather-clad biker gang is evocative of a lot of things. Their attire is almost bondage-like, with one biker covered in spikes, echoing the Cenobites of Hellraiser. The scene in which Red encounters one of the bikers in a living room with a blade for a phallus (a’la Leland Oster’s character in Seven) and watching pornography revisits a prior Nicolas Cage film, 8mm, wherein he fights a bondage villain named The Machine. In regards to metal, though, the bikers lack the trademark corpse paint that many metal singers and musicians wear. Their numerous long spikes protruding from their body is a common embellishment for the genre, such as those worn by Immortal on their Damned in Black album.
To a normal moviegoer, the burning church in Mandy may seem innocuous, but to a metal aficionado, this imagery would strongly evoke the church burnings in Norway in the early 1990s committed by black metal musicians, in particular the Fantoft Stave Church whose burnt image graces the cover of Burzum’s Aske EP. A burning church also graces the cover of Michael Moynihan and Didrik Søderlind’s book, Lords of Chaos: The Bloody Rise of the Satanic Metal Underground, the first comprehensive study of Norwegian black metal music.
The burning church also symbolizes the want of an ideological victory of metal over Christianity. Be it old gods, Norse gods, or various forms of heathenry, paganism, or Satanism, the beliefs of many metal bands run far and wide, but many share a mutual rejection to Christianity. Sand’s Christian-derived apocalyptic cult, The Children of the New Dawn, draws heavily from Manson and his family: from the failed music career, to liberal usage of drugs and ritual murder. Their Spahn Ranch is the aforementioned wooden church in the middle of a quarry. Aside from this church’s destruction symbolizing the rejection of Christianity, it also echoes the final years of hippie culture, as that would be superseded by punk and metal subcultures.
The animated dream sequences of Mandy not only recall the 1981 film, Heavy Metal, but also the 1983 Ralph Bakshi film, Fire and Ice. While Heavy Metal pays obvious homage to the music genre, Fire and Ice is a rotoscoped sword and sorcery film, which was en vogue in the early '80s with the Conan the Barbarian films. In a way, Mandy is a retro-modern sword and sorcery film: Red has his axe, his bow he adorns looted armor from a slain biker gang member, and the forest setting certainly evokes a Tolkien/Druadan Forest feeling. And, of course, sword and sorcery and many metal projects go hand in hand, as found in bands like Manowar and Blind Guardian. The symbiotic relationship of sword and sorcery and metal is certainly found in Mandy.
While Mandy wears its adoration to various metal genres on its blood-soaked sleeves, there are other elements of Mandy that makes the film even more multifaceted that bear mentioning. For example, though lacking in the stylized martial-arts and gun-based violence as found in the Hong Kong progenitors, Mandy shares some elements with the heroic bloodshed genre. As the heroes of John Woo’s films become more bullet-riddled, they seem to become more invincible, overcoming the odds and their injuries. So, too, does Red in Mandy, as each wound inflicted upon him (barbwire slashes, nails driven into his hands, punches to the face, knife to the side, etc.) makes him more feral, more adrenaline-rushed, and more invincible.
There is no doubt that Mandy is destined to be a cult film, with its subversion of the cabin-in-the-woods cliché, its surreal narrative that juggles if it is a drug-induced reality or something cosmic and magical, and its retro-modern elements without going full outrun style (which puts it in the same camp as the 2016 horror masterpiece, The Void). There have been plenty of horror films that have doubled as heavy metal homages, such as Black Roses and Rock’n’Roll Nightmare, but these films have taken the comedic and campy route. Mandy is neither pastiche nor homage to metal, it simply IS metal.