Stranger things

Nicolas Cage in “Mandy”

If you’re wearing a Black Sabbath T-shirt in a movie like "Mandy," you’re doomed.

That’s the first brutal lesson in the haunting and hallucinatory new horror film from emerging filmmaker Panos Cosmatos. Chock-full of images worthy of @OnePerfectShot tweets, "Mandy" is a serious (and seriously mesmerizing) work of art that shouldn’t be marginalized by its straight-to-VOD platform.

It also gives us everything we want from Nicolas Cage—and everything he does best—from the unhinged B-movie crazy that fans geek out over, to the brooding, burdened psyche that anchors it.

"Mandy" is the latest entry of "art house horror," a strain of auteur-driven terror that is often thriller-heavy but gore-lite, exploring spiritual darkness more than gratuitous savagery.

Some purist detractors have dismissed recent hallmarks of this subgenre (like "Hereditary" and "The VVitch") as too cerebral to be scary or too patient to be terrifying—even with their nightmare-inducing wallops—ostensibly defining "horror" by some jump-scare quota or torture-porn excess. For them, less is bore, not more.

The slow burn of "Mandy" may elicit the same gripes from the same groups, with the carnage coming too late, but cineastes will be entranced by—and, at times, in awe of—sights and sequences in this atmospheric opus that could only come from a bona fide visionary.

Set in the Pacific Northwest in 1983, Red Miller and Mandy Bloom (Cage and "Birdman" actress Andrea Riseborough) live a bucolic life in a big rustic home made of glass panels framed in wood beam vectors. It’s a striking work of architecture, especially when lit up at night, that eventually becomes ominous.

Deep in those same woods is a religious cult lead by a hippie-styled guru named Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache, TV’s "Vikings" and "Homeland"). He drops edicts like, "If you’re not with me, you will not ascend," and can turn sadistic on a dime. There’s also a darker, perverse occultism at work, from the psychic control that Jeremiah wields to the demonic bikers summoned by a strange stone flute. The evil is palpable.

After being spotted by Jeremiah on a roadside walk, Mandy becomes their target, and Red is swept up as a collateral victim in their midnight ambush.

Cosmatos fuses a wide range of influences—from his dad George P. Cosmatos ("Rambo II," "Tombstone") to John Carpenter, Clive Barker, George Miller, and early Sam Raimi—with a Lynchian ethereal dread, but the bold palette is all his own.

As transfixing as the images are, it’s their dreamlike assembly in a disorienting haze that gives "Mandy" its queasy, unnerving power, magnified by a baleful retro synth from the late Jóhann Jóhannsson ("Arrival," "Sicario") in his final film score.

The story briefly loses its way as it transitions to its final act of rage-fueled vengeance, seemingly unsure of exactly how to get where it’s obviously going—but once it gets there, "Mandy" crescendos in a blood-soaked, psychedelic flourish.

Horror isn’t everyone’s genre, but Cosmatos is a film lover’s kind of filmmaker. Even if "Mandy" sounds like a hard pass for your tastes, keep an eye out for whatever Cosmatos has next.

"Mandy" is available to rent or buy on VOD platforms.

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