The midnight movie slate at Sundance is always an uneven grab bag of red-meat offerings: a festival within the festival, one whose titles are selected less on the basis of quality, star-power, or prestige than on how much hooting and hollering they might provoke from a late-night, sleep-deprived crowd. This year, the programmers could very well have whittled down their lineup to a single movie, given how perfectly it scores by that imperfect metric. Mandy (Grade: B) is a midnight-movie festival onto itself; over two gonzo hours, it combines giallo, Clive Barker, Death Wish, prog rock, heavy metal, Heavy Metal, Guy Maddin, Mad Max, the dueling-chainsaw climax of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, Nicolas Roeg, and Nicolas Cage at his most bugging-out unhinged. Were scientists to engineer an uncut, 100-proof cult sensation, it would probably look, sound, and kick like this. Of course, like a lot of synthetic drugs, Mandy could also cause its fair share of overdoses, at least for those with a less-than sky-high tolerance for nonstop “trippy” lunacy.
Written and directed (curated might be the better word) by Panos Cosmatos, who previously made the cult freak-out Beyond The Black Rainbow, the film has two modes that often bleed into each other: narcotized atmospheric languor and over-the-top grindhouse mayhem. As in Rainbow, which was also set in 1983, “story” is a wafer-thin canvas on which Cosmatos can splash his gonzo influences. He casts Cage, deceptively laid-back at first, as a lumberjack whose woodland Eden becomes a blazing inferno when deranged cultists, aided by a gang of mutant biker Cenobite types, kidnap and kill his wife (Andrea Riseborough), transforming him into an avenging angel of death. Paced and shot like a fever dream or a bad trip or a fever dream brought on by a bad trip, Mandy takes its time getting to the violence, with long, often-tedious scenes of the Satanic Jim Jones cult-leader villain (Linus Roache) rambling on to an audience of faithful fanatics. Then the revenge plot kicks in, and Cage starts bellowing in rage-grief, chugging whole bottles of booze, and swinging around a custom-made battle-ax. Another instructive comparison would be the throwback geek-gasm pastiches of Rob Zombie, if that shock rocker turned horror maestro cared more about blowing minds with psychedelic imagery or had the good sense to make the rapist degenerates the bad guys.
So maybe ignore the grade above, because there’s no real point in approaching Mandy like a normal movie. It’s a fetish object, a juvenile art-installation stunt. It panders wildly, but also skillfully and effectively, to its demographic—and you probably know if you belong to it. Still, even those bored by the film’s anti-efficient, Adult Swim surrealism might be dazzled by Cosmatos’ striking style: the apocalyptic blaze of red light he bathes everything in; the anime dream sequences; the painted sci-fi cosmos he scrawls across the sky in establishing shots, as Cage’s bereaved force of nature descends into a cavernous hell-on-Earth to settle the score with the “Jesus freaks” who shattered his world. Those with a yen for uncaged Cage, meanwhile, need this fix yesterday. Did I mention that he gets into a chainsaw fight?
My biggest goof of the festival so far is missing the big midnight premiere of Mandy, a movie that all but demands to be watched with a rowdy audience under the influence of something, even if it’s just an appetite for destruction. Not that a receptive crowd can elevate every witching-hour selection. Like Mandy, Nicolas Pesce’s violent, irreverent Piercing (Grade: C+) wraps itself in throwback affectation, beginning with its loudly retro “Feature Presentation” card, and continuing through to its art-deco skylines and ironically, smoothly jazzy soundtrack. But the carnage comes in a much different register. The plot centers on Reed (Christopher Abbott), a clean-cut, closet psychopath who checks into a hotel with the intention of murdering and dismembering a prostitute, in hopes that he can get homicide out of his system before settling down with his wife and newborn daughter. As it turns out, however, his mark, Jackie (Mia Wasikowska), who comes expecting just S&M, may not be 100 percent sane either.
The setup suggests a wicked cat–and-mouse game, and for a while, Pesce keeps us guessing and squirming. (An early scene of Reed mime-rehearsing his crime comes augmented with truly unsettling sound effects, the disgustingly evocative foley work making us imagine the mess he plans to make of the bathtub.) But after a briefly discombobulating fake-out twist, Piercing can’t seem to figure out how to advance or complicate its sick-joke premise. The problem could be with the source material, a novel by Audition author Ryū Murakami, but reliable sources have it that the book takes Reed’s tragic backstory more seriously, as a way to explore how childhood trauma can color adult relationships. Pesce, unfortunately, sees only a kinky power struggle: Audition as a one-note black comedy, albeit one made with the visual flair he exhibited in his truly disturbing debut, The Eyes Of My Mother, which premiered to stunned silence and waves of walkouts at Sundance a couple years ago. As a follow-up to that shocker, Piercing is undeniably disappointing.
Still, the film’s treatment of murderous psychosis beats the one offered by Lizzie (Grade: C+), Craig William Macneill’s unconvincing, oppressively somber take on the Lizzie Borden story. For more than a century, people have puzzled over the unsolved murders of Andrew and Abby Borden, viciously axed to death in their Massachusetts home on August 4, 1892. Did their daughter do the deed, and if so, why? Lizzie offers speculative explanation, but its theories end up answering a different question: What if Heavenly Creatures was kind of boring? The script by Bryce Kass posits Lizzie (Chloë Sevigny) as a kind of proto-feminist heroine, actively rebelling against the oppressive values (and lecherous offenses) of her father (Jamey Sheridan). It also concocts a slash-fiction romance between Borden and the family maid (Kristen Stewart), who was around the day of the murders, too. Both angles might work if the film gave either actor room to make characters out of their characters, instead of paralyzing them through art-movie torpor. Lizzie, with its creaky floorboards, groaning strings, and climactic bloodshed (not surprisingly, the murders, withheld until the final act, provide the lone traces of urgency), can almost pass as a horror movie, too, at least of the artisanal A24 variety. But it would stick out like a bloody hatchet at midnight. This is the exact kind of ponderous festival drag you wash down with a swig of disreputable genre fare.