“Come for the Reaper”: Mandy (2018) as Antidote to the Rape-Revenge Film

I avoid rape-revenge films like the plague — as a rabid horror fan it’s not easy. But it doesn’t necessarily take a Baise-Moi or I Spit On Your Grave to deliver the experience of a rape-revenge film. Despite my limited experience watching these movies, I’d like to believe that my feelings on the subgenre are valid by merit of my existence in the world as a woman (not that an aversion to rape-revenge tropes is limited to women).

Another thing I avoid like the plague: Nicolas Cage. Nicolas Cage and his memes and his bees and his big teeth and his unfortunate hairline. Something about the humor others find in Nic Cage’s existence shatters a little piece of my soul every time I think about it, in the way of other benign irritations. Like insincere corporate rock or off-brand cola.

Enter Mandy (2018).

The Panos Cosmatos film is about Red Miller (Cage), a man seeking revenge on a religious cult for destroying his idyllic, neon-splashed life with his partner, Mandy Bloom (Andrea Riseborough). Having caught a glimpse of Mandy, a Manson girl knock-off in a Black Sabbath tee, cult leader Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache) decides he must have her and sends his followers to abduct the couple, a process that involves summoning mutant Bebop and Rocksteady-style bikers.

Watching the movie I’m on high alert during Mandy’s subsequent encounter with Jeremiah and, lo and behold, a variation on the rape-revenge scenario unfolds. Jeremiah attempts standard cult leader seduction techniques as his followers watch, including but not limited to playing a record of his own Charles Manson-mediocre folk music. But when Jeremiah exposes his nude body expectantly (full frontal alert) to a drugged-up Mandy, she responds with incredulity: “You made this song? … And it’s about you?” Mandy begins to laugh, first disbelieving, then hysterical. Her laughter mocks his nudity, his narcissism, and the gullibility of his followers. Her laughter finally becomes furious, her face twisted. Her laughter is an attack, a weapon we know too well in this day and age, when women arm themselves daily with pepper spray, stun guns, self-defense keychains, and this, the narcissistic man’s kryptonite: mockery.

She is dispatched straightaway and in front of Red, who is tied up outside. Mandy, who has been wrapped in a sack off-screen, is then hung from a tree and burned alive while Red watches — and her death is, for me, a sigh of relief. In the time spent with Mandy she is sexualized in no discernible way. She is never nude onscreen (outside of Red’s brief, animated nightmares that are certainly more representative of Red than they are of Mandy), and while she is abducted in a nightshirt, she is spared its being slashed or torn conveniently in the ensuing struggle. This is a luxury not afforded many women* in horror movies, an even starker contrast when juxtaposed with Jeremiah’s nudity and Red’s much shorter nightshirt that leaves even less to the imagination. (If you were ever interested in a clear outline of Nic Cage’s genitals, now is your chance.) Even Mandy’s sexual relationship with Red is only assumed; we’re given no real proof of it. When she humiliates Jeremiah, I cringe in anticipation of the punishment she will surely endure. An insubordinate woman with a naked man in a room full of his followers? We all know what comes next — only it doesn’t. And the sack Mandy is covered by prevents us from having to see her body or face as she burns, a choice so unorthodox that I spend the rest of my first viewing waiting for the reveal that it wasn’t actually Mandy burning after all.

I thank my higher power that it was.

Mandy’s death scene is representative of the movie as a whole in its treatment of women. The film is gory, especially in the second half wherein Red seeks revenge against the cult. But any violent acts committed against women are largely anodyne: Mandy is slapped once by a female cult member, stung neatly by an insect the size of her face, and though she burns to death we aren’t subjected to Mandy’s scorched flesh or the anguish in her face. (Her three-minute death scene is mostly a series of reaction shots from Red as well as each of the cult members, but it’s Red’s scene.) Sister Lucy engages in a quick round of Russian roulette at Jeremiah’s hands but emerges unscathed, just as she emerges unscathed from Red’s drug-fueled revenge rampage later in the movie. Even when Mother Marlene engages with Red directly and it results in her decapitation, the actual violence occurs off-screen.

Lest there be any question, sexualization of the other women in the movie is also minimal. Jeremiah’s advances on Mandy are visually explicit, but never spoken directly. Mother Marlene’s sexual activity is implied only in her attempted seduction of Red at the end of the movie. Young, blonde Sister Lucy, a character whose fate would be all but sealed based on appearance alone in a typical horror movie, survives the film basically unharmed.

This is not to say, however, that the film shies away from sexual themes entirely, even aside from Jeremiah’s laughable nudity. During Red’s escape from the mutant bikers later in the movie — a brief hiccup in the revenge plot — he attacks one sitting in front of a television depicting some fairly unimaginative and repetitive pornography. It reappears throughout the fight scene, and continues as Red takes a moment to breathe in his victory. When he finally tracks down the cult, Red advances toward Brother Klopek with a chainsaw he can’t seem to start. Brother Klopek, in turn, picks up his own functioning chainsaw, comical in length, and props it against his pelvis, prepared to fight. The phallic imagery is not subtle. It’s likewise significant that Brother Klopek takes Red’s chainsaw once it gets started, and he is ultimately killed by falling on the stolen chainsaw: the retribution for phallus-theft coincides with retribution for destroying Red’s life. Mother Marlene is seemingly decapitated because of her advances on Red, where a scene that begins in the offering of a sexual favor ends in Mother Marlene giving him literal head. (Had she left well enough alone, perhaps she would have been spared the way Sister Lucy was?)

Finally, when Red comes face-to-face with Jeremiah for the first time since he ordered Mandy’s execution, Jeremiah pleads tearfully on his knees, “I’ll blow you, man, I’ll suck your fucking dick.” For a moment this is a tempting proposition. As the antithesis of the rape-revenge film, what better resolution to the revenge plot than subjecting the villain to the type of assault female characters often endure? (Worth noting here is the gender-fluidity that occurs: Red seeks revenge in a shirt identical to the one Mandy was kidnapped and presumably murdered in. This is further representation of Red’s feminization and identification with the rape-revenge Final Girl, a concept detailed by Carol Clover in the seminal Men, Women, and Chainsaws.) Alas, the film doesn’t even deign to directly subvert rape-revenge tropes: Red simply crushes Jeremiah’s head in an ironically orgasmic rush, a symbolic castration of the rape-revenge perpetrator. In keeping with the trend of the story, rape-revenge tropes are acknowledged, then discarded. The film seems to confront us with these ideas and images to convey that the movie is unafraid, but refuses to be baited into the usual misogynistic formulas.

The story of the film is divided into halves in the manner of the traditional rape-revenge film, and while there may not be a one-to-one analogy here, the similarities are significant. My own personal experience with the subgenre may be limited, but consider the following description of the rape-revenge structure by Anne Billson for The Guardian:

… The rape-revenge movie is a game of two unequal halves. The thrill of vicarious empowerment is backloaded into the latter part of the movie while the earlier instigating sexual violence is often teased out in harrowing detail, unbearably gruelling [sic] to watch or, worse, filmed salaciously.

Viewed in this light, then, it could be argued that Mandy is actually Red’s rape-revenge story. Extreme care is taken with the the depiction of Red and Mandy’s intimate day-to-day life, the polar opposite of prolonged rape and assault. Their peaceful existence is established so that it can be ripped away in a rape-like scenario: the catalyst of the conflict is completely external, a violent invasion of their private world. While the living Mandy is removed from the film quickly and with minimal struggle, it is Red who is bound and gagged with barbed wire, tortured and tormented, and ultimately penetrated, albeit with a dagger, then left for dead. The camera spends more time on Red’s anguished face during Mandy’s death than it does on her (obscured) burning body, and for good reason: the majority of the suffering is Red’s.

The second half of the movie, the revenge sequence, reconsidered in this light is not an avenging of his partner’s death, but rather a more personal revenge for the assault on the life Red built for himself. The aforementioned innuendo — the bikers’ pornography, the phallic chainsaws, Mother Marlene’s and Jeremiah’s propositions, the decapitation of the former’s and the destruction of the latter’s respective heads — are all reminders of the violation Red has suffered. They are signposts: rape-specific revenge this way!

Does the movie pass the Bechdel test? Not exactly. Does the victimized woman take her own revenge? Not directly. Do the women in this movie have agency? A limited amount. It’s not a perfect story. The fact of cheering Mandy’s quick death is an unsettling but natural result of the rape-revenge formula. Red is out for revenge, but make no mistake: he is out for himself. Unlike the typical subgenre entry, Mandy allows the female victim to finally rest in peace, putting a male victim through the paces instead. There is no rescuing Mandy, just as there is no rescuing the traditional rape-revenge story. The damage it has inflicted is irreversible, so we may as well pass it off to the men to grapple with. Maybe the likes of writer/director Cosmatos and Cage’s phenomenally-acted (!) Red Miller can lead us through the unraveling of one of the darkest corners of the horror genre.

I say we let them. The women have suffered enough.

*Implication of gender binary is for simplification only, or to reference binarism present in the typical rape-revenge film. Again, see Clover (2015).

Billson, A. (2018 May 11). How the ‘rape-revenge movie’ became a feminist weapon for the #MeToo generation. The Guardian, Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com

Clover, C. (2015). Men, Women, and Chainsaws. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

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