Welcome to Scene of the Scream – a monthly column investigating the settings in which horror takes place. Locations are a crucial part of the genre – from gothic castles to suburban high schools, where the horror happens often has a big influence on the story itself. Each month this column will explore a real or fictional location in the horror genre or set design from a particular film, and look at their influence on the themes and characters that inhabit them.
Even establishing the setting of Mandy (2018) is a tricky business. It is ostensibly set in the USA in 1983 – a country and era established at the start via a radio broadcast featuring Ronald Reagan. But as the film progresses, time and place becomes more and more ambiguous, and the action begins to move into a thoroughly otherworldly realm. Director Panos Cosmatos has said of the 1983 setting that it’s “not like a historical year in the context of the films, it’s more a realm of imagination”.
“The early emphasis on the cosily domestic aspects of Red and Mandy’s house make the invasion of their home by the Black Skulls biker gang and the cult of the Children of the New Dawn all the more jarring.”
The opening shots – an aerial view of trees – introduce the first main location, a lonely forest. We see Red (Nicolas Cage) working as a lumberjack and then catching a ride off site with his crewmates via helicopter, emphasising the remoteness of the place. The action cuts between Red returning home and his partner, Mandy, there working on her art. A title card reading “The Shadow Mountains 1983 A.D.”, appears – placing us in a mythical-sounding locale, and also a precise, but oddly specified year. The text itself is in an elaborate, swirling font and colored sparkling blue, suggesting the start of a fairytale or fable.
We are introduced to Mandy and Red‘s idyllic but slightly off-kilter home – a ramshackle house in the depths of the forest. It is warm, comfortable and cosy, with large sofas, blankets and throws strewn around – at first seemingly at odds with Mandy‘s metal aesthetic of ripped black jeans and sleeveless band shirts. But the more we see of Mandy at home, the more we realise this house is an extension of her, of Red and of their relationship. The home in the middle of the forest seems to be something of an artists’ retreat for Mandy – a quiet place where she can work on her epic fantasy paintings and read her favorite novels.
The house itself has an unusual construction, with one whole wall being a patchwork of windows; Mandy and Red‘s own bedroom is a glass case, reminiscent of Sleeping Beauty’s. This abundance of windows reflects several aspects of Red and Mandy‘s characters. It suggests a connection to nature – they are surrounded by the sounds of the animals of the forest, and Mandy describes to Red a traumatic incident in her childhood, when her father trapped starlings in a sack and taught the neighborhood children how to kill them – an event she ran from and by which she is still clearly troubled. Mandy especially seems content in this out-of-the-way bolthole, when Red wonders aloud about moving away, she says “it’s peaceful here, Red, it’s like our little home.”
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The early emphasis on the cosily domestic aspects of Red and Mandy‘s house make the invasion of their home by the Black Skulls biker gang and the cult of the Children of the New Dawn all the more jarring. We see Mandy taken from the forest-wreathed bedroom, drugged and interrogated in her own kitchen and living room, and finally killed in her own back garden – the safety of their remote home entirely violated. The domestic details of their home again serve as a contrast to high emotion in the aftermath, as Red screams, cries, and tries to drown his grief in neat vodka in the surroundings of a kitsch 1970s bathroom.
“All of these locations […] are heightened and re-contextualized by Cosmatos’s use of vivid color throughout the film. “
The unreality of the locations in Mandy is subtly reinforced through the place names and lack of identifying markers. Although the character seem to exist in 1980s America, we are never told exactly where they are. The geographical locations referred to by the titles and characters – “The Shadow Mountains”, “Crystal Lake”, “Spirit River”, all have a distinctly fantastical air to them. Another curious feature of Mandy is the lack of extra characters. We only see people that our protagonists are directly interacting with – there are no extras; no-one to give us a general sense of local normality. In this regard the film operates like a role-playing game – nothing exists apart from items or people with whom the main characters interact.
As Red sets out for vengeance in a classic fantasy fiction journey, the film takes us to the first locations on the path of his quest. These places exist in an uneasy limbo between real life and heightened fantasy-fiction. Red‘s friend Caruthers‘ run-down caravan functions as a weapons shop, and the Black Skull bikers’ grim house is a castle keep – both staples of the fantasy genre. They have a real-world, grimy feel – Caruthers‘ caravan contains not just impressive weaponry, but also dog food and mac & cheese – the everyday essentials of a day-to-day existence.
His caravan’s attempt at a secret password is just a modestly-sized “FUCK OFF” written in marker on on the door. The bleak dungeon on which Red finds himself trapped turns out to be just the cellar of an ordinary house, which the Black Skull gang have commandeered. Red then goes to confront the maker of the high-octane strain of LSD that Caruthers said was responsible for their homicidal behavior, whose operation is housed in an apparently ordinary corrugated-iron shed (albeit containing an actual caged tiger).
All of these locations are, however, are heightened and re-contextualized by Cosmatos’s use of vivid color throughout the film. Almost none of the scenes in Mandy are shot in anything resembling realistic natural light. Mandy and Red‘s home is lit in glowing yellow tones by evening, and by night in deep purplish-pinks; the sky through their windows a swirling mass resembling the colors of the planet Jupiter. When Mandy walks in the woods early on in the film, the light filters through the trees in shimmering golden tones of a fairytale film; later when she makes the same journey but sees the cult of the Children of the New Dawn, the lighting is by contrast all a deep red, adding a sense of foreboding to the passing encounter.
The intense red filters recur from this point onwards – in the scenes where Mandy is drugged by the cult, and again as Red fights the Black Skull gang on the road and confronts Jeremiah in the underground church. The oversaturation of color reflects Red‘s desperate attempt to take meaningful action after the meaningless death of Mandy; as Cosmatos says, “Color isn’t just a representation of reality — it’s a lush, emotional texture, a flavor for the mind.” In the later scenes of the film, Red engages in a chainsaw duel lit by the sickly yellow car headlamps – the weapons, the lighting and Red‘s blood-soaked face evoking Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974).
“The surreal and psychedelic landscapes of Mandy form a unique place that is slightly unmoored from our own reality, saturated in lurid color, and populated by ever-so-slightly unearthly objects and characters.”
Mandy exists in a space just on the edge of reality and imagination – nothing in the film is technically beyond the realms of possibility: it is the way in which the scenes are presented that takes them outside the realm of our known world. Even the most otherworldly characters, the Black Skull biker gang, are given a natural explanation for their existence, as Caruthers explains to Red, they were altered by an unusually strong batch of LSD. The talismanic objects – the Horn of Abraxas, The Tainted Blade, Red‘s axe – all have the aesthetic qualities of objects found in fantasy fiction, but don’t have the supernatural power that would qualify them as truly fantastical artifacts.
The surreal and psychedelic landscapes of Mandy form a unique place that is slightly unmoored from our own reality, saturated in lurid color, and populated by ever-so-slightly unearthly objects and characters. Neither entirely of our world or part of a fully realized fictional universe, the places we visit with Red, Mandy and their adversaries exist in a fascinating, hazy, trippy place somewhere between the two. This phantasmagoric horror-fantasy exists in a world inspired by the fictions of 1980s movies – as Cosmatos describes: “this mythological landscape that is inspired by that”; “this unholy, crazy concoction of what I thought these films might be.”
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