“And the LORD said unto Moses, Make thee a fiery serpent, (Nehushtan) and set it upon a pole: and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live.” – Numbers 21:8
“You’re the disease, and I’m the cure.”– Detective Marion Cobretti
It’s easy to be dismissive of cults. Even easier to sneer at the needy dopes who fortify their throngs. In the case of the cults featured in Mandy and Cobra, we simply view them as a necessary evil for George and Panos Cosmatos’ heroic archetypes — a logger and police detective, respectively — to set themselves against and disband with prejudice. Yet I feel the need to point out that we now live in a world of “followers” and “friends.” Cult jargon, as any religious academic will tell you. Instagram, Facebook and Twitter are the new soapboxes for postmodern messiahs, and as it happens, the new colonies for canceled lepers. With followers numbering in the hundreds and hundreds of hundreds. The collection plate has been annexed for Patreon, as our social media shepherds isolate their congregations from the network and erect private, paywall compounds for them.
How long do we have before the first genuine cults and their leaders sprout up online and begin to make sacrifices to their greedy sociopolitical gods? Or is this already happening? Since the earliest days of our species, the human race craves creating martyrs. What is cancel culture but modern human sacrifice? Craves developing sacrificial altars for them to bed down on. Craves the comfort of numbers.
In the opening of Panos Cosmatos’ Mandy, we hear a speech by Ronald Reagan on the radio as Red Miller (Nicolas Cage) drives home from work. “There’s a great spiritual awakening in America,” says the 40th American president. Red couldn’t care less, although there’s a local cult — Children Of the New Dawn — that’s trying to cash in on that appetite for communion with the divine. The New Dawn are a second-coming, holistic collection of Jesus freaks and drifters that have fallen into spiritual dilapidation. What started as maybe a small bible study group has festered and grown infected with sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. Drunk on strong acid and hubris, their oversexed leader, Jeremiah Sand, is a messiah gone feral. He’s deeply invested in the pleasures of Earth instead of the treasures of the afterworld.
Jeremiah Sand runs into the girl of his dreams, Mandy, while driving down a back road in his van. Similarly, Cobra’s Night Slasher runs into Brigitte Nielsen’s Ingrid Knudsen in much the same manner — van included. Both women become the object of these cult chieftains’ insatiable desires, one for lust and the other bloodlust. For some reason, Sand decides that they will need preternatural aid in securing Mandy for his harem. He tells his follower, Brother Swan (Ned Dennehy), to use the “Horn of Abraxas” to enlist the help of a gang called “The Black Skulls.” They’re an infernal club of underworld bikers who cravenly feed on a high protein diet of pain, rape and LSD.
Concerning Abraxas, Carl Jung’s third sermon in The Seven Sermons of the Dead says this: “That which is spoken by God-the-Sun is life; that which is spoken by the Devil is death; Abraxas speaketh that hallowed and accursed word, which is life and death at the same time. Abraxas begetteth truth and lying, good and evil, light and darkness in the same word and in the same act. Wherefore is Abraxas terrible.”
There’s a very real visual manifestation of this cosmic duality in Mandy. Twin astrological vortexes fill the night sky in the film. We must assume that one is for light, the other for darkness. For the sake of paternal continuity, it’s also interesting that Panos chose an occult icon, Abraxas, whose legs are featured as snakes — specifically cobras— in Augustus Knapp’s paintings of this god/devil figure. Perhaps this is a deliberate nod to a future dignitary in the collected Cosmatos filmography?
If The Children of the New Dawn summoned Abraxas, I doubt very much The Black Skulls are his true manifestation. The question remains as to just who they subpoenaed from the mists of pleroma? The bikers arrive after the Horn is blown, sure, but they speak a single language. Their tongues are rancid with the word of death. Jung also wrote this concerning Abraxas: “He is the bright light of day and the deepest night of madness…”
Only one character in Mandy fits this dual description. Red Miller. If you pay attention to Red’s temperament through the opening quarter of Mandy, you notice that he’s a bit half-asleep and muzzy. “Are you awake?” Mandy asks him in an early scene. “You were having a bad dream,” she says purposely. Red’s a tired guy. He’s a timber cutter so we assume it’s from work, but something really interesting happens to Red after the Horn of Abraxas is blown by Brother Swan. In the very next scene, Red Miller is totally wired. He has shaken out the cobwebs, his eyes are bright as the light of day. As for the deepest night of madness? That sadistic switch has yet to be flipped.
Along with the Horn of Abraxas, the New Dawn has collected another occult artifact. Jeremiah Sand calls it “the tainted blade of the pale knight, straight from the abyssal lair.” In the first scene in Cobra, Marion Cobretti (Sylvester Stallone) employs a knife to take out a mass shooter. I’m not saying that Cobretti is the storied “pale knight,” but the synchronicity is there. Much like Red Miller’s ax is a key part of his vendetta’s arsenal, and the prevalence of ax-worship in the New World cult are strikingly analogous. Not to mention that both movies pull their hues from the same phantasmagoric color palette. For instance, The Night Slasher (Brian Thompson) arrives on his motorcycle in Cobra’s opening-credit sequence in much the same way as The Black Skulls arrive on theirs in Mandy — a black silhouette set against a burning red backdrop. There are amorphous tendrils that connect these two feature films specifically.
I would also argue that Panos Cosmatos’ inclusion of Bill Duke’s Caruthers is another nod to the cinema of his father’s generation. Bill Duke would have been right at home in Cobra. The actor built a memorable career out of films such as Predator, Commando and Action Jackson before transitioning into the world of directing. In Mandy, Caruthers is a living reflection of the hard-boiled vassals of yesteryear. A brittle antique of the days of yore, but one who understands violence must be met with more, and greater, violence.
As Marion Cobretti infamously put it: “You know what the trouble with you is? You’re too violent.” He is, of course, mocking the era’s intelligentsia and their condemnation of a pop culture fiercely enchanted with quick death and gore. Without the final, feverishly ghoulish acts of Mandy, I doubt the feature would have made a dent critically. We still have an ancient appetite for destruction, whether the tools to employ it are a Stihl chainsaw, forged chrome berserker’s ax or a Colt Gold Cup National Match pistol with customized cobra graphic handle. The ends for the audience often justify the means.
Once awakened from his perennial slumber by the torture and murder of his common-law bride, Red (Abraxas) speaks in the twin tongues native to The New Dawn: fiery destruction and life. (Red grants the “The Chemist” clemency in a key scene, thus bestowing life to the meth cook.) This isn’t a mortal they have aroused from slumber, but a divine catastrophe of genocidal proportions. His final words to Jeremiah Sands are spoken in the thundering timbre of a god so that we understand that we’re no longer in the presence of a mortal human being, but Abraxas made manifest. “The psychotic drones. Where the mystic swims. You’re drowning … I’m swimming,” Red Miller says. “I’m your God now.” He speaks in the voice of Abraxas. The God of both life and death chooses death on this occasion. The results are petrifying, and more than a little bit unsettling.
Mandy takes place in 1983. By 1986, the culture had started to drift away from religious collectivism and structure. The New World cult in Cobra is a very different organization than The Children of the New Dawn were. For one, this bloodthirsty crew is just getting off the ground. As America started down the path toward secularism heading into the ’90s, Social Darwinist radicals like The New World were the cinematic byproduct of the theological anxiety of the zeitgeist.
In 1984, a 41-year-old maniac (who I will not name) walked into a McDonald’s in San Ysidro, Calif., and murdered 21 people with an Uzi, thus inaugurating the age of the mass shooter. The age of murder as theater. George Cosmatos’ Cobra is an artistic response to the senseless depravity of the San Ysidro mass shooting. Afterward, in the collective American consciousness, we realized that we were becoming spiritually liverish. That our culture had somehow conjured a devil with an Uzi and a hankering for a Big Mac, and with Cobra, Sylvester Stallone and George Cosmatos meant to diagnose and address the issue full-on.
Marion Cobretti works on a special division of the police force, a one-man unit called The Zombie Squad. A job that singularly encompasses hunting down psychopaths and straight up assassinating them for the State. It has fascistic undertones, but when you’re dealing with serial killers like The Night Slasher, and his ardent entourage of ax-murdering lunatics — the psychotic drones — you realize that it may take a fascist to extinguish fascists. The irony of The New World is that on their quest for creating the Ubermensch, they unintentionally discover it in their destroyer. Much like Jeremiah Sand’s people called for Abraxas, and he came, not to their aid, but to take great ecstasy in their decimation, Cobretti embodies a physical and mental purity of purpose — and his purpose happens to be the total destruction of The New World.
Whatever it is these Cults of Cosmatos seek, they wind up bringing down upon their own heads suffering and horror, and, ultimately, a self-inflicted demise.
From a principally biblical standpoint, it’s interesting that Cobra’s advertising tagline reads: Crime is a disease. Meet the cure.
In the book of Numbers, there’s the account of the creation of Nehushtan — Israel’s copper serpent. You may know this figure by another name: Aesculapius. The contemporary symbol for medicine, it is commonly seen as a single staff with twin snakes winding around it. During the days of ancient Israel, Yahweh punishes the nation for the crime of discontentment by sending forth a plague of vipers. The outcry from the Hebrews is, you can imagine, shrill and broad. The people are poisoned and in need of an antidote. So Yahweh instructs Moses to build a copper serpent so that anyone who looks upon it will be miraculously healed. Incidentally, in Fyodor Bruni’s 1839 painting, The Copper Serpent, the Russian artist depicts Nehushtan as a cobra.
Screenwriter Sylvester Stallone and director George Cosmatos are intentionally flirting with this Old Testament reference. The way they saw America in 1986, post-San Ysidro massacre, was as a country with a malignant strain of cancer. (“They were bikers and gnarly psychos and crazy evil…”) The United States had come down with a disease we didn’t quite understand, and didn’t — and still don’t — know how to treat. So, Stallone recreated Nehushtan and renamed him Marion Cobretti. “The Cobra.” The antidote for the venom is in the venom itself.
“You’re the disease, and I’m the cure,” The Cobra says.
It’s intriguing that both George Cosmatos and Panos Cosmatos created films featuring cults as the central antagonist, three years apart when allowing for fictional canon. Red Miller and Marion Cobretti are traditional American working-class heroes. They both personify some degree of arcane divinity: Miller as Abraxas and Cobretti as Nehushtan. There is the sense of a spiritual arousal in both figures, an awakening to the curative power of violence. Cobra and Mandy play curiously well together as a double feature. These are radical films set in a radical time in American history. I think you’ll discover that the links between the two films run deeper than blood, run deeper than their ritualized bloodletting. Cobra and Mandy are fraternal twins. One is bright as the light of day. The other? As dark as the deepest night of madness.