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A Cosmatos Odyssey – The work of Panos Cosmatos

[This article was originally written as an assignment for my degree.]

There is a danger in calling him ‘the son of George P. Cosmatos’. Because even though he worked on Tombstone as the second unit director (the residuals of which he used to finance his work), he holds no through line to the director of Cobra, and Rambo: First Blood Part II. In Beyond The Black Rainbow and this year’s festival hit, Mandy, Panos Cosmatos has already dictated a style of filmmaking that is unique, but at the same time a stew of influences and styles.

This style of filmmaking is a progression from the sort that Edgar Wright, Quentin Tarantino and J.J. Abrams have made their own. A reference to a past era, whilst simultaneously attempting to show an identity that is theirs and theirs alone.

Looking at Beyond The Black Rainbow, his debut directorial effort from 2010, the slow burns of movement and exposed colour that bleed into the frame seemed as though this was something new. However, we can trace back this almost hallucitory hypnotic visual phantasmagoria back to the VHS copies of Phase IV, back to the cinematography and aesthetics of 1970s sci-fi like George Lucas’ THX-1138, and even to the modern contemplation of Daft Punks’ Electroma from 2006.

Audiences and critics had to wait until 2018 for a follow up, Mandy. As the film stormed through the festival circuit, starting at Sundance, the feverlike word-of mouth infected Twitter and film sites that were lucky enough to view it so early. One couldn’t last the end of a month without some form of comment on how apparently “insane” this film was. Audiences heard of a performance from Nicolas Cage that was unlike anything we had seen from him before, but at the same time the culmination of every performance he has given so far.

The common lineage between the two films of Panos Cosmatos has been the slow burn, the bleed of colours that are simultaneously dreamlike and nightmarish. The film grain is heightened in his debut and in his sophomore effort. The intention of this 35mm texture is to harken back to the time where a young Panos would look at VHS covers of horror films. He has stated in interviews of his fondness for the early 1980s. The texture that 35mm film gives, the grain that is evident in every reel, and the saturation of colour harkens to this lost era of filmmaking. We can see elements of Dario Argento’s Suspiria in every frame of exposed and saturated colour.

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Panos Cosmatos influences can be traced back to a variety of sources, which when accumulated create his visual style. The artist Jean Giraud (also known by his pseudonym Moebius), who passed away in 2012, revelled in creating alien landscapes filled with space and awe; Frank Frazetta built his reputation on forming fantastical worlds, filled with heroes, heroines, monsters, and villains that are the pinnacle of form; Metal Hurlant (translates from French to Heavy Metal) magazine helped shape the minds of many a sci-fi writer with its showcasing of talent much like the sci-fi pulp magazines of the 1950s.

As an audience we can see the visuals of a heavy metal/rock album cover in the world of Beyond The Black Rainbow and Mandy. An influence that is helped along by the music of Sinoia Caves for Beyond The Black Rainbow and the late Jóhann Jóhannsson for Mandy. This is a culmination of styles that form Cosmatos as a visually unique director.

The saturated colour in Beyond The Black Rainbow and Mandy, and the effect that the edit that bleeds from frame to frame can, one could argue, give both films a ‘haunted’ feel. This isn’t unintentional. During the promotional run of Beyond The Black Rainbow to film website EyeForFilm, Panos Cosmatos had stated that “my mother and father haunt every frame of his film”. Having lost his mother, Swedish sculptor/artist Birgitta Ljungberg-Cosmatos in 1997, and his father (the aforementioned film director George P. Cosmatos) in 2006, both films are his attempt at dealing with the grief from losing both. Beyond The Black Rainbow is the contemplative reflection, its protagonist attempting an escape from a prison; whilst Mandy is the anger and pure emotion that erupts after experiencing loss.

Taken from EyeForFilm, he is quoted to have said, “Genres allow you to deal with themes in a much more visual, mythical and for me at least, satisfying way. Movies are like dreams and working within a genre enhances and enables that notion.” The science-fiction and horror elements within both films, are confidently held within the genres they represent. The iconography couldn’t belong anywhere else, and as such the ‘dream’ of watching either movie is just reinforced further.

With that in mind Panos has constructed this ethereal duology. He has built these two films with his collaborators (different on both productions), using his references, and his life experience, to create his two feature films that are unique and wholly his own. As the director on both, and screenwriter too (although he shares credit with Aaron Stewart-Ahn on Mandy), the images on screen are an identity that is inexorably linked to him.

Watch the trailers for Mandy and Beyond The Black Rainbow:

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