By Jack “Only Loves Mandy Lane As A Person” Burton
Every high school has that One Girl, a living doll whose winsome smile and coy demeanor drives all the boys nuts. At my school her name was Holly. All the girls wanted to be her, and all the guys just wanted to be WITH her. She wasn’t even trying to be cool – she just WAS the nicest, sweetest, prettiest and most generally awesome-tastic girl in the whole school. For the record, Holly grew up to marry a Ken doll and have lots of chubby cheeked little kids who all look exactly like her. Quite frankly I find it disgusting that we live in an age where the internet makes it impossible to just assume you turned out better than your classmates.
Holly was a real life version of the kind of girl that usually only exists in movies. And in what is technically Jonathan Levine’s (Warm Bodies, 50/50) feature debut, her name is Mandy Lane (Amber Heard). And all the boys do love her, so much so they can’t leave her alone. They stare, they leer and they make crude adolescent advances, but Mandy keeps herself off the market – which only adds to her allure. The only person she relates to is her pal Emmet (Michael Welch), who occupies every man’s least favorite social sexual position of Platonic Best Friend. Emmet runs interference between Mandy and her horny suitors, and the two introverts find in each other a sympathetic ear and a reliable defender.
Things change when Dylan (Adam Powell), the school stud-muffin, convinces Mandy to attend a pool party at his fabulous bachelor pad. Dylan and Emmet butt heads, and their epic struggle ends badly. Emmet – who does not take kindly to Dylan’s objectification of Mandy – convinces his drunken host to cannonball into the water from the roof. But instead of landing the dive and impressing Mandy, Dylan dies when he smacks his head on the edge of the pool. Everyone – including Mandy – seems to blame Emmet for the accident, and he becomes the class pariah. Mandy moves on without him, and half reluctantly begins to socialize with Dylan’s old crew.
But having Mandy “in the gang” isn’t enough. Red (Aaron Himelstein), Jake (Luke Grimes) and Bird (Edwin Hodge) decide to invite her to a weekend getaway at a remote ranch. While there, they will compete for the privilege of deflowering the unobtainable Mandy Lane. For appearance’s sake they also invite Marlin (Melissa Price), who has a crush on Jake, and Chloe (Whitney Able), whose paranoid drug binges seem to fascinate Red. But everyone is there for Mandy, and they all make their pitch. Bird tries the Sensitive Guy routine. Jake tries the Aggressive Prick route, but remains generous enough to spare a few inches of himself for Marlin. Red hopes to win by default, since it’s his house. All of them fail, and soon one of them turns up brutally slaughtered.
Oh yeah – did I mention the psycho killer that follows them to the ranch and begins exterminating them one at a time? You knew that, because this is a slasher movie – but it’s one that makes precious little effort to obscure the identity of the killer. In fact, this is revealed so early in the film that it kind of took me out of the story. I sat there wondering whether this was a deception, and there was a plot twist coming up, or whether this was just that bad a movie. Good news – there IS a twist, and it’s actually pretty cool. But it feels like a shortcut, rather than a shocking revelation you’ll be gushing (no pun) about all the way home. In this case, the attempt at misdirection is too obvious to be useful, and Jacob Forman’s unexpectedly witty script would have been better served saving both barrels for the last act. Still, I have to give it an B” for effort, plus a commendation for original thinking.
Plot twist aside, at least one thing really stands out about Mandy Lane, and that’s the quality of the acting on screen. This is a film populated with some fairly standard archetypes – the Aggressive Guy, the Sensitive Guy, the Ditzy Blonde, Token Black Dude- but the cast’s level of ability is higher than what you’re used to seeing in this kind of movie. Cardboard cutouts or not, each character is ably represented, and their actions don’t seem as arbitrary as they usually do in films about teenagers getting stabbed to death. Particular love goes to Anson Mount as a kindly ranch hand whose credibility is not diminished by his Harlequin novel looks. And Amber Heard has a wise-beyond-her-years quality that genuinely adds to her character.
As the credits rolled, I felt like I’d seen a fairly cool little film. But it was overshadowed by a failure to provide the killer with even a mildly plausible motivation. If you think I’m nitpicking, think of this as one of those things you don’t usually notice until it isn’t there. Villains work best when the story establishes some sort of reasoning behind why they do the voodoo that they do. Following a lunatic’s twisted, murderous train of logic gives you an uncomfortable conduit to their mind, and that’s part of what MAKES them creepy. It’s the difference between a “story”, and “a bunch of stuff happening”. Mandy Lane doesn’t quite achieve this, but I give it a lot of credit for trying something different.
On a side note – All The Boys Love Mandy Lane has been completed since late 2005. But due to a series of distribution issues I won’t bore you with, it has not yet seen full domestic release. It looks like that will change later this year, and Levine’s recent track record no doubt played a part in that. The $700,000 film is already in the black, so the delay might end up being a stroke of unintended financial genius. Horror buffs will have already seen this but for everyone else, Mandy Lane might make for a (mostly) fun, (completely) frivolous weekend diversion. This is an energetic, surprisingly satisfying trifle that rises slightly above its genre, but not quite to greatness.
When some wild-eyed, eight-foot-tall maniac grabs your neck, taps the back of your favorite head up against the barroom wall, and he looks you crooked in the eye and he asks you if ya paid your dues, you just stare that big sucker right back in the eye, and you remember what ol' Jack Burton always says at a time like that: "Have ya paid your dues, Jack?" "Yessir, the check is in the mail."