I was an 80’s child, born in 1971 to a mother who loves Stephen King (she owns every first print edition of his books and many later ones are signed and numbered!) and a TV addicted dad who still has the uncanny ability to find the schlockiest dreck on the tube and watch it ’til the credits roll. So to say I may have had some inappropriate media input in my formative years would be more than fair. I think Panos Cosmatos, the writer and director of the bizarre, obsessive and highly stylized “Beyond the Black Rainbow” may have been raised in a similar way.
While I intend to read more about the film and Cosmatos after this review posts (I hate reading about a film before I review it) I did catch snatches of press material saying Cosmatos wasn’t allowed to watch “R” rated VHS tapes as a kid so “Beyond the Black Rainbow” is kind of a play on what he thought these films were about. Or, something like that. In any case I never needed a press kit to see that Cosmatos was heavily influenced by this… ”era” of filmmaking, particularly horror and science-fiction. However he must have seen both Brian De Palma’s “The Fury” and the adaptation of King’s “Firestarter” at some point because “Beyond the Black Rainbow” is like a mash-up of those films bound together by some kind of psychotropic drug. Plus the whole thing looks and feels like it’s playing out of an older VCR; the sounds are droning and warped, the images are hazy and smeared as if the movie were left in the hot car of a rude fellow renter at the local mom and pop video store.
The film opens with a strange commercial that touches upon the idea of a super inner-human self that can be brought out by joining the doctor featured in the commercial. In the late 60’s and 70’s there was a lot of talk about humans possessing a “third eye,” which was a psychic gift that eventually went away due to lack of use. Of course here I’m pulling a Cosmatos, as I also had a hippy aunt who had a book about discovering and using your third eye for psychic purposes, and my description is what I recall from that phase. A quick Google search reveals the “third eye” concept has been around forever and ties humans to a secret world of creativity. It also refers to the lack of vision in a third eye by a catchy, yet ultimately annoying 90’s band. Anyway, “Beyond the Black Rainbow” starts off talking about this idea of tapping your super-self before cutting away to a downright creepy scientist named Barry Nyle (Rogers) badgering pretty young psychic girl Elena (Allan) to use her gift. She’s trapped behind glass and a constant low-humming, lit up, triangular psychic blocker of some kind is used to keep her gift in line and it’s clear she’s being kept against her will.
From here on out the film is like a meditative homage to 1980’s horror, particularly the aforementioned “The Fury” and “Firestarter.” But these comparisons are merely in terms of plot as Cosmatos has filled the film with shots, sound and colors so stylized and so pulled from the depths of what can only be described as cinematic memory that they resemble nothing I’ve ever seen before. It’s as if he took in as many older films as he could, processed them and regurgitated what he recalled into one film. While the film is a slow burn (to say the least) it’s downright engrossing and one of the trippiest films I’ve witnessed. It evolves from 80’s tribute to psychedelic journey to intense horror film and then… I’m still not sure what happens.
As a cinema fan I was blown away at the control and attention to detail Cosmatos showed. “Beyond the Black Rainbow” somehow manages to be completely its own film while still borrowing heavily from previous influences. I also found myself nearly mumbling aloud “where did they find these actors” because all of them- particularly the excellent Michael Rogers as Nyle and Rondel Reynoldson as his bitchy nurse- looked as though they were yanked off the screen from some crummy straight-to-video film from 1983. But as much as I liked the film, I liked what it was going for more than for what it achieves.
Like any film with psychedelic leanings, it’s nearly impossible to derive meaning from the finished piece of work, unless you’re on the same trip. I wasn’t and have basically no clue what happens in the final act of the film. The film is also extremely slow and while I loved the synthesizer laden soundtrack at first, the monotonous drone of that and the clever use of the background droning noise keeping Elena under control grew wearisome. I’m sure this was the point so we feel how Elena must feel but if I wanted to be wore down psychologically, I’d submit myself to this institution.
Still, for as confused and fatigued as I was by the end of “Beyond the Black Rainbow,” I was still pretty impressed. This is an unusual film that has yet to leave my mind a few days after seeing it. I also look forward to reading other reviews and interpretations of the film and having discussions about what others thought. I can’t outright recommend the film to everyone I meet, but I think longtime fans of the horror and science fiction genre, particularly the book in the 1980’s, will get something from this film.
Beyond the Black Rainbow is available now on-demand as well as on DVD and Blu Ray