2010 // Canada // Panos Cosmatos // July 6, 2012 // Theatrical Print (Hi-Pointe Theater)
[Beyond the Black Rainbow was screened on July 6 and 7, 2012 as a part of Destroy the Brain's monthly Late Nite Grindhouse program, featuring cult and exploitation films from the past and present.]
Writer-director Panos Cosmatos' oneiric science-fiction feature, Beyond the Black Rainbow, is deeply entrenched in a veritable encyclopedia of genre landmarks, drawing on its antecedents for theme, mood, and evocative production design detail. Particularly evident are the fingerprints of David Cronenberg's late 1970s and early 80s horror films, with all their distinctive markers: the creepy religio-political factions and cult-like self-help movements; the nightmarish "fifteen-minutes-into-the-future" technology, replete with sinister black-box devices that bridge the gap between the analog and digital; the affectless, drawn-out performances; and the pointedly Canadian atmosphere to the art direction. There's a bit of later Cronenberg in Cosmatos' film as well, in that Rainbow calls to mind the druggy disconnectedness and Wonderland randomness of the former director's William S. Burroughs riff, Naked Lunch.
Other apparent forebears abound: Ken Russel's Altered States, Mark L. Lester's Firestarter, and Saul Bass' sole directorial effort, Phase IV. There are also a plethora of stylistic and thematic echoes from the works of Kubrick and Tarkovsky. Heck, even Silent Running gets a visual nod, a jarring reference given that Rainbow is, tonally speaking, worlds apart from Douglas Trumball's eco-futurist parable of a space-faring Garden of Eden. However, the deep cinematic traditions that Cosmotas draws upon are something of a distraction from the task of approaching the film as a trippy, difficult work in its own right. And Rainbow is nothing if not keenly aware of its own unconventional character. The film isn't quite desperate about wallowing in obtuse weirdness, but it is damn determined to be as challenging and impenetrable to the viewer as possible.
The film opens with a promotional film that describes the Arboria Institute, a psychological research center devoted to ensuring the "happiness" of patients through vague technological, pharmacological, and spiritual means. The year is 1983, although it is a menacing, parallel 1983 illuminated by a baleful red LED glow and scored by a relentless electronic drone. The film posits an alternate universe where the late 1970s have simply continued and Reagan-era gaudiness and sentimentalism have yet to arrive. Inasmuch as Rainbow has a plot, it is this: Elena (Eva Allen), a young woman who barely speaks and has ill-defined psychic powers, is being held at the Institute under the "care" of the turtleneck-favoring and obviously sinister Dr. Barry Nyle (Michael Rogers). Why exactly Elena is imprisoned at the Institute and what Dr. Nyle wants from her are unclear, but there is much about Rainbow that is unclear. Suffice to say that stuff happens: Elena is subjected to a series of bizarre interrogations; jump-suited, helmeted guards menace her; she is permitted to psycho-kinetically murder a nurse who snoops through the Institute's files; Dr. Nyle meets with Arboria's elderly founder (Scott Hylands), and has a flashback to his own early days in the man's care; Elena stumbles upon a means to escape; Dr. Nyle has a kind of psychotic breakdown; a pyramidal machine emits light and smoke.
The film doesn't make much sense, but it's difficult to say whether this is by design or not. Often, Cosmotos seems to be working in an almost avant-garde mode, where narrative is an afterthought and the film occupies itself primarily with conjuring an unsettling mood and creating disturbing, potent images. In this it succeeds, for Rainbow proves to be a legitimately creepy film. It does, however, seem wildly inappropriate to term it a "thriller" when, from a purely objective standpoint, nothing at all happens for long stretches at time. The film's stylings seem designed to be oppressive, creating a haze of nauseating light and sound that echoes the psychological demolition that the Institute is inflicting on Elena. The boundaries between individual days dissolve as Elena awakens again and again in her spotlessly clean white cell to the same spinning Arboria logo on the video monitors. The performances from the two primary actors are pitched to be overtly alienating: Rogers softly moans out his lines, punctuating every word with a long pause, while Allen has exactly one expression of slack terror that she wears throughout the film. They aren't really "acting" in the usual sense, but, then again, Cosmotos doesn't seem to want acting cluttering up his bench project in mood and design.
The overall effect is that of a narcotic trance, where every detail seems significant, but slips away from the viewer with maddening ease. It's a bracingly audacious way to make a film, demanding a staggering tonal discipline that Cosmotos nearly (but not quite) pulls off. However, a film in which lots of nothing happens and the few somethings that do happen are mysterious (or downright opaque)... well, that can be wearisome for any viewer, even a viewer who is accustomed to glacially-paced experimental film. It's not a pleasant experience by any stretch, but pleasure doesn't seem to be Rainbow's aim. It is, in its way, pure cinema, but it is a cold, somewhat aimless cinema. Cosmotos lacks the talent that master surrealist film-makers like Lynch and Jardowsky demonstrate in selecting inexplicable images that seem intuitively, emotionally "correct". Rainbow, in contrast, often feels calculatingly weird, in the most joyless, serious-minded manner possible.
Cosmotos' film eventually collapses, but, surprisingly, it is not due to its unyeilding atmospherics. Rather, it is when Rainbow executes a baffling sprint into slasher-film convention and black comedy camp in its final scenes. This suggests that, oddly enough, it is a lack of dedication to confounding strangeness that ultimately defeats the film, undermining its potential as an enduring acid-trip cult feature.