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LIST CANDIDATE: BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW (2010)

DIRECTED BY: Panos Cosmatos

FEATURING: Michael Rogers, Eva Allan, Scott Hylands, Marilyn Nory

PLOT: Within the depths of a mysterious, retro-utopian health clinic, a troubled psychologist attempts to treat a silent young woman with telekinetic powers, but she keeps trying to escape.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Weird story, weird characters, weird weird visuals: Beyond the Black Rainbow definitely has weirdness in spades. At times it is overly self-satisfied in its ambiguity, but overall it’s a strong psychological thriller that revels in the bizarre.

COMMENTS: Opening with a creepily soothing informational video reminiscent of something out of the Dharma Initiative, Beyond the Black Rainbow immediately sets a dark and cryptic tone. The kindly Dr. Mercurio Arboria believes he has created a center for peace, understanding, and mind-opening advancement of the human race. Years later, his haven seems deserted, with only the mute and magical Elena seen in its cells. She is quiet but tightly coiled, ready to burst both mentally and physically. She holds Dr. Arboria’s protégée Barry Nyle in deep sway, but her importance to the institution is unclear. Through a surreal and unforthcoming flashback sequence her connection to Dr. Arboria and Nyle is expressed, though her telekinetic abilities remain something of a mystery. Her eventual escape prompts Nyle to take serious action.

Writer/director Panos Cosmatos draws from trippy horror-thrillers of the 70′s and 80′s to create his mood, with flashes of Altered States, 2001, Scanners, and the like. The pace is measured, with asides to Nyle’s dreary home life paired with closer views into the stark, enigmatic complex of Arboria. White walls intersect in a maze of cells and hallways, black panels reveal hidden objects, colored lights and energy pyramids glow in the dark—all while eerie synthesizers pulse over the soundtrack. The close shooting style lends the film a claustrophobic, tense atmosphere that is increased as the visuals become stranger and more abstract. Psychedelic colors swirl and coalesce, while a cult ritual is acted out in severe black and white and uncanny slow motion. Mutants in latex suits roam the hallways, and, oh yeah, heads explode!

As supposed psychologist Barry Nyle, star Michael Rogers wears his own face like a mask—impenetrable and unreal. His manner is cool and calculated, whether he’s murdering his own mentor or talking to his confused wife. His sadistic, violent nature is fully revealed through physical transformation, resulting in a chilling slasher chase during the film’s climax as Nyle hunts down Elena. Elena herself starts off as a typical waifish victim, silent and impassive. As her anger and determination rise, she becomes more self-assured and by the end is definitely a character to root for, a new-age Final Girl who values her freedom more than her revenge.

Beyond the Black Rainbow is in some ways high-minded and inaccessible, but its gorgeous and dreamlike visuals combined with its haunting electronic score and intriguing premise make for an engrossing and all-around weird experience. Its horror-thriller undertones and 1980s influences are well-incorporated, though some of its actual story/script elements are messy.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…unless you’re among those who still drop acid as a midnight-movie apéritif, your enjoyment of this retro oddity remains far from guaranteed.”–Jeannette Catsoulis, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

5 comments to LIST CANDIDATE: BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW (2010)

  • Mofo Rising/Rob

    I had the worst movie experience while watching this in a theater/bar. However, the movie has really stuck with me. I think this would really fit well on a double-bill with Suspiria. Suspiria, on a movie level, is not very good, but the soundscape the movie presents is incredible. I love the sound of Suspiria, and it’s my go-to movie as white noise when I want to fall asleep. (That may be a little worrying.)

    I really loved the soundscape of Beyond the Black Rainbow. I think I described it elsewhere as a Tangerine Fever Dream. The movie’s got its problems, but as a confection? Great.

    Plus it’s got the guy from Eureka in it. I like that guy.

  • Tally Isham

    I think you were spot on with this review. There were plot elements that were willfully obtuse, but I enjoyed this as an exercise in style over substance in the most positive way possible. There’s nothing like a movie that gives you a sense of immersion in a carefully crafted environment as this does. The story was oddly fractured and masked in a clinical/hypnotic dream logic. I loved the soundtrack. I loved the pacing. The whole thing evokes retro touchstones, but they’re just out of reach. Maybe it’s a bit like The Brood? Maybe the garden reminded you of Silent Running? There are no shameless homages to speak of. It even goes – briefly – into slasher territory, but the rug is abruptly pulled from under this idea. I loved the movie and… like… everyone should watch it!

  • Having finally seen this (well, having finally gotten around to commenting on it, at least), I think Alex nailed it with the review. Tally Isham also makes a great point about homage: Panos Cosmatos synthesizes a lot of different late 70s/early 80s influences, but he makes the style his own, so that it’s reminiscent of past directors and films without seeming at all derivative. I saw a lot of The Shining’s Kubrick in the slow pans down corridors, and even some Tarkovsky in the general pace and soundscapes.

    I loved the style, and I was really enchanted by the movie, for about 45 minutes to an hour. Then, I started wishing something meaningful would happen. I personally disliked the slasher digression near the end; it was out of sync with the rest of the movie and left a bad taste.
    I think for right now this is where it needs to be in the context of the List: it’s a candidate, and I wouldn’t be ashamed to add it, but it’s not insisting “I’m one of the greatest weird movies of all time” to me.

  • Robin Hood sun

    I liked this movie. very wierd. should definately make the list.

  • Just finished this, and I really liked it. My main reasons are below:

    1 – If you’re going to go for stylish ambiguity, you’ve gotta really nail it, and this one absolutely does. The production design is 110% committed to that aesthetic… so often, with the soft focus and the smears of light and the colored lights and reflections, I couldn’t figure out how the space was shaped, and it created a totally hypnotic, mind-numbing quality of delerium. Also, everything Alex and Mofo said about the sprawling synth score … Even in other style-over-substance films, it’s rare that the “style” is this intense.

    2 – The respective qualities of the two main characters: Elena was haunting and ephemeral, a great echo of a tough final girl. Alex is right on about her: her character is only sketched out in the loosest terms, and only undergoes the slightest twitch of development in the course of the film, but by the end, you’re completely on her side. And of course, the flip side: Barry was unnerving at the beginning, and by the end of the film, I was positively terrified of him. That’s another point where the film could have totally failed… so many films just gloss over the antagonist, giving us a generic creepy/brutal/fascist stereotype. This film, on the other hand, was more Barry’s film than Elena’s… we saw him develop, we got into his background, we tagged along with his trauma, and we were riding side-car when he snapped and turned into a monster.

    I’m going to put this on my mental shelf with Valhalla Rising and I Can See You as one of my all-time favorite bad-trip films.

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