“I love popcorn movies just as much as I love bizarre art films. And my mother, she was an experimental abstract sculptor and there were these haunted pieces of sculpture [around the house] that I always really connected with. I always felt like my filmmaking sensibility is a weird hybrid of both of them.”–Panos Cosmatos
DIRECTED BY: Panos Cosmatos
FEATURING: Michael Rodgers, Eva Allen, Scott Hylands, Marilyn Nory
PLOT: Dr. Barry Nyle conducts experiments on Elena, a woman with telepathic powers who spends most of her time in a near-comatose daze, at the sparsely appointed “Arboria Institute” in 1983. A psychedelic flashback suggests that a bizarre ritual performed at Elena’s birth is responsible for her current condition. Elena decides to escape from the Institute, pursued by a transformed Nyle.
- This was Panos Cosmatos’ first (and as of 2015, still only) feature film. He is the son of George P. Cosmatos, the director of Hollywood blockbusters Rambo (1985), Cobra (1986), and Tombstone (1993).
- Cosmatos said the two main inspirations for Beyond the Black Rainbow were “hazy childhood memories of midnight movies and Saturday morning cartoons.” He also said that as a child he would look at the covers of horror movies at the video store which he was not allowed to rent, and that the movie is his grown-up realization of the kinds of stories he imagined were contained inside those boxes.
- Beyond the Black Rainbow proudly admits to being a pastiche of the midnight movies that would be roughly contemporaneous to its 1983 setting. George Lucas’ THX 1138 (1971), Suspiria (1977), and Michael Mann’s The Keep (1983) are some of the moviess Cosmatos and others who worked on the project cited as visual and spiritual influences. The high-contrast black and white of the flashback sequence was explicitly modeled on Begotten (1990). ‘s Dark Star (1974),
- Beyond the Black Rainbow beat out 63 competitors in a reader’s poll to be officially named to the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Although it’s far from the most stunning image in a movie filled with unforgettable visions, in some ways the bit that sticks with me most from Beyond the Black Rainbow is the slow low-angle pan down the Arboria Institute’s fluorescent corridor. The shot is replayed many times: with blood red tinting as Dr. Nyle first marches to interview Elena, a ghostly pan across the glowing white panels that slowly fade to industrial blue, a shot tracking the Sentionaut as he walks towards the sleeping Elena. Although this mysterious motif recurs often enough to be noteworthy, for an indelible image we’ll go instead with the fearsome appearance of “appliance-free” Dr. Nyle: bald, eyes permanently dilated, clad in skintight black leather fetish gear, and clutching his fang-shaped ceremonial dagger.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Shamelessly allusive, sinfully trippy, Beyond the Black Rainbow is a love letter to midnight movies of decades past, a hazy conjuration overseen by the guiding spirits of , , and a thousand doped-up sci-fi dreamers that somehow manifests its own unique vision. It’s the kind of movie most of us here would make if we were handed a big bag of residuals from Tombstone and told we could do whatever we wanted with it.
Festival trailer for Beyond the Black Rainbow
COMMENTS: The very title Beyond the Black Rainbow invokes an enigma. Dr. Barry Nile uses the oxymoron “black rainbow” to describe his experience of failed transcendence: “I’ve seen what others cannot see… I looked into the eye of God. And it looked back through me! All this pain, so, so, so, beautiful, like a black rainbow.” And that is the only explanation of this very weird movie’s title. A black rainbow: an impossible, contradictory thing. And this movie promises to go beyond that conundrum. So much audiovisual mysticism, pyramids glowing to the hum of the music of the electrified spheres. It all points at something it cannot realize, a transcendent beyond that’s inexpressible and, the movie ultimately argues, illusory, unreachable.
There is little plot to Beyond the Black Rainbow, but it does have two strong (if basic) characters, who exist in a strange and sick symbiosis. Dr. Barry Nyle, his prematurely leathery face framed by a helmet of hair, is our antihero. Suppressing a torrent of contempt, resentment and sadism beneath a very thin veneer of professionalism and politeness, Michael Rodgers makes for an excellent villain. He is dependent on pharmaceutical props to maintain his civility; there is scene where he swallows a long series of blue pills from “Dr. Benway’s Pharmacy” and stares in the mirror, watching his countenance change from a jaded Jekyll to a maniacally happy Hyde through a choppy dissolve. His only interest in life appears to be studying Elena, the creamy, comatose beauty who is the Arboria Institute’s only patient. As Elena, lovely Eva Allen’s only job is to look sleepy and sad, and occasionally afraid, but not much more is required of her to engage our affection. Nyle’s psychological abuse of this alluring cipher drives us into her corner. And yet, Nyle himself is not entirely unsympathetic; we sense that something deeply traumatic must have happened in his past to bend his character out of shape. Nyle no longer represents the spacey peace-and-love idealism that Institute founder Mercurio Arboria professes in his vintage VHS introduction.
More important than the shuffling psychodrama Nyle and Elena engage in is the atmosphere in which it occurs. Beyond the Black Rainbow is notable for its evocation of a 1980s that never was. It’s full of period detail, from Arboria’s Atari-styled fonts to a background address by Ronald Reagan lecturing the nation on the Evil Empire’s latest military machinations. Jeremy Schmidt’s gently thumping synth score (inspired by the Moog-y moods of John Carpenter’s 1980s films and the spacey odysseys of Tangerine Dream) adds to the retro vibe. It’s a sleek, glowing vision of a future as it was imagined at the dawn of MTV. The ghost of Stanley Kubrick hovers over the entire production, from the slow, deliberate camerawork to the bold use of dramatic reds and luminous whites. Color washes, overlapping dissolves and extreme closeups form the basic graphic matrix, but Cosmatos deploys a host of visual ideas with the audacity of a neophyte. There’s a hidden cache of pornographic/medical/cybernetic plans on translucent graph paper. There’s the glowing pyramid, whose intensity Nyle controls with a dial and which sometimes spouts fog like a New Age volcano, used to dampen Elena’s psychic powers. Most impressive of all is a five-minute bad-trip flashback, with Schmidt’s score electronically miming the atmospheres of 2001‘s “star gate” sequence. Shot in super high-contrast black and white, the montage follows a younger Nyle, temporarily outfitted with a third eye, as he is dipped into a vat of black goo, where he experiences nebulous cosmic visions until he crawls out like a tarry salamander escaping from a black egg. This midpoint sequence scores Cosmatos one of cinema’s greatest psychedelic freakouts, and without it the film would be a far less memorable experience.
Black Rainbow‘s abstract plot creates just (barely) enough structure to support the dense fog of its mood. It leaves us with many mini-mysteries. How does the Arboria Institute survive with only one doctor, one nurse, and one subject? (The electric bill for the mood lighting alone must be astounding!) How do we explain the phone call Nyle receives, where the voice on the other end sounds like a malfunctioning modem trying to dial up AOL? What exactly was the nature of Arboria’s ritual, and what happened to Nyle in the black goo when he thought he saw God? What are the Sentionauts? And why is there a zombie in the ductwork?? None of these questions receives an explicit answer. The movie’s ending is a letdown, but not because it fails to explain what’s gone before. Elena’s slow escape from the Arboria Institute is fine, allowing us to experience many new environments, from Arboria’s arboretum to its shockingly mundane breakroom with a toaster oven and refrigerator magnets. But the movie’s finale suddenly shifts from a tribute to early Eighties sic-fi headtrips to a tribute to early Eighties slasher films, and the transition is jarring and disappointing. The final showdown is ridiculously abrupt and anticlimactic, causing the movie to drift away without a proper chance to for us to say goodbye.
The final post-credits shot of the film is of a “Sentionaut” action figure resting on a carpet. It suggests what Cosmatos has said in interviews: Black Rainbow is like a child’s imaginary perception of a circa 1983 adult science fiction movie, complete with images that stand out in the memory like pages from a pop out book, narrative ellipses, and social interactions whose significance is only half-grasped by the viewer. The ambiguity is a deliberate stylistic choice here; a feature, not a failure, of the film’s imagination. Black Rainbow invites the audience to participate in creating its narrative meaning, or (and this is the tack I recommend) to enjoy it purely on a sensual and emotional level, as a non-rational artifact from a shadowy alternate world where pyramid power still rules and they leave the red filter on the lens all night long,
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)
“Beyond the Black Rainbow looks like it was lit by lava lamps, scored on Moog synthesizers, written between bong hits and acted underwater. None of this is meant as praise.”–Rene Rodriguez, The Miami Herald (contemporaneous)
“…the plot is merely the launching pad for the movie’s surreal, hypnotic imagery; just one movie into his career, Cosmatos—the son of Rambo: First Blood Part II filmmaker George P. Cosmatos—has already produced his family’s most stylish work.”–Matt Singer, Time Out New York (contemporaneous)
Beyond the Black Rainbow (Official Movie Site) – Magnet Releasing’s official site hosts the trailer, a photo gallery, and a link to the press kit
IMDB LINK: Beyond the Black Rainbow (2010)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
Panos Cosmatos, Beyond the Black Rainbow – Interview with Filmmaker magazine
For Vancouver filmmaker Panos Cosmatos, Beyond the Black Rainbow helped alleviate grief of losing parents – Vancouver Sun profile of Cosmatos
WASN’T THE FUTURE WONDERFUL? – Composer Jeremy Schmidt (AKA Sinovia Caves) interview with Spectacular Optical regarding the Beyond the Black Rainbow score
Interview/Review: Actress To Watch Eva Allan On Being Sad & Silent For ‘Beyond The Black Rainbow’ – Interview with lead actress Allan
Describing ‘Beyond the Black Rainbow’ – Fan analysis of the plot and themes
Beyond the Black Rainbow: Subtextual Analysis – A film studies essay, illustrated with stills, embodying the thesis that Beyond is a postmodern attempt “to repudiate Freudian ideas of psychoanalysis”
DVD INFO: Sadly, and strangely, the Magnolia/Mongrel DVD (buy) comes with no extra features (not even a trailer). The Blu-ray (buy) is only a little better, including the trailer and a deleted special effect. The film is available on-demand (buy or rent).