Beyond The Black Rainbow
(2012) dir. Panos Cosmatos
Review By Greg Klymkiw
"Ah! Cornelius Agrippa! My dear Victor, do not waste your time upon this; it is sad trash." If, instead of this remark, my father had taken the pains to explain to me that the principles of Agrippa had been entirely exploded, and that a modern system of science had been introduced, which possessed much greater powers than the ancient, because the powers of the latter were chimerical, while those of the former were real and practical; under such circumstances, I should certainly have thrown Agrippa aside, and have contented my imagination, warmed as it was, by returning with greater ardour to my former studies. It is even possible that the train of my ideas would never have received the fatal impulse that led to my ruin. -- "Frankenstein" by Mary ShelleyIn 1983 the world's foremost scientists tirelessly collaborated with naturopathic healers, forging new and exciting psychiatric pathways. These iconoclasts of mind expansion, secured under a massive glass dome within a secluded arboretum just outside Vancouver, aimed their sights upon, in a word: "happiness".
A short corporate film that opens Beyond The Black Rainbow, was commissioned during this era by the Arboria Institute. Like any good piece of hucksterism, it teases and pleases with the goals and discoveries of its sponsor.
Between images of bucolic splendour, positive on-screen intonations from the corporation's chief scientist and select glimpses of behind-the-scenes activities, a series of tantalizing taglines flash by and include such come-hither gems as:
"A state of mind, a way of being."
"A practical application of an abstract idea."
"Born in a dream to create reality."
"A different way to think. A new way to live. A perfect way to believe."
"A new, better, happier YOU!"
Alas, for young Dr. Barry Nyle (Michael Rogers), a steadfast belief in his mentor Dr. Mercurio Arboria (Scott Hylands) is not unlike that of young Victor Frankenstein's belief in the dangerous alchemical theories of Cornelius Agrippa.
Playing God is not without intermittent highs, but like crack cocaine, the heights of ecstasy lead to dangerous lows. Such dabblings often lead to the loss of all that is dear. Barry learns the hard way when he implements his soul-damning dabbling upon his beautiful daughter Elena (Eva Allan).
Beyond The Black Rainbow features one of the most thrilling debuts in years. Panos Cosmatos, who both wrote and directed this supremely enjoyable first-feature (including the brilliant aforementioned film within the film), is the son of the late and grossly underrated director of Massacre in Rome (a heartbreaking tragedy of WWII with Richard Burton and Marcello Mastroianni), Tombstone (featuring one of the best Doc Hollidays in moviedom, played by Val Kilmer) and Cobra (with Sylvester Stallone's best line of dialogue ever - "Crime is the disease. I'm the cure.").
Though perhaps unfair to the younger Cosmatos, one can't help but think a chip or two of flair and proficiency off the old block managed to find its way into his DNA. That said, the elder Cosmatos, a slam-bang commercially-minded director with considerable panache would never have made a movie as utterly insane as his son has. (Though, in its own perverse fashion, Rambo: First Blood II, occasionally verges on Ecstasy-infused Buñuelian surrealism.)
There's no two ways about it: Beyond The Black Rainbow is a 70s/80s-style "head" film that has "cult" emblazoned upon its celluloid forehead. In fact when I ran a repertory cinema during the same time period the movie harkens back to, it's EXACTLY the sort of picture I'd have been thrilled to get behind and try to generate a cult-friendly theatrical exhibition atmosphere to shoot it up into the midnight movie stratosphere of such "wacky-tobacky" hits as Eraserhead, Pink Flamingos and El Topo. (Sadly, in these days of theatrical, there are fewer venues for a picture like this to succeed and it will likely find its most appreciative audience in the home entertainment arena.)
Gorgeously shot by Norm Li, vigorously edited by Nicholas T. Shepard and blessed with a cool score/soundscape as well as an imaginative production design, the movie is replete with a delicious combination of creepy psychiatric experimentation sequences, dollops of shockingly grotesque bloodletting and several dreamscape montages that are pretty trippy all by their lonesome. If truth be told, the movie can work quite nicely without added stimulants, but far be it from me to deter anyone from enjoying the movie with a massive ingestion of some fine west coast weed.
The pace of the film is slow, but seldom sluggish. Its creepy-crawly tempo alternates between ominous and repellent, yet it's almost always compelling. That said, the movie really does feel about 10-15 minutes too long. Cosmatos and his team have an abundance of cool shit in the movie and I can only imagine how hard it must have been to let any of it go.
From a plot standpoint, things are relatively slender save for the vaguely Frankenstein-ian elements, but one slightly confusing shred of story that could have used some pruning involves Rosemary (Marilyn Norry) an odd-duck second (I think) wife to Barry (or perhaps she's his first and only wife and the gorgeous woman who resembles his daughter in the dream/flashbacks is a result of the Arborian mind control methods gone wrong). However, pruning this character would have resulted in losing an absolutely hilarious (and creepy) deadpan exchange between the clearly disconnected husband and wife.
Besides, confusion is okay. It's a bloody head film with cult appeal, for Christ's sake. If someone is into the picture, they might, if they're even so inclined, figure it out on repeated viewings.
So, what else could have been cut?
There's one elongated trip sequence - mostly in black and white - that probably could have been sliced and diced, but then the movie would be bereft of one of the most insanely overlong trip sequences in recent memory.
Damn! Even I don't want to lose anything.
The movie also has a few elements that resemble, uh, ideas. Thankfully, they're not too offensively obvious and/or obtuse and/or "film-school-ish". In fact, they're frankly, way less ludicrous than Ridley Scott's half-baked philosophical meanderings in Prometheus and one of them is actually kind of cool. Given the early 80s setting, we're blessed with some brief nods to the Panamanian military leader Noriega and Rompin' Ronnie Reagan. This ties in with the 80s Cold War insanity quite nicely. It's also a cool nod to the work of Cosmatos's Dad during this period.
Most engagingly, these touches of Reagan-era nuttiness play perfectly with the whole survivalist mentality prevalent back then (and creeping back even now). At one point, Barry refuses to let Elena see her father. "The world is in chaos and we live in times of great uncertainty and danger," Barry warns in a ruthlessly icy monotone.
Speaking of monotones, I loved all the straight-up performances in the film. Nothing is played for cheesy tongue-in-cheek effect and even the magnificent Scott Hylands, in the role of the Cornelius Agrippa-like founder-mentor, could have easily torn the scenery to shreds, but instead offers up something quite chilling and understated. And I loved Rondelle Reynoldson as a perfectly foul nurse. Conjuring up bad memories of Louise Fletcher as Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, Cosmatos also gives the character a well-earned and deliciously disgusting demise.
For me, I got way more bang for my buck out of this modestly budgeted SF whacko-fest than Sir Ridley's plodding mess. I suspect, I might not be alone in this, but like most cult items, it might take some shelf life for the devotion it deserves to discover it.
So settle back, folks.
Fire up a fat doobie and enjoy!
"Beyond The Black Rainbow" is currently in limited theatrical release via Mongrel Media.