How are you at cult film trivia? Canadian director Panos Cosmatos digs three decades deep into the back shelves of the video store (if such a thing still exists) for his first writing-directing effort, the brain-twisting, eye-bending, ’80s-inspired, horror/sci-fi head trip Beyond the Black Rainbow. Most who’ve seen it have compared this low-budget film fest find to the work of fellow Canadian weirdo David Cronenberg (Videodrome, Naked Lunch, Dead Ringers). To be even more specific, Beyond the Black Rainbow owes a heavy debt to Cronenberg’s early work—particularly the auteur’s psycho-therapeutical 1979 body-horror film The Brood. But that’s only the start of what proves to be a headache-inducing retro-futuristic flashback.
Beyond the Black Rainbow time travels to the year 1983 and introduces us to Elena (the young Jennifer-Connelly-esque Eva Allan from “Caprica”), a mysterious teenager seemingly held prisoner at a quasi-futuristic commune / medical facility. The look of the place—dubbed Arboria, after its L. Ron Hubbard-by-way-of-Timothy Leary founder—is what you might call new wave ultramodernist. With glass walls, molded plastic furniture and glowing pyramids, it could easily be the leftover set from a Gary Numan album cover shoot.
Our vacant-eyed, white-robed protagonist is watched over by a perverse yet paternal doctor named Barry Nyle (longtime TV actor Michael Rogers, who looks like Christian Bale’s creepy older brother). Elena and Nyle are more or less the only people in this facility, and much of the film is taken up with meandering shots of Arboria’s 2001: A Space Odyssey-esque corridors or circular conversations between Dr. Nyle and his star patient—although “conversations” may a bit generous. Elena, possibly doped to the gills, spends most her time mute and unresponsive.
What exactly does Nyle want from Elena? Well, if you’re into concrete answers, Beyond the Black Rainbow probably isn’t for you. It appears that maybe Elena has some bizarre mental powers—powers that perhaps Dr. Nyle wants to tap into. Then again, Nyle doesn’t seem all that “normal” himself. Maybe it has something to do with all the “therapeutic pharmaceuticals” floating around. Before going into the theater, arm yourself with the knowledge that Cosmatos isn’t aiming for the explicable here. He’s in it for the mood, tone and look.
Aside from the implicit Cronenberg references, Cosmatos borrows heavily from the schizophrenic futures of Philip K. Dick and the neon-lit pulp cinematography of John Carpenter (with a special nod toward Carpenter’s self-composed synth-heavy soundtracks). An ominous electronic score rings in the ears like a lost album from Tangerine Dream. A prop pill bottle labeled “Benway Pharmacy” proves Cosmatos spent his college days reading William S. Burroughs as well. And, like a cherry on the homage-heavy sundae, Cosmatos chooses to end the film with a quote from Buckaroo Banzai. Just because you grok the references, doesn’t mean you’ll get the film, though.
With its lysergic look, dream logic narrative and hypnotically slow pace, Black Rainbow will be loved or hated on its own terms as a cult film curiosity. It’s creepy, mesmerizing, disorienting and a bit frustrating. The writer-director infuses the film with an eerie sense of expectation—but he doesn’t necessarily deliver on it, drowning us in a warm sea of surreal close-ups and droning synth twiddles. I’m not sure I understand a lick of it myself—but I’d sure like to meet this Cosmatos guy. Anybody nerdy enough to dig up an SSQ song for the closing credits of his film deserves my respect. (That is some deep ’80s esoterica, my friends.)
If you’re really into abstract psychedelic sci-fi (I’m whittling the audience down with every adjective here), Beyond the Black Rainbow is a pleasantly perplexing experience. Self-consciously handcrafted to sit on the shelf alongside other midnight movie mindfucks like Eraserhead, The Holy Mountain and Altered States, Beyond the Black Rainbow aims both high (the art house) and low (the grindhouse) and manages to hit both targets. If that sounds like your cup of spiked Kool-Aid, then—by all means—treat yourself to a dose.