Michael Rogers owns this movie.

You may have seen stuff like Beyond the Black Rainbow before. It’s best described as a head-trip science fiction love letter to not only the 80’s as an era, but also the 60’s-80’s stretch of strange, challenging “weird” films. There’s a bit of Altered States or 2001: A Space Odyssey in here. You’ll also be right at home if you enjoy your “weird” Cronenberg (Scanners or Videodrome) or even more contemporary stuff like Donnie Darko or Enter the Void. Like many those movies, Beyond the Black Rainbow is an unsettling and discombobulating mixture of tension, atmosphere, mystery, and the completely fucking surreal. You never know quite what to expect as it unfolds, but you mostly end up with provocative imagery, drawn-out scenes that are master classes in creating atmosphere, as well as quite a few of those scares that really belong in the realm of the bizarre: fright-inducing because they are alien, unexplained, teased out to perfection, and left to linger in your consciousness like a nightmare.

The first film of Panos Cosmatos (and it’s his real name, I guess!) is also a Canadian one. It was shot in and around Vancouver and showcases a talented young fella who definitely learned from his Cronenberg. Anyone who likes Cronenberg’s classic stuff is going to love Beyond the Black Rainbow and it’s also custom-tailored for those who like a little weird in their genre stuff. I’d also tentatively say that Lynch fans would love this movie. This is also what I’d say Lost looks like when allowed to plunge all the way into horror and the new-age retro-futurist trappings of the Dharma Initiative. Otherwise, you might be in for a pleasant surprise here but more likely this movie is going to be pure, high-octane nightmare fuel.

Part of the selling point on this strange and exciting little movie is going to be just how strange and exciting it is. As such, I’m not going to be shy about spoiling some vagaries of the plot. If the above is enough to get you interested to see this (and if it isn’t, just take my word for it ffs), then I’d implore you to go into this as ignorant as possible. Which means stop reading this review!

Elena is more than she appears.

With a cast of basically two, this is a film that has to squeeze a lot of mileage out of performance. Though Elena (Eva Allan) never says a word, we need to be completely sympathetic to her situation. Even though we aren’t made to understand it until a significant way through the story. She’s the one side of a coin that also features Dr. Barry Nyle (Michael Rogers) who oozes menace and embodies so much of the enigmatic but wholly sinister tone of the film. Barry, as he is most often called, seems like a mix of Anton Chigurh and Agent Smith. His line delivery is always unsettling and his eyes never seem to be quite looking at the same thing. Right from moment one, cast in saturated red light, he’s an unforgettable villain.

Imprisoned apparently against her will and subject to Nyle’s experiments, Elena seems to have some kind of special quality. It doesn’t take long for her to manifest some sort of psychic power. She doesn’t speak except through her mind. She also seems to have telekinetic powers that are contained by a strange glowing pyramid somewhere in Arborea, the retro-futuristic institute where she is being held.Beyond the Black Rainbow mostly takes place in 1983, some years after Mercurio Arborea (who we are introduced to at the beginning) founded the institute apparently to use drugs, experimental psychology, and other kitsch techniques to increase human happiness. Though we never clearly know what exactly he was up to, and what role Barry has/had in perverting or continuing it, there’s certainly a lot more to it than tripping their way into enlightenment.

An early example of just how fucked up Arborea is comes in the form of the Sentionauts, strange automaton-like servants of the institute. The introduction to them and the later payoff is probably my favorite single element from this movie.

If I had to theorize, and I do, I’d say that Elena is their most successful attempt to create some new order of human being. The Sentionauts may be a failed attempt and it becomes increasingly clear that the experiments and rituals we see from 1966 have done something to Barry as well. There’s something Oedipal about his interest in Elena, his taunting her about her mother, and finally his sadistic pursuit of her when she finally gets free, and probably not without a little help. It’s probably Mercurio’s death that finally unleashes the monster that lives in Barry, a monster that is completely fucking visible but at least under some form of control for most of the film. Once he gets loose, an already weird movie that has spent time peeling back layers to show more and more weird gets even weirder.

There may not be anything profound, strictly speaking, about what happens in Beyond the Black Rainbow. The story/plot is incredibly and purposefully simplistic. If there’s any profundity to be gleaned from this film, and I think there is, it must be taken from its presentation. From the sound design to the unusual lighting and 99% reliance on practical effects, this is one of those films where you have to sit back and say, “they don’t make them like this anymore”. Whatever appeal the retro schtick has, it all comes together to formulate images and sequences that have an unquestionable and almost indecipherable psychological and emotional effect on the engaged viewer. This is a kind of horror that is rarely done, a kind that invites you to not even think of it (strictly speaking) as horror at all. Between the saturated colors, which are incredibly striking, and the throbbing synth score that underlines and complements the pacing, it’s difficult not to be horrified even as you scramble to understand what you’re seeing and why it scares you.

Because just when you think you’re freaked out enough…

The trailer will give you a sense of that, for sure, so if you’re not convinced by my mere words I invite you to check that out. I mean, this is the ultimate “fuck it, show them a trailer” movie.

Regardless, it’s difficult to talk about the movie narratively without rattling off theories about what’s happening. I mean, I call Nyle’s interest in Elena “Oedipal” because there’s a heavy implication that she is his daughter (or perhaps the daughter of Mercurio, who may be a sort of father to him). There’s a lot of subtext left on the table for the audience to digest and it’s a movie full of loose, inviting threads to sort of pull at in an attempt to see what shakes out when the fabric unravels.

If nothing else, Beyond the Black Rainbow will freak you out. I have seen most of the movies that it riffs on, and I’ve seen many stranger ones beside. I could argue that this sort of thing isn’t usually all that shocking for me anymore, though it remains interesting always. Well, Beyond the Black Rainbow did shock me, did surprise me, and did unsettle me on a very deep level. One which is difficult to analyze and coherently explain.

Yeah, if you have that eyeball aversion thing…

No amount of praise is too great for Michael Rogers, by the way. Cosmatos wisely spends most of the movie on him. This allows us to empathize with his heroine, Elena, in an indirect way. Barry is inhuman and only gets worse as the movie goes on, he is nowhere near sympathetic but it is through his malignance that we understand just how fucked Elena is and thus extend to her a certain degree of empathy and understanding. It’s a brilliant move because it’s a tonal one that really dwells on the sinister shit while still allowing us to see Elena’s innocence (even when she kills) which is pretty well enough to root for her and hope she gets away from fucking Barry (fucking Barry).

Now a note about the ending. I feel like the end sequence gets a bit abrupt. It’s almost like “fuck you if you expected some big profound ridiculous reveal”. Instead, the reveal already came when Barry throws off the mantle of humanity (“you’re not wearing your appliances”) and totally embraces his monstrous self and his perverse desire for Elena (both symbolized via the “devil’s tear”, a strange and alien knife). Then, when he confronts Elena it’s after both (supernatural beings of some kind, clear as day by this point) have sort of entered the world outside of Arborea, a world of houses and heshers and shitty couches. That’s the moment where most movies would throw out some new wrinkle or cosmic imagery. Instead, Barry’s demise is completely mundane and abrupt and thus realistic. It happens faster than any other thing in this movie, too, where most events are paced to allow you to process them as they occur. There’s certainly something symbolic about this, and about that final shot of Elena approaching the strange-looking suburb.

That’s just it, too. Beyond the Black Rainbow is so steeped in symbolism and allegorical touches that it’s difficult to decide whether it’s too specific or too general. The tightrope the film walks is that these elements will be too remote and the audience will simply grow bored at a bunch of weirdness-for-weirdness’s sake (post-modernism?!). However, I think Beyond the Black Rainbow gets out of that trap by being interesting in itself. The symbolism and allegory feel like accoutrements, not the main attraction.

The main attraction is the deep weird, the inexplicable horror.

And face-melting visuals. Pun intended.

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