A reverential ode to Kubrick, Argento, Cronenberg, Altered States, John Carpenter synth scores, ‘70s sci-fi and ‘80s fantasy, and mind-boggling, hyper-stylized madness, Beyond the Black Rainbow simultaneously pays homage while blazing its own uniquely insane trail. Director Panos Cosmatos (son of Rambo: First Blood Part II and Tombstone helmer George P. Cosmatos) holds little back for his debut, which opens with an Alien-ish “1983” title card before segueing into a VHS promotional video in which a creepy Dr. Mercurio Arboria (Scott Hylands) explains his plans to revolutionize humanity by creating a recipe – of “benign pharmacology, sensory therapy and energy sculpting” – for pure happiness. This introduction, which plays like a Lost Dharma tape on hallucinogens, then gives way to the so-called action proper, in which a silent and slumped-over brunette beauty, Elena (Eva Allan), is escorted into a sterile white room, where through a tinted glass partition she’s counseled by ultra-creepy doctor Barry Nyle (Michael Rogers), whose attempts at conversation seem designed only to elicit some sort of emotional response from the uncommunicative Elena. His measures largely fail, leading him to his mahogany-heavy home, where he acts annoyed at wife Rosemary (Marilyn Norry) for taking a nap and methodically ingests a row of pills one capsule at a time, all while back in the white room, Elena lies on a bed, wracked by visions of a dark room with a malevolent white triangular object at its center.
Even that description doesn’t convey the initial out-and-out weirdness of Beyond the Black Rainbow, which plays like a feature-length tale set in 2001’s climactic alien-heaven netherworld, and which employs gaudy emotion-signifying color filters and haunting transitional fades to tether its dreamlike early sights: a credit sequence set inside a morphing iris; ambulatory shots of burning-red hallway ceiling panels; Barry driving home on a rural road; and a nurse (Rondel Reynoldson) leafing through a book, found in a sleek black wall drawer, overflowing with scientific illustrations of futuristic brain devices, alien beings, wombs impregnated with unidentifiable creatures, and a malicious vagina. How these otherworldly elements cohere into a sensible narrative is simple: they don’t. Or, rather, they don’t completely, as Cosmatos seeks disorientation through visual, sonic and storytelling means. The director subsumes his figure-it-out-yourself material so thoroughly beneath formal flourishes – while at the same time layering the research-facility proceedings with undercurrents of destructive and desperate parent-child anxieties, Reagan-era Cold War paranoia, and mind-body-spirit tensions – that the film somewhat resembles last year’s Amer, another genre tribute comprised of symbolic signifiers and ciphers pleading to be decoded. [spoilers follow]
A visit by Barry to his mentor Dr. Arboria, now a frail almost-corpse whose veiny skin begs for narcotics injections, instigates a flashback to 1966 that further sends things into a confounding spiral: in a whiteout nowhereland where only people’s brown hair and cocks are visible, Arboria promises Barry the key to humanity’s next evolution via a pill, but instead of enlightened bliss, it sends Barry (literally, and psychologically) down a soupy ink blot and into a melting-head, down-is-up hellscape of eye-socket flames and rolling black rainbows. It’s an LSD nightmare of ferocious psychosis, the foul flipside to 2001’s “Star Gate” sequence. And the mood of unhinged derangement doesn’t disperse once Barry emerges from this pit as a dark demon, possibly impregnates his colleague before killing her with a spurt-heavy bite to the jugular, and then rescues her chosen-one baby, who it turns out is Elena. Such lunacy is part and parcel of Beyond the Black Rainbow’s trippy stream-of-consciousness plotting, which is so unwavering that, after this interlude, the film surprisingly acquires a kind of wacko lucidity that’s maintained to the finale, in which Barry reveals himself to be something considerably less than human, and perversely interested in daughter Elena, whom he stalks with an alien knife dubbed “the devil’s teardrop.”
Toss in the fact that Elena is apparently a psychic – her only lines of dialogue (“I want to see my father”) are spoken telepathically to Barry – and that these supernatural powers seem to be stymied by the giant-triangle contraption, and the film proves a concoction of familiar sci-fi and horror tropes blended together by a brazenly pretentious and loony genre alchemist. Cosmatos revels in repetition and opacity to deliberately frustrating ends, and yet his gonzo recreation of ‘70s and ‘80s audio/video conventions (aided by Norm Li’s hypnotic cinematography) is so tenacious that they eventually cast a mystifying spell. Whether via recurring Kubrick-eye motifs, De Palma split screens, a THX 1138-indebted red-leather stormtrooper, jarring cuts from scenes scored to ominous tones and choral chanting to ones of buzzing silence, or simply the presence of Rogers’ Barry – whose waxen robot-devil countenance unnerves in extreme close-up or at his frequent, voyeuristic remove from Elena – the director delivers a feast of perplexing spectacles which magnify the story’s ever-present murkiness. Even though a narrative throughline is partially decipherable, true clarity doesn’t await those who venture to the end of this Rainbow, a work that, ultimately, demands only submission to its seamless form-content synthesis of bizarre beauty and intriguing incomprehensibility.
2011 Tribeca Film Festival