For a film that’s often dismissed as nostalgic pastiche, Beyond the Black Rainbow (our current Movie of the Month) is a difficult one to anchor to any direct, cited influences. Part of the film’s lore is that director Panos Cosmatos intended to evoke “an imagining of an old film that does not exist,” recalling childhood trips to the VHS rental store Video Addict where he would imagine the plots of horror films he was too young to rent based on the images on their cassette jackets. The eerie psychedelia of the killer-ants curio Phase IV or Ken Russell’s Altered States approach the paranormal throwback mood Cosmatos was attempting to achieve in his debut, but neither work quite captures the full spectrum of what’s on the screen. What’s much easier for Cosmatos to pinpoint are the influences on the look of Beyond the Black Rainbow, touchstones he discussed with cinematographer Norm Li. In an interview with Joshua Miller for CHUD, Cosmatos referenced titles like Manhunter, Dark Star, and The Keep as direct influences on the film’s cinematography style, while playing influences on the tone & narrative much closer to the chest. The title Dark Star stood out to me in those citations, because Cosmatos is very specific about what he pulled from that ancient sci-fi comedy; he notes that a particular scene set in “a freezer room” was an influence on the bluish tints sometimes deployed in Beyond the Back Rainbow—what Cosmatos refers to as “night mode.” The specificity of that influence rings even more odd to me now after having watched Dark Star in this context, as the film may have had much more influence on Beyond the Black Rainbow than Cosmatos either realized or admitted.
It’s incredible that a film as small as Dark Star would ever have had enough lasting impact or wide enough of a reach in distribution to inform the look of Beyond the Black Rainbow nearly four decades later. What’s even more incredible is that Cosmatos’s film is one of the least significant corners of genre cinema it has influenced. The debut feature from genre legend John Carpenter, Dark Star was a student film project at the University of Southern California—stitched together from reels of 16mm footage (with some post-production bulking-up before its theatrical release to a reach feature-length runtime). Carpenter directed & scored the film, already establishing some of the basic tones of eerie sci-fi atmosphere & broad humor that would carry throughout his career. His main collaborator was Dan O’Bannon, who co-wrote with Carpenter, acted in a central role, edited the picture, and supervised its production design & special effects. Carpenter getting his sea legs here before immediately jumping into churning out all-time classics (his next two pictures were Assault on Precinct 13 & Halloween) already makes Dark Star a culturally significant work, even as a microbudget student film. It’s really Dan O’Bannon who secured the film’s legacy. however. Not only were the film’s incredible special effects its main draw and his character’s name cited as the source for the band Pinback, but O’Bannon repurposed many basic elements that didn’t work in Dark Star for his career-defining work in Alien. There’s a lengthy spaceship chase in Dark Star involving a beachball-shaped alien with claws that fails miserably in its humor, but O’Bannon later thought to play for genuine scares out of frustration – so that you can get an idea here what Alien might have been like if it were an early SNL or Groove Tube comedy sketch instead of one of the most influential horror films of all time.
Failed sketch comedy & sci-fi majesty are exactly the tones at war with each other in Dark Star, which is understandably more interesting to gaze at as a visual feast & discuss as a cultural object than it is to watch as entertainment media. A sci-fi comedy made by California college nerds in the stoney-baloney haze of the 1970s, the film is very loose in its structure and often is deluded in believing it can get by solely on the strengths of its punchlines (spoiler: it cannot). As beautifully eerie as the film’s pre-Star Wars space-travel effects look, the comedy it’s in service often feels mind-numbingly mundane. Some of that mundanity is (smartly) baked into its premise. The film profiles a trio of deep space colonists who seem to have an exciting job of exploding distant “unstable” planets with “intelligent talking bombs.” The day-to-day reality of this work is shown to be one of corporate boredom, however, as they fill their downtime playing trivial games and suffering the bureaucratic delay of supplies requests for necessities like toilet paper. A lot of this space-travel boredom transfers to the audience as the futuristic stoner humor slowly drifts along, although the movie does admittedly end on its best joke (and perhaps its only good one): a lengthy existential discussion between the ship’s captain and a talking bomb that’s threatening to detonate due to malfunctioning protocol. It’s a dryly funny philosophical battle between man & bomb, approximating the midway point between Douglas Adams & HAL 9000. It’s that latter comparison point that the marketing jumped all over during the film’s theatrical run, cheesily riffing on Kubrick in taglines like “The spaced-out odyssey” & “The mission of the Strangelove generation.” Dark Star was advertised as a full-length Kubrick parody, which was misleading, but likely an easier sell than what it truly was: an aimless stoner comedy adrift in outer space.
Beyond the Black Rainbow is another film that mixes visual majesty & stony baloney psychedelia with moments of incongruous humor, but that’s not the Dark Star influence Panos Cosmatos cites for his own debut. The “freezer room scene’s” influence on the intense blues of Beyond the Black Rainbow’s “night mode” sequences is much more specific & direct than any Dark Star influences Cosmatos may have picked up through cultural osmosis, given the stature of its central two collaborators. That scene, in which the new captain of the ship visits his cryogenically frozen predecessor for advice, is significant enough to Dark Star’s legacy that it’s the image used on the film’s Kubrick-riffing poster (likely due to the frozen captain’s distant gaze resembling 2001’s own advertising). It’s understandable then, that the freezer room scene would be the reference point Cosmatos & Li used to create some of Beyond the Black Rainbow’s general look, but I believe Dark Star’s influence may have extended even further than that scene’s acknowledgement. Throughout Dark Star, there were kaleidoscopic flashes of light, washes of color, and outer space animation that recalled the general analog psychedelia vibe of Beyond the Black Rainbow for me. There are two particular scenes I could point to that I believed resembled Cosmatos’s film much more closely than even the blue hues of the freezer room: one in which a laser gone haywire paints everything in its vicinity a harsh, monochromatic red and one in which the new captain waxes nostalgic about waxing his surfboard while staring out an observation dome, his head effectively floating in space while cross-lit in red & blue. The freezer room scene may have been a useful reference point when coordinating specific aspects of Beyond the Black Rainbow’s cinematography, but Dark Star’s fingerprints are visible all throughout Cosmatos’s picture outside that specific context.
Given the feats Carpenter & O’Bannon would later accomplish, Dark Star’s comedic missteps and detectable influences on just this one isolated picture seem like petty concerns in its greater legacy; the ways it transformed sci-fi media through Alien is alone enough to drown out those minor details. Its comparison to Beyond the Black Rainbow is of much more interest on Cosmatos’s end, as his work often feels so impenetrable in its pastiche of a genre era that likely never existed that any flash of a direct, specific influence like Phase IV or Dark Star feels illuminating. It’s unclear how much of those two films’ visual similarities (outside the freezer room “night mode”) were an indirect result of general genre bleed-over due to Carpenter & O’Bannon’s larger cultural presence, but it is clear that Cosmatos pulled something directly from Dark Star that indicates what Beyond the Black Rainbow was meant to accomplish. It’s also clear that Panos Cosmatos made a much more creatively successful feature debut than John Carpenter did, something to be immensely proud of.
For more on November’s Movie of the Month, Panos Cosmatos’s psychedelic debut Beyond the Black Rainbow, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, and last week’s examination of the influences it pulled from Phase IV (1974).