Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before and we discuss it afterwards. This month Brandon made Boomer, Britnee, and CC watch Beyond the Black Rainbow (2010).
Brandon: Full disclosure: for a long time, I had planned for my final Movie of the Month selection for the year to be Mario Bava’s space exploration creep-out Planet of the Vampires, but I decided at the last minute to swap it out for another highly stylized sci-fi horror instead. When recently watching Panos Cosmatos’s grueling, psychedelic descent into human misery Mandy in the theater, I felt compelled to switch tracks and bring the Swampflix crew back to the director’s 2010 debut, Beyond the Black Rainbow. Mandy has been a highly divisive film, splitting audiences between finding its slow-motion, style-over-substance psychedelia frustratingly stubborn and being wholly won over by the pure sensory pleasures therein. I personally found Mandy’s religious worship of 80s genre cinema’s neon & synths aesthetic to be wonderfully stupefying, a technical & emotional knockout that had me stumbling from the theater in a daze. Oddly, I’ve also been obsessively reading fiercely negative takes on the film in the weeks since, browsing complaints as varied as it being too macho, too nostalgic in its retro genre pastiche, and too arbitrarily Weird as a for-its-own-sake indulgence. This happens often when I latch on to a new highly-divisive, highly-stylized genre film: it’s all I want to think or talk about for weeks, but I only want to read the most bitterly negative takes on its merits available, almost as if to challenge my own admiration. It’s happened recently with titles like The Neon Demon, Tale of Tales, We Are the Flesh, Double Lover, and mother!, but more importantly it also happened in the early days of Swampflix when I first discovered Beyond the Black Rainbow, Panos Cosmatos’s debut (and one of our very first five-star reviews). As I’ve been obsessing over both the immense sensory pleasures & fiercely negative critical takes of Cosmatos’s latest work, it feels like I’m re-entering a cycle I already lived through with his previous feature, making an intensive re-examination of Beyond the Black Rainbow practically mandatory.
Like Mandy, Beyond the Black Rainbow is set in an alternate-dimension 1983 overrun with evil LSD cults and heavy metal mysticism. This particular neon-lit nightmare is mostly contained in the (literally) underground Arboria Institute, a medical research facility dedicated to the Scientology-reminiscent goal of achieving happiness & inner peace through a melding of science & theology. This pseudoscience approach to achieving “serenity through technology” is vaguely defined at best, but mostly appears to be hinged on two key experiments: a 1960s LSD ritual explained in horrific flashbacks to open participants to Lovecraftian knowledge of the Infinite and current, ongoing research of a young woman with telepathic abilities who mysteriously seems to have been born of these earlier acid rituals. Most of the narrative (what little there is) focuses on the young woman, Elena, who is held captive at the Arboria Institute via a glowing pyramid-shaped contraption that limits her telepathic abilities when activated. Although the institute’s mission is to find happiness through science, this captivity has only served to make both the captive Elena and her menacing captors (especially the menacing brute Dr. Barry Nyle) the most miserable beings on the planet. Elena silently weeps in a depressed haze under the pyramid’s invisible oppression for most of the runtime, until she manages a slow-moving escape from the facility in the final act. The concluding minutes of Beyond the Black Rainbow make for a jarring tonal shift, as Elena & Barry’s violent clash with unsuspecting, beer-swilling metal heads in the real world feels like it’s from a cheap VHS-era slasher, whereas all the pseudoscience LSD mysticism that precedes it feels like it’s from another planet. There’s flashes of kitschy humor in the film’s earlier indulgences in 1980s genre imagery, but so much of the film is so stubbornly slow & relentlessly dour that the audience is not at all prepared for the more conventional horror payoffs of the concluding bloodshed.
It almost feels beside the point to discuss Beyond the Black Rainbow in terms of plot choices, but I feel like that final-minutes shift from ethereal mysticism to humorously familiar genre tropes is where this film loses even potential fans who are okay with its stubbornly quiet build-up. After so much careful attention is paid to the sensory delights & horrors of the first section’s reaches beyond perceived reality, that intentionally comedic return to pedestrian knuckleheads sharing cheap beer on Planet Earth has turned some audiences off for making the film play like a feature-length prank, whether or not they found any humor in the earlier stretch. Boomer, what do you think of Beyond the Black Rainbow’s balance between genuine filmmaking beauty and prankish 80s pastiche humor? Was your overall opinion of the film challenged or reinforced by its concluding minutes of genre-traditional bloodshed?
Boomer: It is interesting that, for the second month in a row, we’ve watched a horror movie that starts out as a psychological thriller, albeit one with pseudoscientific elements (the cryptozoological tra-la-logs in The Pit and the bizarre fringe parascience of Black Rainbow) that turns into a more conventional genre film toward the conclusion. Whereas that was something that I didn’t care for in The Pit, I found it less intrusive here in Black Rainbow, if for no other reason than that the latter seems to be entirely predicated upon both being extremely conventional in its subject matter while defying convention at the same time. Nostalgia for the horror of the late-1970s-bleeding-into-the-1980s is pretty much my jam, and although it’s certainly reaching a saturation point in the wake of Stranger Things, I had to keep reminding myself throughout the entirety of Black Rainbow that it predates Things by a the better part of a decade—beating some of the more triumphant examples of this subgenre, like 2014’s superb The Guest (which is the perfect distillation of this concept into a modern environment), 2015’s It Follows (which helped popularize the style in the mainstream, paving the way for Stranger Things, IT, and many others), and M83’s 2011 “Midnight City“-“Reunion“-“Wait” video cycle (which, for my money, is probably the purest and most beautiful example). So while Black Rainbow was ahead of the curve, riding the wave before the tide came in, its reversion to a more typical kind of 80s horror in its final minutes isn’t surprising or, to my mind, detrimental. Like the film overall, its magic (and madness) lies in invoking the rhetorical space of one concept and juxtaposing it with a dissonant one. For me, the best example of this is when the film forsakes its hypnotic droning during the emergence of the Sentionaut for a more evocative, almost peppy motif. It’s not just an auditory break in the—for lack of a better term—monotony, but its visuals as well, with the emergence of a Daft-Punk-by-way-of-Dave-Bowman entity into the Kubrickian ascetic aesthetic that permeates the film.
My roommate and I joked that the script for Black Rainbow was probably about 15 pages long, full of directions like “[droning]“, “[higher pitched droning]“, and “[buzzing]“. We got a kick out of the film, despite his general objection to films like this that he considers “self-indulgent.” Here’s a direct quote: “I”m really liking this movie, despite its best attempts to make me hate it.” Also: “See, this is what I thought Raw was going to be, which is why I resisted it for so long. Is this what Neon Demon was like?” And one from me, from the scene in which Elena (slooooowly) telekinetically crushes the head of Margo, the cruel nurse: “Man, they should have called this movie Scannerzzzzzzz.” It’s strange, because I often find myself drawn to movies that I would consider to be feature-length music videos and completely immerse myself in their worlds (Oblivion is a film I would consider to be part of this list, although it has a lot more going on narratively than most examples, even if said plot is fairly run-of-the-mill), but he and I both found Black Rainbow entrancing and sometimes it pushes you right out of the moment. What he calls “self-indulgent” I would consider to be more bathetic: many of the moments of Dr. Nyle staring into the middle distance hold on a frame (or thirty) too long, effectively losing the tension instead of sustaining it. Granted, this is a matter of interpretation, and likely has more to do with environment and frame of mind than the filmmaker’s intention. It’s all intentional and demonstrates a masterful ability of filmcrafting, not to mention a fearlessness when it comes to creating a piece of art that will not only be “niche,” but actively and viscerally rejected by the majority of the filmgoing audience. Black Rainbow is exactly the kind of sententious film that I imagine making, all maximal style and minimally substantive, hearkening back to the visual and visceral horror (that which was viewed and that which was imagined) of my youth, more imitative and moody than necessary. I would make a much worse movie, however.
One of the things that caught my attention in reading about the film after screening it was that director Cosmatos would often walk the horror aisle of the video rental shop and have to imagine what the film was like based on the cover and the title alone, as renting them was forbidden. This, too, I did as a child, and I vividly remember the giant cardboard standee of Silence of the Lambs and the cover art for Chopping Mall and So I Married an Axe Murderer (my imagined version of this was neither better nor worse than the real thing, but it was certainly gorier). Black Rainbow owes a lot of its plot (such as it is) to re-imagined bits and pieces of various 70s and 80s media, most notably taking visual inspiration from 2001 and borrowing most of the plot from a mishmash of Altered States (notably the mutation from psychedelic and hallucinatory experimentation), Akira, Firestarter, The Fury, and even a little bit of D.A.R.Y.L. with visual flair from Poltergeist for good measure. CC, do you think that this borrowing of visuals and ideas from other films strengthens or weakens Rainbow? What are some of the visuals that came from elsewhere that I’ve overlooked? (For instance, I know I’ve seen that mutant before, and the glowing pyramid, but I can’t figure out their origin.) Would the film have benefited from using more original concepts and ideas, or would that have missed the point?
CC: As a lifelong sci-fi fan, I really love the current trend of atmospheric horror filtered through half-remembered nightmares and analog equipment [see: The Void (2016), Berbarian Sound Studio (2012), We Are the Flesh (2016), High-Rise (2015), The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears (2013), and Too Many Cooks (2014)]. Beyond the Black Rainbow predated these films by at least a couple years and really set the stage for things to come. I think that for a film so sparing with dialogue and narrative explanations, having those familiar visual and auditory clues gave viewers something to grasp onto. In my case, I really latched onto Beyond the Black Rainbow‘s use of the popular 80s trope of children either in danger or the source of danger (which I have already mentioned in the last MotM as one of my favorite tropes). (Also, thank you Mark for sending us those M83 videos! They had completely escaped my radar.)
I think we’ve all done a good job so far of identifying the specific cinematic influences and tropes in Beyond the Black Rainbow, so I’ll address the weirder influences I noticed. Looking back at my notes on the Sentionauts (terrifying helmeted golems of red leather and black plastic), I wrote down Garth Nix’s book Shade’s Children, a 1997 YA novel where it is revealed that the gigantic humanoid soldiers (myrmidons) engineered by the bad guys are actually captured human children who are sterilized by excessive steroid use and put inside mind controlling mechsuits, which is a pretty good description of those things in the red suits. And, Mark, as for the zombie mutant she encounters, I keep trying to figure out what it looks most like and it’s a three-way tie between Dr. Pretorious in From Beyond, Bib Fortuna from Star Wars, and a neomorph.
I’ve never had an issue with a film borrowing the style or ideas from another movie, unless it constantly tells you it’s doing it [see: Deadpool]. Todd Haynes’s Far From Heaven and Wes Craven’s Scream are both examples of loving tributes to their source material and exemplary works in their own right. I feel like the endless rebooting, remaking, and remixing we’re seeing in popular cinema today is a natural outgrowth of post-Modernism and a defining characteristic of our cultural landscape; it’s not necessarily good or bad on principle (even though the films produced may certainly be judged on their own merits). We have access to so many sources of inspiration nowadays that a person can be influenced by the non-Euclidian angles of German Expressionist cinema and the garbage bin unsavoryness of 1980s video nasties. Pastiche is a way for filmmakers to explore the ideas that they’re most interested in through the visual language they were influenced by. In writing, pastiche is often used to better hone your own voice because using an exaggerated version of another author or genre’s style can help you figure out what’s unique about your work. It’s a useful tool.
Britnee, we keep looping back to all the ways Beyond the Black Rainbow pulls from other sources, but never really talk about what makes it original. Even though it is in constant dialogue with its influences, I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen anything quite like it. But maybe I’m wrong? In your opinion, what are, if any, the unique elements of this film?
Britnee: I don’t know if there’s something seriously wrong with me, but when I reflect on everything that happened in Beyond the Black Rainbow, my brain immediately goes to the scene where Barry’s wife, Rosemary, is caught sleeping/meditating (don’t ever let Barry catch you sleeping!), and she comes out of her trance to say, “If you’re hungry, there’s some brown rice and steamed asparagus in the refrigerator.” A leftover meal of brown rice and steamed asparagus is just as bland as the relationship between Barry and Rosemary, which is one of the more unique elements of the film. Sure, a miserable marriage in cinema is nothing out of the ordinary, but the way in which Barry and Rosemary communicate with each other is unlike anything I’ve really seen before. Rosemary makes only a few small appearances, but in each one, it’s obvious that she is terrified of Barry. After all, he is the living definition of a creep. Her fear of Barry is present in the way she speaks, her body language, and her mental state when she is in his presence. It’s not the type of fear that would lead one to believe he’s an abusive husband, but it’s more of a fear that he’s some sort of creature, keeping her captive in a remote house in the woods. Rosemary plays such a minor role in the film, and I’m amazed at how much of her character impacted me.
Another element that is unique to Beyond the Black Rainbow is the transitions between scenes. It reminds me a lot of the nuclear shadows caused by the bombing at Hiroshima. The slow transitions burned images from one scene into the next, and it was difficult to tell when they disappeared completely. I was hypnotized as I kept my focus on Elena’s face and it turned into a mere shadow in the bright, neon red screen before shifting to Barry lingering around the Aboria Institute. The way these scene transitions slowed my breathing and relaxed my muscles was super weird, but I was really into it.
Barry’s obsession with Elena has been sitting in the back of my mind for a while. He seems to get some sort of erotic pleasure from her, but I can’t figure out if it’s because he loved her mother or if he’s a sadist that gets off on her pain. Brandon, what are your thoughts on Barry’s fascination with Elena? Is she merely an experiment he’s highly interested in or is there something else going on?
Brandon: It’s difficult to say what any character in Beyond the Black Rainbow is thinking or feeling, since the film’s basic narrative is so opaque & stubbornly vague. The most emotion I sensed from Barry throughout the film was a seething resentment for everyone around him, almost in a macho midlife crisis reaction to the monotony his life had devolved into. The three women in Barry’s life (his captive Elena, his eternally sleepy housewife Rosemary, and his bumbling coworker/subordinate Margo) all receive the same hushed, barely-restrained anger from him, so it’s difficult to say if his resentment of & fixation on Elena is any different in tone than the mood he projects elsewhere in his miniscule social circle. The only insight we get into why he’s so corrosively resentful is in the flashback to the mysterious LSD ritual that transformed him (Altered States-style) into a new, inhuman beast. In a literal sense, Elena is a prisoner to the Arboria Institute’s experiments, as she’s physically held captive under Barry’s “care” (via the glowing pyramid contraption). To an extent, Barry himself is a figurative prisoner of the same experiment. He’s continuing the work of the decrepit, senile Dr. Arboria long after the research meant to achieve “serenity through technology” had demonstrably, disastrously failed. Elena personifies to Barry a failed experiment that he must see to the daily monotony of continuing out of habit & lack of other options. He’s technically freer than Elena to roam wherever he likes, but they’re both stuck on either side of the same observation glass, prisoners to the same never-ending, increasingly pointless research. That must be a difficult daily monotony to subscribe to after “looking into the Eye of God” in the earlier LSD experiment where he was the subject, a frustration he nastily takes out on everyone around him.
What I find most interesting about Barry’s seething, resentful anger is how it contrasts with the deep, unending despair suffered on Elena’s side of the glass. Elena is not afforded nearly as much backstory as Barry (read: any), yet Eva Bourne’s physical performance of total emotional devastation in the role conveys the full severity of what she’s feeling. I had remembered Beyond the Black Rainbow as being less plotty and less emotional than Mandy, but after this revisit I’m not convinced that’s entirely true. Between Barry’s resentful anger & Elena’s silent anguish, Beyond the Black Rainbow traffics in plenty of extreme emotional expression; it’s just not the aspect of the film that stuck with me most on first watch. Boomer, did any of the emotional havoc wrought by the Arboria Institute’s experiments on this small, quiet cast of characters resonate with you on your own initial viewing or was all of that effect overwhelmed by the film’s sensory pleasures and nostalgic genre throwbacks?
Boomer: Although I share Britnee’s enthusiasm for Rosemary (largely because the actor looked so familiar and I just could not place her until I looked her up; she was one of the representatives on the Quorum in the rebooted Battlestar Galactica!), the person I most connected to was Margo. It’s not that I was fond of her at all—she was cruel, almost needlessly so. In fact, the general emptiness of the institute and her presence in it was telling. Maybe “vacancy” is a better word than “emptiness,” since it’s not just the largeness of the space that’s so effective, it’s the extent to which it’s obvious to the audience that this space was designed for many more people than just Barry, his captive, and his single employee—break rooms, cafeterias, etc. The other staff is long gone, hopefully having moved on to other opportunities and not turned into mutants, but either way, Margo sticking it out for the long haul after all of her colleagues departed or were destroyed is troubling. Even the discovery of Barry’s incomprehensible journals (the only part of which that stays on screen long enough to have an impact is the word “spermy,” which is nauseating), although it freaks her out for a moment, has no lasting power, as she’s back to doing her nefarious master’s bizarre bidding almost immediately.
It’s in that following scene that Margo becomes so much more menacing than Barry, albeit more subtly. She turns on the charm with Elena, becoming warm and almost maternal. In an uncanny approximation of playfulness, she asks Elena to show her what she has in her hands. Elena hides the supposed photo of her mother, refusing to give it up. I’ve seen this scene many times, in which a warm authority figure tries to draw out a withdrawn child; notably, the TV show Fringe (which can be reductively but not-inaccurately described as “the post-9/11 X-Files by way of Altered States) uses this a few times, when victim-of-childhood-experimentation-turned-FBI-agent Olivia Dunham interacts with pretty much any kid on the show. In this scene, however, you’re almost tricked into thinking Margo might be sincere, before she rips the photo from Elena’s hands and destroys it, leading to her own undoing. She’s the evil stepmother of this particular neon-drenched 80s fairy tale, and her immediate comeuppance is a mirror of her destructiveness. It’s really effective, and I think it’s actually the best acting we see in the film. Elena’s anguish is palpable; Barry’s fury is understated. Margo’s convictions and desires are still completely opaque, and this small moment of misdirection and cruelty is far more intriguing than the, as noted above, kind of obvious “killer chases the final girl through the woods” conclusion. Maybe it’s that this scene, like the Sentionauts scene, is an island of something different happening amidst the (intentional) monotony; after scene upon scene in which the only audio is a persistent and constant drone, the Sentionaut appears, accompanied by a gothy synth organ that calls to mind Claudio Simonetti or Ennio Morricone, Likewise, the scene with Margo is a rare event of explicitly human emotion happening amidst all of the inhuman ones.
CC, what did you think of Margo, who is arguably the most dynamic character in the film? Did her scenes speak to you the way they did to me, or am I latching onto something that’s not really there? What do you think her motivation was to keep working at this facility long after she had any reason to? Was it fear? Inertia? Something else?
CC: As a character, Margo did appear to be the only being within the film capable of acting and lying (or at least lying convincingly) and generally showed a wider range of emotions than Elena (blank and despondent), Barry (cold and furious), and Rosemary (sleepy and confused). To be honest, I never really thought about Margo after her (deserved) demise. Perhaps I dismissed her as a Nurse Ratched-type, a sadistic nurse who gets off on torturing their patients? When I look back at her scenes I find her so disgusted and pissed at Elena (and to be fair, Elena does give Margo a nosebleed with her telekinesis) that perhaps her later sadism towards Elena is not because she is evil or a sadist, but just because she’s an exhausted, put-upon woman who works for a psychopath and is the caretaker of a child that would love to blow her head off. Perhaps any of us would resort to crumpling a child’s only photo of her mom, if said child gave us nosebleeds every time we walked them back to their cell or if we were in charge of keeping a child in a cell so that a monster could conduct “experiments” that judging from his “notes” were mostly about reproductive organs, snippets of text like, “after she was drugged, she slept for 2 days”, and drawings of the third eye. But why stick with a job that turns you into a monster in the first place? You never get the sense that Margo wants to be there or that she’s contributing to the “vision” of the Arboria Institute. Barry, with his “appliances” and sexual obsession with Elena, is an obvious villain, but maybe the real evil in Panos Cosmatos’s film is the banal sadism of a person who doesn’t even know why they are participating in what is an obviously terrible situation.
Britnee, speaking of obsessive relationships, let’s talk about Panos Cosmatos’s obsession with films-within-films. He’s only made two movies so far, but both have featured fully realized short films (an infomercial for the Arboria Institute in Beyond the Black Rainbow and a mind-melting commercial for boxed pasta in Mandy). Do you ever get too into the fake films? In Hamlet 2 and Hunky Dory, both films about putting on a theatrical production, I always really want to watch the play instead of snippets of rehearsals between scenes of the actual film. Do you ever wish there were full-length versions of all these little things Cosmatos has obviously put so much work into?
Britnee: Speaking of the Arboria Institute infomercial, it reminded me of the “Behold the Coagula” infomercial in Get Out. Both give a quick background of each horrific institution and are significant pieces in their respective films. As for the question at hand, I could see the Arboria Institute infomercial as a sci-fi short film, but I think it would be kind of boring. Dr. Aboria’s voice sounds like a lame high school teacher, so having to listen to that for more than the three minutes in isolation would be a nightmare.
The Cheddar Goblin commercial in Mandy is a totally different story. With less than a minute of screen time, the Cheddar Goblin is the breakout star of the year. That cheesy little monster managed to sneak his way into our hearts, and he is practically an American icon at this point. I would love to see a feature length film about the Cheddar Goblin, presumably as would anyone else who has seen Mandy. Where did he come from and why does he want to eat macaroni & cheese only to immediately puke it up? We deserve to have these questions answered.
Brandon: This years-delayed reassessment of Cosmatos’s debut felt more or less mandatory in light of his recent follow-up, so I was both immensely pleased by how well it holds up and relieved that everyone on the crew reacted positively to its sparse, beguiling charms. Just like Mandy, this is a beautiful, amusingly absurd bummer that I couldn’t fault anyone for dismissing as self-indulgent fluff even though I love it dearly. After the refresher, I’m not even sure I could pick a favorite between Cosmatos’s two features; I mostly just feel spoiled that we get to have them both.
Britnee: I seriously thought that Christian Bale was Barry Nyle until I looked up the movie on IMDb three days or so after initially watching it. I even had a conversation with my coworker that went something along the lines of “Hey, I watched this weird Christian Bale movie the other night called Beyond the Black Rainbow. You should check it out!” Perhaps I need some of the Aboria Institute’s services.
Boomer: I know I mentioned a lot of different pieces of media with regards to what this reminded me of, but I’ve finally got my roommate watching Fringe, and I honestly cannot recommend it highly enough. If you’re pressed for time, you can use Den of Geek’s roadmap for the series so you don’t have to watch every episode, as long as you go back and watch all the way through someday.
CC: Mark, I have a potential glowing pyramid visual reference, but this one is pretty niche. Do any of y’all remember the 1987-1991 NBC sci-fi sitcom Out of this World? No? I certainly do! The conceit is that our protagonist Evie Ethel Garland suddenly gains magical powers on her 13th birthday (Teen Witch much?) that cause all kinds of wacky mischief. She finds out that powers are inherited from her space alien father, voiced by Burt Reynolds, who was called back to his home planet when she was a baby. They really like to stress he is NOT a deadbeat dad; he reluctantly returned to fight in an intergalactic war. To communicate with his daughter while she learns about her powers, he gives her a glowing prism that is essentially a walkie-talkie. I should note that it does look more like a stack of clear cubes in a vaguely octahedron shape, BUT there are a bunch of glowing alien pyramids in the insane theme sequence:
Also, weird/fun MoTM tie-in, Evie’s best friend on Out of this World is played by actress Christina Nigra, who co-stars in next month’s MotM Cloak & Dagger!