Panos Cosmatos’s Overlooked Emotional Hellscapes

My most immediate reaction to Mandy when sent stumbling from the theater this past September was that it was a kind of emotional & narrative breakthrough for director Panos Cosmtos. By comparison, I had remembered his debut feature, Beyond the Black Rainbow, to be less plotty & more emotionally detached. Upon revisiting that debut with the rest of the Swampflix crew for our most recent Movie of the Month discussion, I no longer believe that to be true. There’s plenty of deeply-felt emotion running throughout Beyond the Black Rainbow; it’s just something I had forgotten in retrospect while considering the film’s more immediate surface pleasures: its gorgeous washes of color, its overwhelming synth score, its eerie psychedelic mutation of early 80s genre pastiche, etc. Beyond the Black Rainbow is just as emotionally bleak as Cosmatos’s follow-up, and both films actively subvert any potential attempts to reduce them to bro-friendly 80s genre nostalgia by sinking into those painful emotional hellscapes at a gruelingly slow pace. The colorful, synthy textures of those hellscapes wouldn’t mean a thing without that deep hurt at these two films’ cores, which is something that’s easy to forget when praising more immediately rewarding images like The Sentinauts or The Cheddar Goblin.

You would think that Mandy would be the more difficult film to take seriously on an emotional level, given its pedigree as an over-the-top Nic Cage curio. It’s easy to lose sight of the film’s pathos when praising Cage’s chainsaw-wielding revenge mission against a demonic biker gang or the fake commercial for boxed mac & cheese created by the folks behind Too Many Cooks. Mandy dares you to not take its emotional core seriously, opening with a knock-knock joke in its first lines of dialogue and interrupting Cage’s Oscar-winning mode of sad restraint for his more meme-worthy freak-out mode in a lengthy bathroom-set meltdown. Even the central narrative conflict that drives that emotional meltdown and the concluding revenge rampage recalls macho genre tropes in the home invasion & rape revenge tradition that would indicate a detachment from raw emotion in its exploitative violence. However, the central overriding tone of Mandy is emotional pain. The demonic chainsaw rampage that concludes its narrative is not made to feel satisfactory or badass, but is rather a grotesquely macho expression of frustrated emotion, an unhealthy processing of loss. The film opens in a romantic nirvana shared between Cage & Andrea Riseborough, a peaceful domesticity that cannot be fully mourned once it’s lost to the “crazy Evil” of the world outside. For a movie that’s likely to be remembered most for its heavy metal brutality & Cheddar Goblin buffoonery, that frustrated mourning commands a surprising amount of Mandy’s screentime – whether in a lengthy monologue about a traumatic childhood memory or in an extensive shot of Nicolas Cage crying through a barb wire mask, as if he were paying homage to the messages-from-home scene from Interstellar in a Hellraiser sequel.

That same tactic of lingering on silent, distraught faces was already present in Cosmatos’s arsenal in his debut. Beyond the Black Rainbow risks losing its pathos to the same macho genre pastiche & sensory pleasure indulgences as Mandy, especially in its co-option of the woman-in-captivity thriller narrative. It also loses a lot of its potential for a potent emotional core to its deliberate lack of dialogue; there are seemingly more lines spoken in Mandy’s early scene of stoney-baloney pillow-talk about outer space than there are in the entirety of Beyond the Black Rainbow. The emotional textures of the two films are also drastically opposed: Mandy finds its pathos in a violently disrupted utopia of marital bliss, while the only romantic pairing in Beyond the Back Rainbow is defined by a seething, resentful anger. It’s in that quiet, jaw-clenched resentment that Beyond the Black Rainbow finds its own tones of emotional devastation, however, depicted through the same lengthy gazing at distraught facial expressions that we’re confronted with in Mandy. Although the emotional core of Cosmatos’s debut is largely calm & silent, it’s conveyed with such devastating conviction from its two central performers (Michael Rogers & Eva Bourne) that it lands with thunderous impact. Stuck on either side of the observation glass in a go-nowhere science research project—one as captive subject and the other as studious captor—the two central characters in Beyond the Black Rainbow are visibly, absurdly miserable. The captive’s misery manifests in deep, pensive sadness while the captor’s misery takes the form of seething, resentful anger; either way, they’re both feeling a lot, which is something that might not stand out in initial viewings of the film, given the flashier, plentiful sensory pleasures that threaten to drown it out.

Panos Cosmatos has explained in interviews that he thinks of both films as art therapy – using the subliminal tools & methods of cinematic expression to cope with the loss of his parents and to reflect on the domestic tones of his own romantic life. Yikes. I don’t know that I can see any direct, concrete allegories for what he’s saying about those topics through either of these works, nor do I believe the filmmaker is even attempting to achieve that kind of direct, concrete expression. The emotional extremes of Beyond the Black Rainbow & Mandy bleed through the two films’ visual intensity as an evocation of pain & mood. It’s a much more difficult effect to pinpoint or explain that the enormity of Johann Johannsson’s score or the hilarity of The Cheddar Goblin (an image that itself is even used to contrast a character’s misery); but once you pay attention to the emotional torment at the core of Cosmatos’s art, it becomes just as deafening as anything else at play.

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 our examinations of the influences it pulled from Phase IV (1974) & Dark Star (1974).

-Brandon Ledet

 

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Beyond the Black Anthill

When I first reviewed Phase IV (1974) for this site in our earliest months of film-blogging, I approached it as a surprisingly solid 4-star effort that I expected to be much schlockier in its payoffs, given its place in the larger genre of killer-ants cinema. Upon revisiting the film to track its influence on our current Movie of the Month, Panos Cosmatos’s psychedelic freak-out Beyond the Black Rainbow, that 4-star rating reads like an insult. My engagement with Phase IV as transcendent schlock that impresses only as a subversion of genre expectations was one intensely colored by its context as an early Mystery Science 3000 victim and a participant in an often-campy killer-ants cinema tradition. Seeing the film through Cosmatos’s eyes, which often blend camp & transcendent art aesthetics until the two tones are indistinguishable, has only elevated Phase IV in my esteem. I’ve learned to disregard its alignment with genre tradition, to engage with it as a one-of-a-kind object. I now see Phase IV for what it is: one of the greatest cinematic achievement of all time, no caveats.

A significant part of Beyond the Black Rainbow’s lore involves Panos Cosmatos’s childhood trips to a video rental store in the 1980s, a holy ground named Video Addict. There he would browse the cover art images of horror movies he was too young to rent and imagine what those movies were like based on that advertising alone. His stated goal for Beyond the Black Rainbow was to create “an imaging of an old film that does not exist,” which effectively captures the film’s unique balance between nostalgic pastiche & genuinely eerie, otherworldly menace. Of course, Cosmatos has seen a movie or two since he was too young to rent those Video Addict cassettes without parental supervision, so there are plenty of actually-realized titles he also cites as a direct influence on Beyond the Black Rainbow, along with the nonexistent ones he imagined as a child: Dark Star, Manhunter, Phase IV, The Keep. Phase IV is the most illuminating citation listed among those titles, as it adds a new wrinkle to those Video Addict daydreams; there were existing old films that approximated Beyond the Black Rainbow’s general eerie psychedelia aesthetic in an era when that would have been current, not nostalgic. They were just commercial flops hardly anyone saw in their initial run.

Phase IV’s influence on Beyond the Black Rainbow’s psychedelic parascience is immediately apparent in its animated outer space intro, which feels like it could have been pulled from an infomercial for the fictional Arboria Institute. While an information dump of opening narration explains how a mysterious signal from outer space triggered an evolution & militarization of ants on Earth to usurp mankind’s place on the food chain, legendary graphic designer Saul Bass’s psychedelic visuals wash the screen in intense, saturated hues. Eventually that narration gives way to a lengthy, dialogue-free stretch of eerie, up-close nature footage of ants communicating & organizing in artificial environments to a snythy horror score. It’s a hypnotic, immersive vision of paranormal menace, one that could easily play as outdated kitsch but instead triggers a nightmarish trance. It’s the same effect that’s achieved throughout Beyond the Black Rainbow, especially in its Altered States-reminiscent LSD experiment flashback where its main antagonist “looks into the Eye of God.” It’s an effect that returns full-force in Phase IV’s psychedelic, nihilistic conclusion as well, which describes a next stage in human evolution triggered by the paranormal ants’ attacks on mankind, a much more fully-committed exercise in this spiritual psychedelia than the prankish slasher-throwback ending of Cosmatos’s film.

There are more narratively-based parallels between these two works that reach beyond their aesthetics’ similarities, despite Cosmatos’s work having nothing to do with killer ants. Like Beyond the Black Rainbow, Phase IV is mostly staged at a remote science research facility where a small cast, including a captive young woman, are disconnected from the world at large as they approach the precipice of the next stage of human evolution. Phase IV also concludes with its head researcher in a rambling, decrepit state, recalling the physical & mental degradation of Dr. Arboria in the latter half of Beyond the Black Rainbow. Still, discussing either film in terms of plot details feels entirely beside the point. These are works that largely tell their stories through the art of editing, evoking subliminal responses in their imagery more than guiding audiences through a traditional A-B narrative. Phase IV’s influence on Cosmatos’s work is most potent in its long, silent stretches where the screen is washed with color (whether the sickly yellow of pesticides or the rich reds of outer space) or filtered through the kaleidoscopic vision of the ants’ POV, repurposed from dorm poster psychedelia for a new, genuinely unnerving effect. Their narrative parallels are mostly just lagniappe.

Interestingly enough, Cosmatos’s mission of evoking “an imagining of an old film that does not exist” in Beyond the Black Rainbow is not at all at odds with its more concrete citation of Phase IV as a direct influence, when that film (as far as I can tell) actually does exist. The most Beyond the Black Rainbow reminiscent-footage from Saul Bass’s film is its “lost” alternate ending, cut by the studio before Phase IV’s release against the director’s wishes. In a four-minute montage recalling the vibrantly edited imagery of Bass’s credits-sequence design work for legendary directors like Hitchcock, the “lost” ending of Phase IV depicts the next evolution of man triggered by the ants in a dialogue-free swirl of stoney baloney imagery that matches, if not surpasses, anything depicted within the Arboria Institute in pure psychedelic potency. As Beyond the Black Rainbow was released two full years before this recovered final montage of Phase IV finally screened for the public in 2012, Cosmatos’s general estimation of those “lost” minutes’ effect & aesthetic in Beyond the Black Rainbow is just as much of an extension of his effort to imagine an old film that does not exist (at least in the public eye), as it is further proof that he & Bass were on a spiritually paralleled vibe when they made these two narratively dissonant sci-fi thrillers.

Saul Bass & Panos Cosmatos’s parallels as kindred spirits have negative connotations as well as positive ones. Phase IV was Bass’s sole feature film as a director (despite this clout as an Academy Award-Wining filmmaker for his graphic design work). It was met with middling reviews, disastrous box office, studio meddling that mutilated its ending, and eventually ironic MST3k mockery. Even now, five years after its “lost” ending was screened for select audiences, no restorative Director’s Cut of the film has been released on home video with that ending intact (or even included as a Special Feature), so that the only place to watch it is in shoddy camcorder footage on YouTube from those initial screenings. Despite the transcendent achievements of his own debut, Cosmatos has also suffered a slow road to respectability, taking a full 8-year gestation period to realize his follow-up, this year’s (more widely-seen & revered) Mandy. Cosmatos has largely survived early dismissals of his work as empty, self-indulgent nostalgia bait, but his struggle to follow up Beyond the Black Rainbow with a sophomore effort does recall Saul Bass’s own struggles to get another feature off the ground in Phase IV’s wake.

These are two visionary weirdo auteurs who invite off-hand dismissal of their sensory-suffocating art, despite delivering some of the most distinct films ever made. Even in Saul Bass’s case, I feel guilty for not taking his work seriously enough on its own terms beyond the context of my genre biases until a years-later second look. These are singular achievements that only feel familiar in their initial impact, as if we’re imaging similarities to old films that do not exist.

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.

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: Beyond the Black Rainbow (2010)

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“-“Waitvideo 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.

Lagniappe

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!

Upcoming Movies of the Month
December: Britnee presents Cloak & Dagger (1984)
January: The Top Films of 2018

-The Swampflix Crew

Mandy (2018)

For a few years now, I’ve considered Deathgasm the most authentically metal film I’ve ever seen, but Panos Cosmatos’s psychedelic freak-out Mandy may have just usurped that distinction. In Deathgasm’s version of heavy metal cinema, the demon-slaying D&D power fantasy that visually defines the genre’s iconography is depicted as decidedly fun & badass, an escape from the mundanity of teenage suburban boredom. Mandy’s vision of metal soundscapes is something much darker & more sinister, fully capturing the way a funeral-doom beat or a stoner metal riff can feel like a Hellish descent into the darkness of the human soul. Mandy dwells in metal’s emotional catharsis, bathing itself in the grotesque blood & grime of human misery. It only pauses to laugh at the absurdity of life’s continual embarrassments, finding a much more sinister humor in metal’s extremity than the gory slapstick of demon-slaying horror comedies like Deathgasm. That same absurdist humor was present in Cosmatos’s debut, the tongue-in-cheek psych horror Beyond the Black Rainbow, but the hideous emotional catharsis of this follow-up feels like new, freshly rewarding territory for the director. It also feels metal as fuck, just in a more devastating way than the badass power fantasy that descriptor may imply.

Nicolas Cage stars as Red, a gruff logger in alternate reality 1980s overrun with LSD cults, demonic bikers, and cosmic chaos. His heavy metal girlfriend (Andrea Riseborough) is the titular Mandy, an amateur fantasy artist who spends long stretches painting & drawing in the woods while Red works in remote wilderness locales. The tragic couple temporarily seal themselves away from the “crazy evil” of the outside world in a perpetual state of insular, marital bliss. We mostly see the world through Mandy’s POV in this early stretch, which filters reality through the D&D fantasy and heavy metal album cover aesthetics that also guide the art she creates & consumes. It’s in the second half of the film that reality breaks completely. The acid cults, biker demons, and cosmic menace that command the world outside take Mandy away from Red, whose grief takes on an ugly, punishing violence as he exacts grotesque vengeance on the “crazy evil” that destroyed his blissful home. On paper, the film’s plot sounds exactly like the macho revenge power fantasies that have lingered on the big screen at least since the Death Wish-style thrillers of the 1970s. In action, it’s a slow, gross descent into the hell of personal grief; nothing about Red’s revenge on the world’s Evils feels macho or badass. It’s all bleak, hopeless, and haunted by the memory of Mandy – all while monster doom riffs & washes of punishing synths (provided by recently-deceased composer Johann Johansson) overwhelm the soundtrack.

Besides its bifurcated POV, it’s the relentless overload of those brutal sights & sounds that differentiates Mandy from typical revenge thriller fare. Like in Beyond the Black Rainbow, Cosmatos throws himself head-on into the most sensory concerns of filmmaking indulgence, approximating what a Guy Maddin film might look like if you were Robo-tripping at 3am. As someone made helpless by the simple combination of synths & neon lights in any genre cinema, I was automatically charmed by the film’s punishingly loud soundtrack & washes of intense, artificial colors. Cosmatos himself seems to be taken with these indulgences even more than your average 80s-nostaglic genre enthusiast, turning the combo of neon & synths into an almost fetishistic religious ceremony. Mandy is so gorgeous & deafening that its aesthetic indulgences become a grotesque, horrifying display. This is less of a revenge thriller than it is a Hellish nightmare, a dream logic horror-show that drifts further away from the rules & sensory palettes of reality the deeper it sinks into its characters’ trauma & grief.

Like Vampire’s Kiss, Drive Angry, and Knowing before it, this is a film that’s going to be best remembered for Nic Cage’s more extravagant, meme-ready freak-outs. I highly doubt anyone solely looking to laugh at those stray dialed-to-eleven moments from the notoriously absurd actor are going to leave fully satisfied by the slow, traumatic doom metal march to oblivion they find instead. While 2018’s Mom & Dad is a meme-friendly party movie worthy of being shared with friends over beers & jeers, Mandy is more of a headphones listen, a solemn knockout that leaves you in a stupor. Nic Cage’s over-the-top, absurdist humor shines through in isolated moments of cartoonish what-the-fuckery, but when considered in the context of the hideous grief his character is working through, the effect is just as ugly as it is amusing. His performative extremism is less of a for-its-own-sake novelty than it is in service of Panos Cosmatos’s auteurist vision of a heavy-metal emotional Hell. Nic Cage may slay biker demons with a chainsaw & a self-forged axe in his personal war against religious acid freaks in a neon-lit, alternate dimension 1980s, but Mandy is not headbanging party metal. It’s more stoned-and-alone, crying over past trauma to doom riffs metal, where the flashes of fun & cosmic absurdity are only reminders of how cruelly uncaring & meaningless it can feel to be alive.

-Brandon Ledet