Bumblebee (2018)

It is exceedingly rare for me to ever abandon a movie-watching project. I will occasionally drag my feet on some of my more daunting endeavors (for instance, it’s been five months since my last entry in my eternally ongoing Roger Ebert Film School series), but fully abandoning something once I’ve started is against my character as a self-flagellating completist. There is one major exception I can think of that contradicts this personal ethos, however: Michael Bay’s Transformers series. After catching a brief glimpse of a giant robot fighting a robo-dinosaur with an enormous sword (or some such exciting frivolity) in the trailer for a late-franchise sequel to Michael Bay’s Transformers, I decided to run through all five films in the series to see what I had been “missing out” on. I abandoned the project after just one movie, genuinely unable to continue. Between the soul-deadening CGI action, Shia LaBeouf’s “Ain’t I a stinker?” mugging, and the endless shots of Michael Bay drooling over Megan Fox’s exposed midriff, the 2007 film Transformers defeated me like no other cinematic monstrosity I can recall. I’m recounting this here to explain why the spin-off Bumblebee is such an unfathomably effective rehabilitation for the Transformers series. I can’t think of a big-budget franchise with a more drastic tonal turnaround that this wholesome, adorable spin-off to a series previously defined by broad, obnoxious machismo & cynical commercialism. I went into Bumblebee defeated by & disgusted with the Transformers; I left wanting to adopt one as a pet & a bestie.

A major factor of this turnaround is the change in creative voices in front of & behind the camera. Michael Bay is still writing (and cashing) checks as a producer on Bumblebee, but directing duties have been passed off to Laika mastermind Travis Knight, whose previous film Kubo and the Two Strings was one of Swampflix’s favorite movies of 2016. Knight’s expertise in animated storytelling is extremely useful in the CGI action sequences of the Transformers brand. The complexity of a sentient robot unfolding & rearranging its various parts to reassemble as a common automobile in these movies is usually sidestepped by making the visual display so bewildering that it’s impossible to coherently nitpick (or even observe) what’s on display. Not only does Knight clear up this visual clutter (once described as a “Cubist” use of CGI by an overzealous critic) with a clarity & simplicity in Bumblebee‘s action sequences; he also enhances them with the heartfelt emotional core that informs Laika’s consistently endearing output. That shift from horny leering & macho fist-pumping to genuine emotional investment in the film’s characters is likely also somewhat due to something never before seen in the Transformers franchise: a female screenwriter, Christina Hodson. Between Hodson’s writing & Knight’s emotive eye, Bumblebee doesn’t even take the time to salivate over the young, exposed body of its main female character (a teenage loner played by The Edge of Seventeen‘s Hailee Steinfeld). That’s a depressingly low bar to clear, but given Transformers‘s track record it’s remarkable all the same. Bumblebee even goes a step further by making that female character the POV-commanding protagonist, so that we care about her thoughts, her emotions, and her personal growth. Go figure.

Steinfeld stars in Bumblebee as an amateur car mechanic in 1980s California whose hobbies include working on a half-finished sports car her father left behind when he passed away & brooding alone to The Smiths instead of engaging with her surviving family. This teenage-brooding crisis turns around when she discovers and fixes up a VW Beetle abandoned in her uncle’s junkyard. What she doesn’t know (but the audience does) is that the Beetle in question is actually an alien transforming robo-species from a distant planet who is damaged & scared. This mismatched pair, the alien robot & the teenage mechanic who adopts it, teach each other strength, confidence, and familial love in a relatively small, contained story that happens to also include a bloodthirsty Cold War American government & a warring alien robo-species who want nothing but to tear them apart & destroy them. The story that unfolds from there is heavily informed by 80s & 90s kids’ movies clichés: resentment over a single-parent’s ability to move on; the big bad government’s stubborn insistence on destroying an adorable creature it doesn’t understand; the same-old 80s high school bully archetypes we’ve seen echoed & parodied into oblivion over the decades, etc. It’s a nostalgic 80s lens that naturally derives from the film’s Spielbergian schmaltz in its story about an E.T.-esque naive creature who needs help from an Earth child to find strength & find a path home. It’s a template that’s been repeated in titles as beloved as The Iron Giant & as lowly as Monster Trucks because, on a basic level, it just works. Even without this franchise’s origins as an adaptation of 80s Hasbro action figures, Bumblebee’s indulgence in 1980s Spielbergian nostalgia (along with tossed-off references to pop culture touchstones like Alf & The Breakfast Club) would still be more than justified, as it’s reinforced with a surprisingly genuine emotional core.

There are plenty of smaller details to praise about Bumblebee: John Cena’s turn as the broad The Marine-esque villain, the endearingly playful 80s pop soundtrack, the oversized emotions conveyed by the titular robot’s gigantic anime eyes, etc. Mostly, though, this film is remarkable for finding such an adorable & heartfelt angle on something that was initially so obnoxiously nasty it appeared fundamentally flawed & irredeemable. When Bumblebee crash-lands into this wholesome 80s kids’ adventure movie from his home planet, it feels like he’s fleeing the intergalactic clutches of Michael Bay’s libido & garishly rendered CGI. We’re as lucky to have him as the teenage loner who discovers him & fixes him up. It’s just too bad we can’t also hug him through the screen ourselves to show proper thanks.

-Brandon Ledet

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The Wild Boys (2018)

The long-vintage buzzword “genderfuck” might be an outdated term that’s since been replaced by descriptors like “genderfluid” & “non-binary,” but I can’t think of a better way to describe the nightmare fantasy piece The Wild Boys. If any movie was ever genderfucked, it’s this one. In a way, the outdated status of the term (combined with its confrontational vulgarity) only makes it more of a perfect fit. The Wild Boys feels like an adaptation of erotica written on an intense mushroom trip 100 years ago. All of its psychedelic beauty & nightmarish sexual id is filtered through an early 20th Century adventurers’ lens, feeling simultaneously archaic & progressive in its depictions & subversions of gender & sexuality. It looks like Guy Maddin directing an ancient pervert’s wet dream, both beautifully & brutally old-fashioned in its newfangled deconstruction of gender. As an art film oddity & a transgressive object, The Wild Boys lives up to the “wild” descriptor in its title in every conceivable way, delivering everything you could want from a perplexing “What the fuck?” cinematic sideshow. More importantly, though, the film is thoroughly, deliberately genderfucked – a freshly radical act of nouveau sexual politics represented through the tones & tools of the ancient past.

In The Wild Boys, adult femme actors play unruly young boys who are punished for their hedonistic crimes in a magical realist fashion that violates their gender & sexuality. Untamable rapist hooligans who act like the Muppet Babies equivalent of the masked ruffians of A Clockwork Orange, the boys find themselves in legal trouble when their depravity results in the death of a drama teacher after an especially lewd rehearsal of Macbeth. They’re punished with the same boot camp treatment unruly teens are subjected to on shows like Maury – shipped off for behavioral rehab with a mysterious, authoritative sea captain who claims he can reform the worst boys you can throw at him. The captain takes them on a journey that’s part Edgar Rice Burroughs colonialist fantasy & part William S. Burroughs genderfucked eroticism. They reach a giant oyster-shaped island overgrown with perverse sexual delights: phallic tree flowers that spurt delicious milky liquids, vaginal shrubbery that sexually clasps around human lovers like penis fly traps, testicle-shaped fruits that transform the bodies of those who consume them. It’s in that fruity transformation where the nature of their punishment and the point of the women-cast-as-boys conceit starts to make sense – as much as anything in this deliberately obscured art house fantasy ever could.

The Wild Boys is more of a sensory indulgence than a logical narrative. Silent Era cinematic textures & stark washes of purple lighting recall the intensely artificial, tenderly pornographic tableaus of James Bidgood’s art photography. It’s the same kind of intimate, gay, surreal imagery that obsessed Todd Haynes in early New Queer Cinema features like Poison. Boys’ drunken playfighting devolves into operatically beautiful orgies among a continuous drizzle of soft pillow-feathers. Out-of-proportion rear projection backdrops fill the screen with old-fashioned romanticism. As erotic & alluring as the film’s sexuality can be, however, The Wild Boys is also a work of intense supernatural menace. Gigantic tattooed dicks, dogs with glowing human faces, and an all-powerful demonic glitter-skull named TREVOR overpower the setting’s more paradisiac delights. The boys are forced to ask tough questions like “How much hairy testicle fruit can you possibly eat?” and “What will you do with your dick once it falls off?” Sex alternates between violence & sensual pleasure in an uncomfortable, artificial sensibility more befitting of delirious erotica than anything resembling real life. The resulting effect falls somewhere between Guy Maddin & Bruce LaBruce – a decidedly not-for-everyone-but-definitely-for-someone combination if there ever was one.

If recommending The Wild Boys in the 90s I might have told you to go get genderfucked. If recommending it 100 years ago I might have told you to save it for a stag party where you trusted no one would call the cops. The film’s sexuality, gender, and violence are of both those eras and, paradoxically, very much of the zeitgeist now. I guess that’s the quality that prompts people to call a work of art “timeless”, but I can’t refer to this movie as anything but hopelessly, beautifully fucked.

-Brandon Ledet

2.0 (2018)

There’s a cinematic downtime in the post-Thanksgiving afterglow, when Major Oscar contenders have not yet arrived in smaller markets and Falls’ big-budget blockbusters have long outworn their welcome, leaving little to be excited about on local big screens. This entertainment void can sometimes lead to risky programming choices, like walking into an Indian sci-fi action epic with no preparation or context for what you’re watching. I saw the Tamil-language “Kollywood” production 2.0 in 3D as a total blind-purchase. I didn’t even know it was a sequel to the 2010 film Endhiran until I recognized its superhero character Chitti from “viral content’ memes of its predecessor’s more ludicrous scenes. The heroic android Chitti does not arrive until at least an hour into the film. The full nature & history of the supervillain he’s tasked to disarm is withheld for even longer. As such, I had absolutely no idea what direction 2.0’s sprawling 3-hour narrative was going to swerve at any point, making for one of the most satisfying cinematic experiences I’ve had all year. I don’t know how well that experience will translate to people who have already seen Endhiran or have a better familiarity with the peculiar structure & tones of a typical Kollywood sci-fi action comedy. Even reading this review before seeing 2.0 compromises your chance to replicate the experience. All I can report is that I was shocked & delighted throughout this go-for-broke live action cartoon.

I was already pleased with my blind purchase of a 2.0 ticket as soon as its opening credits, which are constructed like the kind of 3D virtual reality “rollercoaster” that people used to go gaga for at Disney World in the early aughts. That cheap-thrills amusement park ride through the “futuristic” opening credits is then disrupted by an incredibly bleak simulation of an entirely different VR experience: a first-person POV suicide. A gloomy old man hangs himself by a noose from a cellphone tower, birds swarming around his swinging body in a pitch-black tonal shift. His damned spirit then somehow uses the amplification of the cellphone tower to confiscate & spiritually possess all the world’s smartphones as revenge for the planet’s modern ills that drove him to suicide. 2.0 quickly reveals itself to be a gleefully over-the-top participant in my pet favorite genre territory: the technophobic cyberthriller about the Evils of the Internet. Our freshly-minted Luddite ghost is righteously angry about the ways cellphone towers have disrupted the lives & flight patterns of birds, so he hacks/haunts every phone he can gather to attack the very men who have greedily traded in bird lives for profit. Smartphones gather in slow-creeping blankets that cover entire rooms & roads, surrounding their bird-killing capitalist targets and eventually exploding them from the inside in moments of Cronenbergian body horror. Only one force is considered effective enough to subdue this supernatural birds’ rights activist: everyone’s favorite superhero android Chitti, whom I’ve honestly ever heard of despite his worldwide heroic acclaim.

Chitti’s universally lovable superheroics play like a silly joke – and it’s hilarious. The same slightly pudgy, middle aged actor who plays the scientist who created Chitti, Rajinikanth, also doubles as the superhero robot – distinguished as a piece of future-tech by his shiny silver jacket & knockoff Oakley sunglasses. He looks like someone’s milquetoast uncle snuck into one of those creepy Duracell commercials from the 90s, like the mild-mannered sitcom equivalent of Max Headroom. He travels by metal-gear heelies, leaving a comically unimpressive trail of sparks behind him as he zips around the city. He’s also supported by updated Chitti models that allow Rajinikanth­­ to stretch his acting chops in high-concept questions like “What if Chitti was a macho asshole?” or “What if Chitti were tiny & cute?” The deliriously over-the-top fun of Chitti’s mugging-at-the-camera superheroics is enough of a sugary blast to make you forget that 2.0 was once a grim, violent cyber-horror about vengefully possessed smartphones. The way the two halves of that divide clash in a giant go-for-broke superhero climax is far sillier, wilder, and more memorable than anything you’ll find in the MCU. The more I watch big-budget Asian cinema the more I understand that it’s common for a single movie to touch on as many genres it can instead of sticking to just one. 2.0 lives up to that ethos, melding technophobic sci-fi, Environmentalist political advocacy, ghost-possession horror, android-on-android romance, slapstick farce, superhero action spectacle, and philosophical debate about the power of positivity into one lumbering, silly-ass beast. It almost doesn’t matter if you aren’t already familiar with Chitti or the usual modes of Kollywood filmmaking; the movie will go out of its way to entertain you in any way it can, even if it means concluding on a Dirty Computer-esque sci-fi music video that blows through the entire budget of an indie feature in just a few minutes.

I look forward to reviewing Chitti’s previous adventures in Endrihan and exploring similarly over-the-top Kollywood action spectacles, but I’m also glad I was able to stumble into 2.0 without any contextual preparation. That’s a rare treat for a modern moviegoer. It’s so rare, in fact, that I found myself tickled by stray novelties that might have otherwise bothered me if they were something I had come to expect as cinematic norms: in-your-face 3D ad placements, Indian nu-metal, slow-motion reaction shots that hold on an extra’s face for at least a beat too long. I loved it all, both for the surprise of its novelty and for its audacity to go big & so silly. Chitti & company are 100% in on the joke, but 2.0 still commits to its ludicrous premise with full sincerity. I’d be lucky to experience that at the cinema every year.

-Brandon Ledet

Imitation Girl (2018)

I knew I was in trouble with Imitation Girl just a few minutes in, when an alien species crash-lands on Earth through a hole in the atmosphere. I’m usually very forgiving when it comes to effects work in small budget independent films, but there was just something clumsy & unsatisfying about the CGI space hole that opens in that moment. A movie about a shapeshifting space alien that takes the form of an actress it discovers on a magazine cover, Imitation Girl should be an eerie sci-fi creep-out, but the functional flatness of the way its crash-landing is rendered has all the atmospheric dread of a Sharknado sequel. Given that the actress the alien mirrors is a porn star, the film also suggests that it might have something substantial to say about identity & sex work, but it shies away from that topic in an almost bashful manner. In fact, Imitation Girl comes across super squeamish about depicting sex at all, almost to the point where it seems sex-negative about mainstream pornography as an industry. It’s a sci-fi horror film that’s reluctant to horrify, a movie about sex that’s afraid of eroticism. A more tonally intense, better crafted film could get away with those withholding impulses, but this one’s student-film flatness is too lacking in sensory pleasures to also lack those genre-specific payoffs.

What imitation Girl lacks in sexual courage & tonal intensity, it somewhat makes up for in the unpredictability of its storytelling. Not being in tune with the typical payoffs of the sci-fi horror genre allows for some surprising turns in the narrative. The doppelganger space alien does not immediately seek a confrontation with the woman whose image it cloned. It instead stumbles through the desert like an intergalactic Nell until it’s rescued by an Iranian family, who attempt to communicate with it in both Persian & English until it learns enough social skills to be able to navigate the world on its own. Meanwhile, the porn star struggles with her own confidence in independence – unsure of her profession, her choice in lovers, and her under-the-table involvement in low-level drug deals. As the audience alternates between the porn star & her space alien doppelganger, there’s sometimes a few seconds’ lag in being able to tell which version of actress ­­ we’re currently watching. It establishes a calm, unrushed rhythm in fluctuating between these two identities that’s sometimes broken by a jolting shift in reality – whether though a mirror functioning as a window or a kaleidoscopic return to the alien’s outer space roots. That’s a unique approach to genre filmmaking, although one that invites the mind to wander.

There are a couple stray elements of pure-horror at play that suggest Imitation Girl is attempting to function as an eerie sci-fi creep-out – especially in its arrhythmic strings score & early scenes of the alien doppelganger stumbling through the desert in jerky, inhuman contortions. Mostly, though, it’s a film about an identity crisis that’s having an identity crisis of its own. It wants to generate terror in the mysterious arrival of its space-alien double, but mostly leaves that journey on the backburner as the porn star goes about her daily business – stalling the alien’s story with the Iranian family for an overwhelming portion of the movie. The film wants to evoke the specificity of the mainstream porn industry to provide its central identity crisis some texture, but it’s too timid to evoke the eroticism (or terror) monetized by that trade. Its engagement with pornography as a topic comes across as remarkably old-fashioned as a result – both in its assumption that the audience finds it inherently demeaning & evil and, on a more practical level, in how it resembles a version of porno production that’s mostly faded from practice in the latest two decades. Most of the reason Imitation Girl is open for the occasional jarring surprise (Lewis Black appears in a single-scene cameo as a drug kingpin?!) is that it’s too delicately handled in its central topics for the audience to not be distracted by stray, incongruous details.

The most damming thing about Imitation Girl’s ineffectiveness is how much better its basic themes are covered in other recent sci-fi horror films. Its femme space alien identity crisis recalls the gorgeous, bone-deep creep-out of Under the Skin. Its sex worker doppelganger crisis recalls the sexed-up cyberthriller vibes of Cam. All Imitation Girl can do is surprise in its deviations from the expectations set by those contemporaries. Unfortunately, those deviations mostly arrive in its tonal & sexual timidity and its deployment of SyFy Channel-level CGI.

-Brandon Ledet

Beyond the Dark Star, Before the Black Rainbow

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).

-Brandon Ledet

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

Empty Metal (2018)

There aren’t many ways left for small-budget indie cinema to truly upset or transgress, but advocating for direct, violent political action is certainly one of them. Born in Flames’s World Trade Center-exploding conclusion has only gotten more potent since the film’s initial 1982 release. Noctruama’s stubborn refusal to condemn bomb-setting teenage terrorists in 2010s Paris is just as morally reckless as it is invigorating. Now comes Empty Metal, a no-budget crust punk sci-fi narrative that asks why we haven’t collectively retaliated against known killer-cops who’ve executed young black men like Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and Michael Brown. We know the names of their killers; we know where they live. Why hasn’t mob justice righted the wrongs that the legal system has deliberately failed? Empty Metal’s greatest strength is in its direct, assertive call for violent uprising against these vile public figures. It’s a shame some of that direct, assertive messaging is lost in such a messy, loosely edited-together sci-fi narrative that just can’t muster up the enthusiastic momentum needed to match the energy of its politics.

Where Empty Metal loses some of its tonal intensity is in its early stabs at a crust-punk scene satirical humor. A noise trio named Alien talks a big radical game about changing the world through their political but unfocused music. Yet, they can’t even hold the attention of peers on their local scene, who wander off gazing at their smartphones during the band’s debut set. The mockery of a radical-politics punk band wasting their time on a go-nowhere art project instead of direct, tangible action is on-point. However, the band’s backstage dynamic lands awkwardly with jokey crust scene inside-humor, where the comedy feels like wasted time in the lead-up to the film’s much more vividly realized sci-fi thriller elements. This intense spark arrives via a trio of militias headed by Native American protestors, Rastafarian militants, and Timothy McVeigh style conspiracy theorists. By the time these militias recruit the members of Alien into direct, useful political action (read: the assassination of real-life evil public figures), the film finds a fascinating groove all of its own; but even that momentum is occasionally disrupted by fleeting moments of amateur sketch comedy.

I admire so much about Empty Metal as an inflammatory act of political filmmaking that I can’t help but be frustrated by the other ways in which it falls short. Its collage of staged drone surveillance of radical militias, computer simulations of real-life police shootings, and seemingly authentic cellphone footage of protests of events like the instillation of the Keystone Pipeline swirls into a deeply upsetting, eerie gestalt. Telepathic communication and past-tense discussion of the Apocalypse & complete societal collapse (even though the film is set in present-day) push this real-life discussion of political unrest into the realm of sci-fi & fantasy in a consistently fascinating way. The core political messaging of “We must have an enemy to exist” remains potent throughout as well, so that all the visual aesthetic experimentation feels like it’s in service of something purposeful & worthwhile. The thing about that same radical messaging in Born in Flames, though, is that it’s too relentlessly energetic to ever lose focus. In Nocturama, it’s so richly gorgeous that its moments of loose, eerie quiet still land with intense impact. Empty Metal fails to match either predecessor on those respective, disparate terms and instead risks losing its most distinct impulses on nonstarter comedic bits shared among its punk scene performers (and, later, their macho militia counterparts). I very much appreciate it political outrage, but it would have been better served if the film were either eerier or more relentlessly energetic, as opposed to comedically meandering.

-Brandon Ledet

Pig Film (2018)

Although I have no problem conceding that the legendary auteur was immensely, distinctly talented as a visual artist, I personally struggle to enjoy Andrei Tarkovsky works like Solaris or Stalker as genre film entertainment. Josh Gibson’s microbudget sci-fi indie Pig Film (which saw its U.S. premiere at the 2018 New Orleans Film Festival) has cracked that code for me, re-configuring the basic elements of a Tarkovsky genre film into something I wholeheartedly enjoy. An hour-long, black & white sci-fi musical (!) that reinvigorates the Tarkovsky aesthetic by infusing it with the grimy textures of indie genre-film classics like Eraserhead & Tetsuo: The Iron Man, Pig Film indulges in the exact amount of art film pretension I can stomach before I start rolling my eyes. A lean, self-contained industrial nightmare that only disrupts its pensive oceans of silence for moments of ethereal, operatic beauty, Pig Film is Tarkovsky perfected – or, if you’re already a Tarkovsky convert – Tarkovsky streamlined, like a punk rock Stalker.

A mysterious, unnamed woman tends to an industrial pig farm as its only worker and, seemingly, the only person left alive. She sees to the entire life cycle of a farmed pig (from insemination to slaughter & rendering) all by her lonesome, a one-woman factory staff. Her only company is a stockpile of outdated industrial infomercials from the 1950s: real-life propaganda artifacts recorded on celluloid, projector slides, and vinyl records. Her only “spoken” dialogue is privately-sung operatic repetition of word-for-word snippets of text from those industrial artifacts, accompanied by an eerie synth soundtrack. She sings about the importance of pumping pigs full of antibiotics while vacantly executing the daily drudgery of preparing the animals for a likely non-existent post-Apocalyptic market, as if she’s learning the fundamental tenants of language & reality from these industrial ads. Her basic humanity comes into question as the film slips into an unmistakable sci-fi horror tone– until eventually settling for a quiet, alienating drama in a perfect closed-loop.

It’s difficult to report with any certainty whether Pig Film is saying anything concrete about the meat industry or the labor class or pollution or societal collapse or any number of issues that inevitably rise given its setting. These topics mostly inform the proceedings the way anxieties & memories of daily occurrences inform the narratives of our nightmares. The degradation of the picture quality (as it was shot entirely on expired, second-hand film stock) combines with the grimy art-instillation surreality of its pig farm setting to establish an overriding sense of isolation & rot that feels more emotional & subliminal than overtly political. Human or not, our sole on-screen character is the last shred of humanity left stalking the mess of a planet we’ll soon leave behind, emptily mimicking the records of our behavior she finds in our rubble and converting that industrial garbage into beautiful song. It’s a gorgeous, grimy nightmare – a sinister poem.

I’ve already praised November & Annihilation this year for mutating the Tarkovsky aesthetic I find so frustrating as entertainment media into something I can wholeheartedly embrace. Pig Film might not ever match the distribution reach of those two (already underseen) films, but I’d just as readily recommend it with the same enthusiasm. For a director I struggle to appreciate on his own terms, Tarkovsky’s influence is becoming something I look forward to seeing updated & reinterpreted in other works. Beyond that influence, I’d recommend Pig Film to just about anyone who’d be in the market for a dreamlike, largely silent, post-Apocalyptic sci-fi opera set on a pig farm and filmed through a nauseating black & white; but that’s a much more difficult elevator pitch than “Tarkovsky, but concise,” or “Stalker, but punk.”

-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

Drive-in Era Genre Efficiency in The Earth Dies Screaming (1964)

Accessibility to a wide range of movie & television options in the online steaming era has made freedom of choice to be something of an overwhelming burden. There’s too much media to watch and not nearly enough time to even to distinguish which titles are worth the effort. This constant deluge of “content” has created a fascinating attention span phenomenon in the modern media consumer. We’ve reached a cultural paradox where audiences are reluctant to venture to the theater for a three hour film with a serious topic, but will happily binge dozens of hours of a mediocre television show on Netflix or Hulu merely for the convenience of its availability. Genre filmmakers & schlock peddlers of old have dealt with this exact attention span problem in the past, especially when they were catering to the teenage numbskulls who packed drive-in theaters to make out & party in the 1950s & 60s. In the modern streaming era, drive-in schlock has once again become a pertinent form of entertainment. Not only are many films of that era now available for easy (although frequently illegal) access on sites like YouTube; they’re also short & to the point. With over-the-top premises engineered to grab dumb teens’ attention in titles like Billy the Kid vs. Dracula & Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster, these films would typically stretch out only to an hour in length a piece, so that they could easily be stacked in a drive-in double bill. The convenience of being able to watch a goofy, high concept horror in an hour’s time is just as appealing now as it is likely was for anxious-to-neck teens half a century ago. You could gobble down an entire feature in the same amount of time it would take to watch a single episode of Stranger Things (and one that would require about the same amount of brain power).

The problem with a lot of drive-in era schlock, of course, is that the films themselves are often far more dull than what’s promised in their advertising. Old school genre film promoters lived & died by the ethos that it was far more important to get eyes on the screen (and, thus, cash in the register) than it was to deliver a high quality product. Many films with an eye-catching title & a killer poster would stop short when it came to actually entertaining audiences, since their job was already done before the first reel spun. Much like the majority of modern straight-to-streaming movies & television, a lot of drive-in fare was lazy & disposable. Their sixty minute runtimes make them much easier to dig through for the gems than most other eras of genre film entertainment, however, and there were plenty of high quality schlock titles that fully delivered on the promise of their attention-grabbing advertising. I can’t think of a better example of efficient, attention-holding drive-in schlock than the 1964 British export The Earth Dies Screaming. At 62 minutes in length, The Earth Dies Screaming succinctly packs at least three sci-fi horror premises into a single genre picture. It’s a cheap production that effectively conveys the scale of a global threat to humanity while only staging its events in a small studio lot section of London. Without narration or montage, it barrels through a series of paranormal obstacles for its small cast of characters to overcome, only to move the goalposts for victory at every possible opportunity. Its violence is mostly implied, yet its effect is genuinely chilling. As convenient as the movies are to watch, most drive-in schlock admittedly doesn’t bother to deliver a decent picture that lives up to the strength of its advertising; The Earth Dies Screaming somehow delivers three in a single, succinct package.

The film opens similarly to 28 Days Later, with its main protagonist roaming London as seemingly the only human left alive. Lifeless bodies are strewn about city streets as planes, trains, and automobiles crash in stock footage spectacle without navigators. The camera pans up to the sky for a dramatic title reveal in enormous block letters: THE EARTH DIES SCREAMING. Eventually, our square-jawed American hero finds fellow British survivors emerging from the wreckage. As a group, they search TV & radio signals for answers, finding only static & the hum of a strange, menacing tone. There’s little dialogue in this earliest sequence, until the group deduces that the lifeless victims outside have suffered an attack of weaponized gas, the source of which they speculate on without much evidence. Just as they come to a conclusion on what knocked out the first wave of victims, space alien robots arrive to sweep the streets for survivors, whom they incapacitate with a single gentle touch. When the majority of the survivors escape the fate of the alien robots, the robots then raise their dead as zombie drones with whited-out eyes to complete the mission. These individual obstacles don’t even cover the off-screen aliens who are deploying these threats or the mysterious signals being broadcast over television & radio waves. The Earth Dies Screaming doesn’t even devote energy to explaining what happens next after its in-the-moment crisis is solved immediately before the end credits. It just keeps its head down & throws every monstrous evil it can conjure at the screen, any one of which could have been developed into its on individual double-bill filler.

The most impressive aspect of The Earth Dies Screaming‘s genre film efficiency is how it finds the space to allow its central mystery to breathe. Its hour-long runtime is packed tightly with a wide range of villainous monsters, yet its pace is not at all rushed. In the classic Twilight Zone tradition, characters are allowed plenty stage play dialogue to ponder the possibilities of what alien force is planning their doom. The movie is disinterested in these characters as individuals, saving time by boiling them down to archetypes: the American Hero, the pregnant damsel, the uptight aristocrat Brit, the common thief, etc. By skipping in-depth characterization, it allows for unsettling questions to linger between the physical threats of the robots & their zombies. Was it actually a gas that triggered this crisis? What is the signal being broadcast on the radio supposed to signify? Are the characters already dead & navigating some kind of purgatory? Who is their true enemy? It even telegraphs some of the paranoid in-fighting of John Carpenter’s The Thing; the characters viciously bicker in distrust of each other as they fight a common enemy they cannot see.

From the design of its robot monsters to the eerie sounds of its ambient Elisabeth Lutyens score, The Earth Dies Screaming is shockingly well-made for a production of its scale & budget. What makes it a significant work, though, is its ability to cram three movies’ worth of entertainment into the space of an hour. Whether you’re a 1960s teen hoping for extra minutes of smooching after you leave the drive-in or a 2010s serial streamer pressed for time to take it all in, there’s a tremendous value to that kind of genre film efficiency. I’ve watched entire seasons of television with fewer ideas than this film conveys in its first half hour and I greatly appreciate that it doesn’t hang around for too much longer after it gets them across.

-Brandon Ledet