What the hell did I just watch? That may be the question you’ll ask yourself as an eighties style soundtrack throbs over the end credits for Beyond The Black Rainbow. It’s science fiction, but — in these days of guns, aliens, spaceships and Bladerunner wannabes — not as we know it.
Set at some point in the early nineteen-eighties (made clear by the style of clothes and occasional shots of then US president, Ronald Reagan, on TV screens, plus the numbers “1983” in huge typeface at the beginning of the movie), a doctor runs a spiritual, new age institute. It’s perhaps the least well staffed building ever: there is just him and one nurse. This may be because there only seems to be one patient, a girl with telepathic powers.
Is the doctor trying to treat her, or is he grooming her for something altogether more dangerous? The institute, introduced with a scratchy videotape advert, certainly seems to have started with the right intentions, however woolly minded they might seem to us in the year 2012. But over time, it seems its ideals have become corrupted. There’s something sinister about the experiments that now take place under its roof. And that’s putting it mildly.
The mother lode
The appearance of Ronald Reagan, other than anchoring Beyond The Black Rainbow in a specific time, suggests the possibility that the institute has ties to government. The movie perhaps draws inspiration from the various thought control experiments supposedly performed by the CIA from the 1950s through to the 1970s, to develop alternate weapons against the Soviets.
It’s use of isolation and hallucinogenic imagery certainly ticks all the right boxes. The doctor in charge has one scene where he ingests a mind expanding substance, leading to one of Beyond The Black Rainbow’s highlights. “The mother lode” as the film likes to call it. Unfortunately, rather than enlightening the good doctor, it seems to break him. If the first hour proves to be something of a grind, it’s here that the film moves from a slow walk to a slow jog. It’s pace is always languid, but at least by the halfway mark, more of the institute and the doctor’s intentions are revealed.
It’s mind bending stuff. Then again, it could all just be pretentious drivel. The film oversteps the boundaries more than a few times, to the point of over indulgence. Is there a genuine story being told, or is it just a director plundering his cinematic wank bag? Influences are many: Kubrick, Cronenberg, Lynch, Argento, and a bit of Lucas’ THX 1138. The music sounds like something from a John Carpenter movie, or one of the weirder albums by Tangerine Dream.
Too much cheese before bedtime
The director, Panos Cosmatos, is quoted as saying that he just wanted “to create a film that is sort of imagining an old film that doesn’t exist”. The type of film he wasn’t allowed to rent when browsing at his favourite video store as a youngster (I’m guessing he’s seen a lot of these movies now though).
If it is pretentious drivel, then it’s hugely enjoyable, totally mesmerising pretentious drivel, created by a director who has seen fit to ignore the old wives’ tale of eating too much cheese before bedtime. I think I can say with 99% accuracy, that Panos Cosmatos ate a full Edam, a couple of platters of French cheeses, and a big bag of Babybels before hitting the sack and waking up to direct Beyond The Black Rainbow.
Even if the ending is slightly weak, with Cosmatos running out of steam and falling back on a few familiar horror cliches, it still does what any good debut feature film should do. Get you excited to see what the director does next. Well, it got me excited. I don’t doubt that some people will flat out hate this movie and want to punch their TV screen in frustration. Me? There’s a big slice of Swiss cheese in the fridge and it’s got my name on it.