A psychedelic study in free will. A freaky-deaky meditation on the brevity of life. A fantastical crescendo of the futuristic present as seen through 1983 aesthetics. A collection of imagery and sound that doesn't pay homage so much as it seriously equates itself to the calling-card work of yesteryear by the likes of Argento, Carpenter, Kubrick, Cronenberg, Lynch, and Hooper. In "Beyond the Black Rainbow," which holds a rhythm, feel and moody intuition all its own, writer-director Panos Cosmatos displays a reverence for these aforementioned artists, but sees no use for mimicry when his own vision is so startlingly unique. An uncategorical corkscrew of genressci-fi, horror, tragedy, mystery, and exploratory razzmatazz all have their moment in the spotlightthe film demands a lot of the viewer, but also gives a lot in return. Strictly mainstream-minded audiences might as well take their business elsewhere. The adventurous, meanwhile, will probably long for multiple viewings. Like "2001: A Space Odyssey" crossed with "Vanilla Sky
," "Poltergeist," "Halloween
," and "Inland Empire
," it's the kind of special, remarkably rare motion picture that should keep on giving through the ensuing decades, so overflowing with lofty ideas, bizarre head trips, and out-there flights of nightmarish fancy that one could see it fifty times and probably get something new out of it in each sitting.
At the sterile, labyrinthine, neon-infused Arboria Institute, scientist Barry Nye (Michael Rogers) has taken up where his predecessor, the now-elderly Dr. Mercurio Arboria (Scott Hylands), left off. Following neuropsychological practices that incorporate heavy doses of pharmacology and energy sculpting to achieve a state of happiness in his patients"Serenity Through Technology" is the company's tagline and way of lifeall that the good doctor has really done is left the young, fair Elena (Eva Allan) borderline-catatonic as she longs deep down inside her drugged exterior for a way to escape. When he manages to bring tears to her eyes after one session together, Barry remarks with a silky slither, "This is always the highlight of my day." One can almost see why. Save for a wife (Marilyn Norry) at home who seems to be perpetually distant, Barry's life outside of the desolate chambers of Arboria is lonesome and miserable, his respective search for contentment coming in the form of five blue pills he swallows down in the bathroom each night. Were the company not such a secret, built beneath a handsome domed garden, the FDA would have shut it down years ago and sent all the workers to the loony bin. Darker forces are at work, however, paving a path all the way back to 1966 when the start of the facility, the birth of Mercurio's child, and an inky dip into a hellish portal all came together in one fateful moment.
"Beyond the Black Rainbow" is close to impossible to mold down into a tidy synopsis, and even more difficult to accurately explain the experience of watching it. That's part of the thrill, though. Shot for very little money but so propulsive in its look and ambition that it could just as easily have cost many millions, the film's either reminiscent of a fever dream, or a bout of hypnosis, or both. Writer-director Panos Cosmatos, who might be some kind of genius behind his willowy veil of novice pretensions, has made an unforgettable art piece as much as he has a creepy fright pic. The root to his madness, he has explained in interviews, is simple. As a child, he was not allowed to watch violent horror movies, but while at the video store he would constantly see the vivid VHS boxes to these very films and try to imagine what they were like. Naturally, his imagination ran rampant, and "Beyond the Black Rainbow" is his attempt to put those thoughts into something of a cohesive whole. Whether he's entirely successful or not is up for debatesome of the ideas and content is more mature and complex than what a kid could accurately form in his mindbut it's a fascinating experiment all the same. For all of its loopy tangentstelepathy and mind-control; a mysterious garbled call from a phone not plugged in; a flashback told through ominous plumes of cloud and smoke and intentionally overexposed film stock; and the transformation of one character into a demonic, knife-wielding psychopath all play a part in the proceedingsit is a miracle how most of the narrative threads come together for those paying attention.
With his slow, measured, monotone deliveries, Michael Rogers (2007's "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
"), as Barry Nye, very nearly works the viewer into the same submission that he does poor Elena. A willing sacrificial lamb who will do anything for the Arboria Institute, he finds himself at a loss how to carry on when he's at home. For a man taking wrongheaded but earnest steps to achieve happiness in his patients, his is a spectacularly depressing existence. In playing things so straight, Rogers is able to subtly unleash the malevolence laying in wait underneath. One must remember that, for all intents and purposes, he is also a psychologically punishing kidnapper, and maybe something even more sinister than that. As founder Mercurio Arboria, Scott Hylands is seen as a younger man in a grainy advertisement for the company, and then later as a withered old soul on the edge of dying. From his bed, he watches a promotional tape about a beautiful island resort, haunting in its implications as his life slips away from him. "Paradise comes and goes," the narrator on the video says. "Aloha, and, far too quickly, farewell."
Very deliberate in its pacing, "Beyond the Black Rainbow" is the epitome of a slow burn. Some may be frustrated by the way Cosmatos edits each sceneindeed, since she's still fighting a drugged haze, even Elena's third-act attempt to escape never rises above a feet-dragging walkbut pulled together, there's an entrancing poetry to it all. Jeremy Schmidt's synthesizer theme music is outstanding, like John Carpenter by way of Goblin, while the cinematography by Norm Li outdoes itself, each shot taking on the appearance of a vibrant-colored painting as seen through the eyes of a hallucinating, time-traveling hippie from the 1960s whose just stepped foot into 1983 after a quick trip to 2075. The conclusion, paying off elements mentioned all the way back in the first scene, sees Elena taking a ghastly elevator ride (memories of 2012's "The Cabin in the Woods
" are unmistakable) and coming into contact with the facility's front as a majestic domed greenhouse before literally rising from a grate in the ground. In taking what could be her first steps outside, she is rendered a newborn once more, her attempts to get away alternating with an in-pursuit Barry's journey down a nighttime dirt road, the seemingly endless farmland on both sides illuminated by his headlights. Evocatively, a final image of a glowing TV in the window of a suburban house reminds of an earlier scene where Ronald Reagan is seen making a speech about the Soviet threat. Elena may be away from immediate harm, but her newfound innocence won't last for long amidst the harsh realities of the real world. At the very least, her life will now be her own to live. "Beyond the Black Rainbow" is imperfect, but gloriously so, creating, in its own way, a new, exciting, disorienting, unsettling, and long-overdue filmic language. When 2012 is over, it will stand apart as a motion picture not quite like any other.