If you were to stumble into a screening of Beyond the Black Rainbow told by devious friends that it is an undiscovered midnight movie from the late 70s, you would instantly believe it. Panos Cosmatos’ debut feature recreates the head-trip sci-fi movies of that era with an almost fetishistic attention to detail that captures the grainy cinematography, found location future, handmade special effects, enigmatic sound design, and gleefully confounding tone of that specific genre with eerie accuracy. It’s as if Alejandro Jodorowsky had made a film comprised of leftover scenes and ideas from THX 1138, Scanners, and Altered States designed to tingle the brains of his chemically enhanced audience. The film is made to be experienced rather than understood and it’s really a shame that the midnight movie market no longer exists, because this thing would be an instant sensation with that audience who demanded little more than a movie than being able to mumble “far out” as they stumbled out of the theater in a daze.
There is ostensibly a plot to the film even if it can be at times nearly impossible to follow. Set in a fictionalized 1983 as designed by 70s filmmakers fantasizing about a dystopian future, Eva Allan stars as Elena a seemingly innocent young girl trapped in a white-walled sell under heavy sedation. She’s been imprisoned by Arborin, an institution with mysterious motivations and is under the care of Dr. Barry Nyle (a deeply creepy Michael Rogers). Well, perhaps “care” isn’t the right term as the presumably psychotic doctor takes perverse pleasure in probing the girl with drugs and bizarre questions in an attempt to unravel whatever psychological issues she may or may not have. Over time, it seems that she has some sort psychic powers that can literally blow minds when given the chance and at one point the good doctor takes a pill with the promise of seeing the next stage in humanity’s evolution only to drift off into some sort of LSD trip that scars him in inexplicable ways. In case you haven’t figured it out yet, this is not really a movie where you’re supposed to be carefully following the plot (in fact, Cosmatos has admitted to deliberately removing key expositional scenes to enhance the focus on atmosphere), its more of a sensory experience and one hell of a wild ride.
Much like Daft Punk’s underrated Electroma, Beyond the Black Rainbow harkens back to the days of stream-of-conscious trip out films designed for drug users. That’s not to say that you have to be in a heightened state to enjoy the movie, it just explains the at times deliberately nonsensical nature of the storytelling. Cosmatos isn’t so much interested in pushing his audience down a narrative path as inviting them to get lost in evocative images and sounds. Bizarre visuals of never-ending tunnels, painfully white walled cells, and indescribably surreal fantasy asides are the focus and they linger in the mind long after the film’s haunting final shot. The look and design of those forgotten sci-fi/horror films is captured with a remarkable movie brat attention to detail, but Cosmatos is also well aware of the equal importance of sound design in those features. Ambient sounds create a constant, almost overwhelming atmosphere of repression, while the score from Black Mountain’s Jeremy Schmidt revives the vintage synthesizer feel of early John Carpenter and the countless low budget genre films that knocked off his distinct musical sensibilities. It’s a movie to get lost in and pontificate over endlessly without necessarily ever fully understanding the filmmaker’s intentions. That experience is frustrating for most viewers, but for the select crowd that the director designed this movie for, it’s mind-bending cinematic bliss designed to be rewatched incessantly.
Beyond the Black Rainbow isn’t just a case of style over substance, it’s movie where the style is the substance. There’s nothing prepackaged or commercially minded about this project that is clearly the product of an uncompromising mind warped by a very specific era of filmmaking. Casmatos self-financed the movie off of residual checks for the DVD sales’ of his directing father’s Tombstone (who also made Rambo: First Blood 2, Cobra, and a few other B-movie classics) and it’s impossible to imagine any producers forking over the cash for such a bizarre vision these days. Panos’ directorial sensibilities could not be farther from his father George Cosmatos’ crowd pleasing ways. His directorial debut is deliberately alienating, confusing, and abstract. Yet, if you’re one of those lost souls desperate for such an experience, Panos knows exactly how to provide your cinematic drug of choice. If the movie gets any sort of decent release theatrically or in home video formats, it’s got “cult classic” written all over it. This brand of distinctly stylized and mind-bending movie experience just doesn’t come along very often and is rarely executed so well. On a week when audiences seeking the a return to thoughtful 70s sci-fi from Prometheus are sure to be disappointed, hopefully a few of those angry folks will find their way over to a theater playing Beyond The Black Rainbow. Though hardly a crowd pleaser, this flick actually offers what many of those viewers are looking for. It can’t in good conscience be recommended to everyone, but the select crowd that Cosmatos had in mind (if he was even thinking about an audience other than himself) has a new favorite film to break out when in the company of like-minded movie obsessed weirdos like myself.