Ever since I saw the haunting trailer for “Beyond the Black Rainbow” early last year, I've been dying to see it.
It was creepy, it was disturbing, and most importantly, it was visually striking. It felt like a lost low-budget sci-fi film from the '80s that slipped through the cracks, failing to gain an audience and doomed to deteriorate on old VHS tapes in thrift stores. In other words, this movie had to have been made for me.
It being a Canadian film, it debuted in 2010 at the Whistler Film Festival and wasn't picked up for U.S. distribution until 2011, released sparingly on home video by Magnet in Sept. 2012. By that point, I think I was tired of waiting and just assumed that it would drop into my Neflix Streaming account eventually, which it finally did recently.
Seeing the classic-style poster art of an eerie bald man with black eyes holding a knife, bathed in a triangle of red light that a young girl is running away from, I immediately felt that excitement once again. Would it live up to this building anticipation? The answer is as complicated as the film itself.
The plot seems simple enough – a deranged scientist obsessed with unlocking the hidden potential of the human mind is experimenting on a teenaged girl who seemingly has physic abilities, toying with her as she remains trapped behind glass and bright white walls. She predictably escapes and discovers far worse experiments throughout the Arboria Institute, but Dr. Barry Nyle isn't finished with her yet. Throughout its 110-minute running time, however, we learn more about the villain than our helpless hero, but in this dystopian setting, it works.
The Institute, with its bright white and red lights washing out each room and winding corridor, claims to be working for the betterment of humanity, but Nyle has turned it into his own sick research site that may or may not have anything to do with its original twisted mission. The clean emptiness of the building speaks more than the characters do, but Michael Rogers, relatively unknown other than his minor roles in some straight-to-video horror schlock, absolutely shines in one of the most unsettling and convincingly crazy performances I have ever seen.
Nyle resembles an evil Carl Sagan, tweed jacket and long, parted haircut, but his voice and mannerisms are reminiscent of a cross between Anthony Hopkins' Hannibal Lecter in “Silence of the Lambs” and Christian Bale's Patrick Bateman in “American Psycho.” Each seem like calm, collected, and productive members of society, but a cruel viciousness lies just beneath the surface – the audience is just biting its nails waiting for it to be unleashed.
Rogers understands this subtlety and revels in it; it never feels forced or overdone, a trapping in any film containing elements of the horror genre. The camera barely leaves him, and while I would normally criticize this, this is one of the few times that I'll say that the protagonist really doesn't matter. Watching this paranoid lunatic is much more fascinating, and you became engrossed in this erratic and murderous predator. You hope the girl escapes, but mostly to see how he reacts.
It may be Panos Cosmatos' (I hope that's his real name) directorial debut, but his talent and influences are prominent in every carefully crafted shot. Set in 1983, filters and digital processing accentuate the dated style of dress, the large glasses, the awful hairstyles, the old furniture, and the Ronald Regan speeches on television. He captures the '60s, '70s vision of the future that Stanley Kubrick created with “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “A Clockwork Orange” through the trippy, colorfully lit Arboria Institute, but its twisted, character-driven madness also evokes David Cronenberg, Michael Mann, John Carpenter, and Dario Argento, all names any filmmaker would kill to be compared to. His inexperience, however, surfaces in “Black Rainbow's” final act.
The movie is a slow burn that builds tension for over an hour, though the pacing works for the story it's trying to tell. Suddenly, however, the final scenes devolve into a typical slasher flick, and while bloodshed isn't shocking at this point in the film, the sudden ending is. It's so anti-climactic that it's almost funny, and while fans of the often-mystifying David Lynch might appreciate this abrupt turn, it seems tacked on in what was otherwise a stunning portrait of psychosis and insanity.
Maybe I wouldn't have been nearly as disappointed if I hadn't waited so long to see it, but sometimes you find that your vision of the perfect obscure indie film differs from the filmmaker's – or in this case, the perfect dystopian future. It's a contradiction of terms, I know, but we're a cynical bunch, we sci-fi fans. Not so cynical, though, that I wouldn't watch “Beyond the Black Rainbow” again or anticipate Cosmatos' next film. There's always hope for the future, even if it's polished with hype.
-Rich Howells is a lifelong Marvel Comics collector, wannabe Jedi master, and cult film fan. E-mail him at [email protected]