It’s not fair to take directors’ statements as material evidence for or against their films, but when you learn that Panos Cosmatos’s chief inspiration in making Beyond the Black Rainbow was half-remembered yet vivid recollections of old-timey VHS covers in the horror section of the video store of his youth, you might decide that the movie itself is the evidence, not his words. The well of psychotronic genre cinema from which Cosmatos draws his creative water constitutes the 1980s legacy of “trip” sci-fi and horror fare of the 1950s and ‘60s—a genealogy with links to the erudite sensationalism of Roger Corman, the poetry of Edgar G. Ulmer’s cheap, desperate empty spaces, or some artificial fever dream like Mario Bava’s Planet of the Vampires. In other words, genre masters far more influential on ‘80s schlock auteurs than Spielberg or Lucas, and, by his own admission, Cosmatos inherits from these texts only by an attempt at a video junkie’s contact high. But more than anything else, Beyond the Black Rainbow is a love letter to Kubrick—primarily 2001: A Space Odyssey‘s erotic sterility, protracted dialogue scenes, and impossibly polished surfaces.
Cosmatos erects the scaffolding of a plot, almost as an excuse to back away from finishing it: Held captive in a mysterious institution that seems to be a combination sanatorium, laboratory, and detention facility, Elena (Eva Allan) is tormented by the smug Dr. Nyle (Michael Rogers). The year is an alt-future 1983. The savvy viewer can intuit that Elena will eventually make a break for it, and that the doctor will have some kind of appropriate, Twilight Zone-y comeuppance. An even savvier viewer will certainly guess that Cosmatos has no intention of taking the most direct, digression-free route to reach those conclusions.
Dismissive critics—especially those who are troubled when visual abstraction one-ups narrative coherence—have treated Beyond the Black Rainbow as nothing more than a showreel for its production design and f/x. Apart from the lighting and the sets, Cosmatos gets a lot done with in-camera effects; at the drop of a hat, he’ll push the foreground or background out of focus, or simply let his subject drift to the far or near side of a narrow depth of field. Rather than just a show-off piece, Beyond the Black Rainbow, like Ti West’s The House of the Devil and Scott Sanders’s Black Dynamite, has designs on channeling not just the letter of its psychotronic forefathers, but the spirit as well. If Cosmatos wanted to resurrect and revitalize the feelings and images suggested by those long-ago video-store days, it’s hard to deny his success.
But there’s more to Cosmatos the director than design prodigy and nostalgia wizard, and, regrettably, there’s no way to marginalize Cosmatos the writer-director, who has to put words on paper for actors to say aloud, and, at some point, he has to tell them how to say those words. This Cosmatos doesn’t work out too good. The story’s lead is really Dr. Nyle, and Rogers is pushed and prodded into all kinds of bad-actor places, with ham-fisted sarcasm, exasperated sighs, and plenty of “Kubrick glare.” This vile, evil scientist, who sports an obvious toupee (you can bet it’ll come into play later) and drives a slick sports car borrowed from Fassbinder’s World on a Wire, suffers a depressive, homely wife (Marilyn Norry). At work, he contends with the Nurse Ratched-like orderly (Rondel Reynoldson), and his disintegrating, invalided mentor, Dr. Arboria (Scott Hylands). As much as I’d love to sweep these “normal” scenes under the rug for Cosmatos’s sake, they not only underwrite his characters with poor pathology and burden them with poor dialogue, they also seem to take forever. Cosmatos’s ambition to create an homage-heavy head film, an affectionate throwback, loaded with style, is compromised by an awkwardly made “Canadindie” that lays bare its director’s not inconsiderable shortcomings.
It isn't just the funky lighting and design that needs to be considered in grading Magnolia's Blu-ray of Beyond the Black Rainbow, there's also the fact that Panos Cosmatos shot his movie on 35mm, in native widescreen, Technicolor, with Panavision lenses, the whole ball of twine. Magnolia's transfer boasts razor-sharp clarity and tactile grain. The result, along with the brilliant soundtrack, presented here on a DTS Master Audio channel, will make an outstanding test disc for your system, in spite of the movie's liabilities.
Besides the trailer, a wee featurette, "Deleted Special Effect: Ballistic Head Dissolve." It's pretty much just what it sounds like.
Pure style carries Beyond the Black Rainbow considerably further than many critics gave it credit for. Not all the way home, but up the road a piece. Magnolia's lightweight Blu-ray dazzles with the best aspects of the movie's throwback character: real 35mm film and Sinoia Caves's sweet synth arrangements.