Beyond the Black Rainbow is the kind of movie whose cool-looking trailer entices you to midnight screenings, but the film will bore you so profoundly you'll fall asleep halfway and wake up disoriented during the closing credits. First-time writer-director Panos Cosmatos has stretched an '80s music video into an elegantly nightmarish but soporific feature film with only enough story for two and a half minutes of tape. The film's mixed reviews, limited distribution and artsy-fartsy atmospherics will hamper ticket sales, but its minimalist Bowie-chic will ensure a long afterlife as a minor cult classic.
Black Rainbow takes place at the Arborin, an aseptic institution that's somewhere between a prison, a psychiatric clinic and a dystopian version of Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters. Its sole patient/inmate is Elena (Eva Allan), a dark-haired teenage girl who always has a fat tear running down her face. Her doctor/captor is Barry (Michael Rogers), a tall, thin sadist who's ostensibly studying Elena's psychic powers. (She can kill people with her mind when Barry turns off a giant crystal — yeah, don't ask). But mostly, he just gets off on making his ward cry. Elena and Barry are less characters than a power relationship between victim and villain, and the bare-bones script makes almost no attempt to explain their backgrounds, motivations, powers or weaknesses. There's enough psychosexual tension and orphaned-girl-locked-away-by-evildoer tropes in the film to interpret it as a kind of ultra-violent, Reagan-era fairy tale, but that would be attributing more narrative cohesion to the script than it deserves.
As can be expected, Elena escapes the Arborin and Barry gives chase, though not before he remembers/dreams/hallucinates a drug treatment he underwent as a young man two decades ago that may or may not have made him more or less than human. (Seriously, there are so many holes in this script.) Cosmatos' decision to focus the middle section on (kinda, sorta) developing Barry's character and not Elena's dramatically lowers the stakes of her fate, since she's the special girl whose wellbeing we're supposed to care about. Her escape into the dangerous world outside Arborin finally provides the film some adrenaline, but her scenes are short-lived and anticlimactic, as is her final showdown with Barry.
Still, Black Rainbow isn't without its neo-electric pleasures. The film's stiff but off-kilter compositions and theatrical palette of reds, whites and blacks combine to create beautifully sterile terrorscapes. Barry's drug trip in particular is memorably rendered in grotesquely surreal images. Composer Jeremy Schmidt's score of swampy synths and elevator dings is instrumental in generating a sense of paralyzed dread and grounding this timeless, unreal world in the '80s. But ultimately, the film tries the audience's patience for too little payoff. For his next feature, let's hope Cosmatos goes beyond Beyond the Black Rainbow.
Distributor: Magnet Releasing
Cast: Michael Rogers, Eva Allan, Scott Hylands
Director: Panos Cosmatos
Screenwriters: Panos Cosmatos
Producer: Christya Nordstokke
Genre: Science Fiction/Mystery/Thriller
Running time: 110 min
Release date: May 20, 2012
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