A teenage girl is confined to an antiseptic room. A thin man with vampire lips and hair helmet observes her, interviews her, seems impatient with everyone but her. They meet in some vast, windowless clinic-laboratory with a staff of maybe three, conducting experiments that will ostensibly improve the human race, though this “practical application of an abstract ideal” is itself pretty abstract. No matter. Surrender to the undertow. The mood is doom. The year is emphatically 1983 (the year of Videodrome), a time, we’re told, of “great uncertainty and terrible danger,” though by the time the hermetically sealed, eerie-hypnagogic womb-world of Beyond the Black Rainbow opens itself up to the familiar world, the one the rest of us inhabit(ed), that danger appears to stem largely from shirtless camping bangers with too much alcohol. Perhaps the real danger comes from within, within the womb-world, within the damaged mind of old vampire lips, or within the fabric of the film itself.
Beyond the Black Rainbow is the impressive first feature from writer-director Panos Cosmatos and his fellow Vancouver-based collaborators. It’s low, very low, on plot, and even lower on exposition, but overflows with precision atmosphere of high retro-techno-gloom. It’s probably a good movie to take drugs to, though you’d best choose a drug that will last a while and keep you awake. The pace is deliberately somnambulistic, with a synth-drone score from Sinoia Caves, a.k.a. Black Mountain keyboardist Jeremy Schmidt, that feels like an homage to John Carpenter. It’s furnished with items from the Stanley Kubrick clearinghouse, and is wall-to-wall cryptic portent: weird lights, unnerving room tones, scary stuff on TV: cartoons, documentaries about Hawaii, Ronald Reagan. There’s glass everywhere, doubling figures that otherwise never share a frame with anyone else. Life seems painful for everybody in this lonely, oppressive landscape. There are many luminous objects to touch yet no one touches anyone else. Cosmatos renders things mostly through close-ups, the faces uniformly pushed to one side of the anamorphic frame, wide dollies of long corridors (one of several ways in which the film echoes The Shinning as much as it does 2001), and some truly impressive psychedelic eyeball imagery bursting with saturated colour and handsome soft focus grain that bleeds from one scene to the next in woozily long dissolves. (The available stills from the film do not do its visual inventiveness justice at all.)
Elena (Eva Allen) is the girl; Barry (Michael Rogers) the man who controls everything she learns. “It’s easy to become disillusioned when you don’t know who you are,” he explains. “Or what you are.” Though Barry’s greater level of awareness doesn’t seem to console him one bit. He gets his drugs from a place called Benway’s Pharmacy, which if you’d ever read William S. Burroughs you’d probably avoid. In a weirdly monochromatic flashback we see how 17 years ago Barry went to hell so as to pass through the eye of god, which he describes as “beautiful, like a black rainbow.” He got eaten by great clouds of goo and gas and came back covered in crude. Elena was born then, and her mother disposed of. The appointed harbinger of a New Age, Elena clearly possesses some special power that needs to be contained. Beyond the Black Rainbow lurches toward Elena’s emergence from her container. What will happen when she’s let loose upon the world? I have no idea. But if you see her on the street when you leave the theatre you’d best walk in the opposite direction.