Good evening, fans of the macabre and bizarre. Today we have a guest-piece from the macabre and bizarre Dr. P. Lloyd, he of the movie blog Cinematic Gestures. He's reviewing one of my favorites of the last couple years, Beyond the Black Rainbow. Take it away, Lloyd!
Thank you, Joe.
I’ve been pretty forthright on social media that I am a Big Squeamish Baby; my dislike of horror films comes more from a physiological level, though I do think that some trends in the genre are morally vile. Even though I’m the furthest thing from a horror fan, I’m aware of some of the commonalities of the genre, mostly on its frequent focus on “The Other,” the abject. Horror films usually exploit our fears of being invaded, of something unknown wrecking havoc on our bodies, our homes, our lifestyle, our communities, etc. There are a number of permutations, from different types of monsters – villains, frequently of the franchise quality – to more representative psychological horrors that speak to gender, race, or class issues. Even more immediately prominent than these common thematic issues are the templates of horror films, which consciously or not often dictate character, structure, and tone. There are so many horror films that follow a given formula that works like the first Scream (which I actually really liked), Hunger Games (which I hated), or this year’s The Cabin in the Woods (which I’m still suspicious of, despite the Whedon involvement) can take a “meta” approach because people are so familiar with tropes that they are hungry for a new perspective.
This Horror 101 preface is given because this entry, Beyond the Black Rainbow (2010), is unlike any horror film I’ve watched through laced fingers, or even any film, really. In short, writer-director Panos Cosmatos has made an experimental, avant-garde treatment of the barest minimum of a freaky narrative, while also being a throwback to early 1980’s horror films in a few ways. I wanted to share the description of it from Netflix (where you can stream it): “When telepathic teen Elena flees the mysterious facility where she's been imprisoned her entire life, her unstable therapist relentlessly pursues her.” Hmmm. Okay, somewhat true, except this only accounts for the last thirty minutes or so of the film!
Elena (Eva Allan) is a virginal girl, as seen in so many horror films, and her “therapist” Barry (Michael Rogers) is indeed a stalking figure towards the end of the film, with the various shades of Jason Voorhees / Michael Myers / etc. But nearly everything before that is so off-kilter and disturbing from its refusal to follow convention that by the time the fairly standard horror tropes come into play, with a few brief but graphic killings, it feels like a relief.
It would be impossible to spoil the tone or look of the film in divulging plot details, so here: Elena is being kept and studied, seemingly alone, in some sort of off-the-grid research facility in 1983, under the guise of some New Age hokum, that we’re treated to in an orientation / advertisement video at the start of the film. Barry is her main representative of humanity, who we almost immediately distrust. (It doesn’t help that Rogers looks like a gaunt, perma-pissed Christian Bale.) Something Strange Is Going On at this place, and the film slowly (methodically is arguable) furthers the sense of dread and unease as Elena and Barry’s sessions continue. I wondered not so much how the film would end but if anything resembling plot points would happen at all. The interim is filled with… well, let’s just say some bizarre imagery. The cinematography by Norm Li and the production design by Bob Bottieri were definitely the highlights of the film for me. Even as I was progressively weirded out, I kept wondering how they got those beautiful shots. The score by Jeremy Schmidt is more than reminiscent of Carpenter’s The Thing, but I think that’s a definite plus. Allan and Rogers are effective, but they seem more like servants of the experimental nature of the film than as characters with clear purposes (besides just “getting out” and “not letting her get out,” respectively).
I didn’t enjoy Beyond the Black Rainbow so much as I appreciated it. The pace is deliberately slow, and there are really only two characters – one doesn’t talk, the other is a madman – whose relationship isn’t that engaging, but it takes so many chances in so many ways that I hope it builds some more word-of-mouth success and inspires other filmmakers and studios to think outside the box. If it got me to delay writing off the horror genre entirely, it should find some fans among the more sturdy cinephiles out there.