Monday, October 28, 2013

Beyond the Black Rainbow (2010): Stay Awake

Beyond the Black Rainbow (2010)
dir: Panos Cosmatos

When you watch a horror movie, you almost always know that you're going to be watching something of a well worn tone: either a slow burn, something suspenseful or shocking, or maybe a horror comedy.  But, rarely do you get hypnotic and trippy.  There have only been a couple of movies that have fit this tone so specifically: Inland Empire, and Eraserhead.  Both are David Lynch films.  If you take the dream state of Lynch's films, add in more than a dash of the surreality of Altered States with the look of THX 1138, then you begin to get the originality of Beyond the Black Rainbow, a movie that is stunning and singular in its design even as it is inspired by a whole rash of cult movies.

Beyond the Black Rainbow has almost no dialogue, and it uses it only to express the abstract history of the characters. The whole first act is set up around 2 or 3 "interrogations" and "tests" that really consist of what seems like 4 or 5 lines of dialogue each. But, that's OK, because Beyond the Black Rainbow isn't really hear to give you shocks, but to fill you with an existential dread of everything you've ever known.

The main thrust of Beyond the Black Rainbow is almost a retelling of the second half of Stephen King's Firestarter, only replacing Charlie with Carrie White. A teenage girl, Elena, with telekinetic powers is trapped in a science lab controlled by a sociopathic doctor, who drills her to probe her desires and motivations, and also to fulfill his sick sadistic pleasures.  The doctor knows her powers, and also suppresses her abilities via a large white triangle somewhere in the facility. Of course, Elena wants to get out of the facility.  Struggles ensue.

The science lab is the former utopian haven, the Arboria Institute. In the 1960s, this was supposed to be a new age sanctuary for experimentation and happiness. Along the way, in 1966, there was a failed experiment which caused the Institute to change hands from its idealistic leader to its current sociopathic doctor.

Beyond the Black Rainbow tells the story abstractly, and primarily through visuals without dialogue. It disconnects from a direct and obvious story and leaves clues for the audience to pick up on the history, like puzzle pieces left lying around.  Once you assemble the puzzle, it becomes clear that Cosmatos is discussing familial ties, ancestry, identity, disease, new age shams, control issues, Reaganism, isolation, and religious ideals.  Especially in the realms of new age and religion, Cosmatos seems to try to say that our search for our deeper senses may have results that we cannot deal with on our current plane. And, he seems to hint that these other planes of existence may actually exist in our minds, but that, as a human, we should not be able to attain them. In these spiritual discussions, Beyond the Black Rainbow almost seems to be straining for a Black Lodge/White Lodge discussion of spirituality that David Lynch was opening in the last few episodes of Twin Peaks, only with a purely negative vision of our humanity.

Beyond the Black Rainbow is completely pessimistic and misanthropic. And, it is for those reasons that I love it.  Behind it's amazing retro future visuals that are a perfect meld of THX 1138 and 2001, and the hypnotic, slow, and syrupy pacing, there is a dark bleak look at what spirituality is, even as it maintains that some spirits cannot be broken. Almost everybody in this movie is bleak or damaged, and they act against the good spirits of humanity. This is Stephen King meeting Sartre meeting Michel Houellebecq. If you think about what is happening long enough, it should make you feel a bit creeped out and gross.

But, that's if you can stay awake and wade your way through the sludge.  Beyond the Black Rainbow is the cinematic equivalent of combining Ketamine and Quaaludes. It will hypnotize you with its Tangerine Dream-esque prog rock soundtrack, vivid full saturation colors, cold aesthetic, and sleepy pacing until you feel like you've suddenly got narcosleepy and pass out.  You'll be compelled but lulled at once.

If you can stay awake, Beyond the Black Rainbow is a rewardingly dark experience and visual journey that hasn't been tried in ages.

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