Let’s talk Canadian science fiction horror films. In fact, let’s talk Canadian science fiction horror films that make no sense.
Wait, where are you going? Come on back. Come on back.
Beyond the Black Rainbow is the feature film debut of director Panos Cosmatos—who more recently directed the neon chainsaw cult-guy Nick Cage flick, Mandy. I didn’t pick Mandy, though I did enjoy it, because it’s just too… polished. Too complete.
Not Beyond the Black Rainbow (BTBR). You see, there’s something about the absolutely unhinged, incomplete, and un-categorizable nature of BTBR that I keep coming back to. Its messiness is somehow not a flaw but an element of its design. Essential to its destabilizing effect. Just read this background on how the movie’s concept materialized:
“The film's genesis was an overlap between two projects Cosmatos wanted to do. One… was a film about a girl trapped in an asylum while the other was an installation promoting a research facility that didn't exist. Eventually Cosmatos realized that he could use both ideas in the same project.”
If you want the film’s core plot, I can sum it up thusly:
A dude named Barry, who is weird because of REASONS—he was hoodwinked into undergoing a traumatic psychedelic experiment in 1966—is obsessed with a psychokinetic girl. This girl, of course, escapes the new-age facility where Barry has kept her in captivity. So, Barry puts on a leather bodysuit, chases her, trips, bangs his head on a rock and dies. The first two sentences are about 90% of the movie. The last sentence is 10%.
I’m being upfront with the movie’s glaring faults (lack of plot, nearly zero character development, suspect cohesion, whiplash-inducing change in tone at the end (to name just a few)) because of the movie’s undeniable impact.
So why, specifically, do I love it?
Frame by frame, the movie is visually glorious, awash in mind-bending light, perfect composition, and mesmerizing imagery. The beep boop 70s-era sound effects, the electronic organ background music, the unhinged tension, the painstaking weirdness with which each scene unfolds are all perfectly done.
The marriage of image and sound make this movie for me. Yes, I know that probably describes anyone’s enjoyment of any movie (I liked the way it mixed images with sounds). But here, I mean something very specific. There is just a magical way in which the Suspiria-esque, Italian fog-horror atmosphere, razor-sharp shadows, glowing lights, and hallucination-inducing hallucinations all mesh into one cohesive whole.
I’ll mention specifics.
There’s a moment when we meet the first sentionaut, a purposeless, tall skinny ersatz Iron Man powered by a skinny baby (I think?). The sentionaut pops onscreen and this Korg CX-3 organ chord just rips the screen in two. I don’t care where the giant baby robot came from or what its purpose is; I love it.
Then we have probably my favorite line of the movie—and the only piece of backstory that develops character in a meaningful way. Barry is an acolyte of Mercurio Arboria, the Marshall Applewhite-esque leader of the Arboria Institute. (An aside: I had to look up Marshall Applewhite’s name and found it in, of all places, an article in Teen Vogue.) For whatever reason, Mercurio thinks it’ll be gangbusters to give Barry a hippo’s worth of drugs and send him down into what looks like ferromagnetic fluid. This “kinda hellacious” trip is what leads Barry to becoming the hairless (?) sadist that he is. But before Barry dips into the black goo, Mercurio’s eyes and mouth—the way the scene is shot, you literally only see angelically glowing white, while Mercurio’s features are simply black shapes—fade in to deliver the absolutely heinous line “Bring home the mother lode, Barry.”
“Bring home the MOTHER LODE, BARRY.”
Just, what?! This command is delivered with an echo-y distorted bass to it. And it’s a command for Barry to drill to the depths of his psyche and bring back ultimate truth. It makes this movie. I don’t care about anything else. This single scene is enough.
But that’s not all! There’s the scene where our psychokinetic girl, Elena, crawls past a straitjacketed zombie. There’s a scene where Barry taps his pen. A scene where a mean-for-no-reason aid finds the dire and awful sketches behind Barry (or maybe Mercurio’s) moral-less human experiments. A scene where Barry is forced by an ailing Arboria to inject some drug between the webbing of his toes.
All of it. All of it! It’s just all too wonderfully, weirdly intense to do anything but stare at.
I want to talk more about the director, Panos Cosmatos. This was his first movie. Before he made it, both his parents had sadly passed away. His father was the director of such films as Rambo: First Blood Part II, while his mother was a Swedish sculptor. Their two professions, it turns out, would not have an insignificant impact on Panos.
“[After his parents’ deaths]…The aspiring writer/director [Panos] started therapy and decided he wanted to make a film as part of the healing process. Cosmatos felt that his ‘film-making sensibility is a weird hybrid of both of them’–his father's ‘popcorn movies’ and his mother's haunting, experimental art.”
And this quote really does make too much sense. The movie has the feel of an inscrutable art house flick with the substance of schlocky Hollywood sci fi: mind control, zombie-ish things, big glowing triangles that go wowowowowow.
To invert an old saw: the parts are more than the whole—so much more, in fact, that the whole is almost unnecessary. This is the sort of movie where I don’t need “resolution.” You could plop me down at basically any point in this film—except the final ten minutes—and I would gladly watch. It is mesmerizing. It is brutal. It is something created with passion. And I think that passion carries the whole project.
There is, in fact, a whole genre of movies where the badness of the movie is overshadowed by the passion of its creator. I’m talking about movies like Troll II and The Room—movies so bad that they’re good.
But, the thing for me is, this movie isn’t bad. This movie is incomplete, yes. But it is good. So good.
It feels like a film in opposition to so many movies created today: those tightly constructed, neatly acted, seemingly flawless Netflix-exclusives that have all the passion of a banner ad for Pringles. BTBR is messy. It’s not satisfying. It doesn’t really reveal any human truths. But it does show the abundance of magic that Panos Cosmatos can conjure with an aperture, a clapperboard, and a fuckton of neon.
IN SHORT: Beyond the Black Rainbow is an absolute trip from back to front. Don't try to make sense of it, just experience it.