Beyond the Black Rainbow

Beyond the Black Rainbow

Beyond the Black Rainbow is a 2010 Canadian science fiction film written and directed by Panos Cosmatos in his feature film debut. The films begins in the 1960s, as Dr. Arboria founds the Arboria Institute, a New Age research facility dedicated to finding a reconciliation between science and spirituality, allowing human beings to move into a new age of perpetual happiness.

In the 1980s, Arboria’s work has been taken over by his protégé, Dr. Barry Nyle. Outwardly a charming, handsome scientist, Nyle is in fact a psychopath who has been keeping Elena, a teenage girl, captive in an elaborate prison/hospital beneath the Institute. Elena demonstrates psychic capabilities, which Nyle can suppress, using a glowing, prism-like device.

In an effort to understand Elena’s abilities, Nyle subjects her to daily therapy sessions, which take the form of interrogations, during which Elena only communicates by way of telepathic demands to see her father. By night, Elena is kept in a brightly lit, completely white room, with only a television for companionship. Nyle spends his own nights at home with his wife, a docile, servile woman who gives Nyle endless praise and exists in a state of constant stupor. Nyle takes massive quantities of prescription medication and disguises his lack of hair and the color of his irises by way of elaborate wigs and contact lenses.

Attempting to elicit an emotional response from Elena, Nyle presents her with a photograph of her deceased mother. Nyle then informs Elena’s nurse, Margo, that Elena has somehow smuggled contraband into her room. When Margo attempts to forcibly take the photo from Elena, Elena kills her, by causing her head to explode. Nyle, monitoring Elena’s actions, is intrigued by this blatant display of psychic ability. He allows Elena out of her cell, then activates the prism, causing her to convulse and pass out. While unconscious, Elena is approached by a massive, androgynous, being in a red space suit (identified in the credits as ‘Sentionaut’), who injects her with a syringe before wandering off.

Nyle goes to see Dr. Arboria, now aged, somewhere on the grounds of the Institute. Displaying signs of senility, Arboria remains either ignorant or indifferent of Nyle’s psychosis, regarding him as his best protégé. A flashback to the 1960s reveals that Elena’s mother was Dr. Arboria’s wife, who was present when Arboria himself led a young Nyle through a procedure meant to allow him to achieve transcendence. As a part of the procedure, Nyle was submerged in a vat of black liquid; Nyle emerged from the vat hysterical—fatally attacking Mrs. Arboria. Elena, presumably, was born shortly thereafter. Back in the present, Nyle kills Arboria by administering a drug overdose. Meanwhile, Elena makes her torturous escape from the Aboria Institute, encountering a zombie-like being that attacks her in an airshaft as well as an entire room full of Sentionauts, who are suspended immobile in a large, factory-like chamber.

During Elena’s escape, Nyle returns home and presents himself to his wife without his wig or contacts before killing her with a ceremonial dagger he calls ‘The Devil’s Teardrop.’ Nyle, having dissolved his final contact to the material world, heads out in pursuit of Elena. While chasing her through the woods surrounding the Institute, he encounters a pair of ‘heshers’ (members of the heavy metal subculture), whom he kills with the Devil’s Teardrop after insisting that they had sex with Elena.

Nyle eventually corners Elena in a clearing, where she uses her psychic powers to fatally fling his head onto a rock. Free of her captor, Elena follows the light generated by a television set to a nearby town. Following the credits, the camera focuses on the floor of a living room with late 1970s/early 1980s decor; an action figure of a Sentionaut lies in the middle of the room. A static voice can be heard asking, ‘Do you read me?’ twice before the film ends.

As a child Cosmatos used to frequent a video store entitled Video Addict. During these trips he would frequently browse the horror movie section looking at the boxes although he was not allowed to watch such movies. During such times he would instead imagine what the movie was. He would later reflect upon this experience when making ‘Black Rainbow’ where one of his goals was ‘to create a film that is a sort of imagining of an old film that doesn’t exist.’ The year 1983 was chosen for the storyline as it’s the first year he went to Video Addict. Additionally he thought the idea of setting such a film one year before 1984 was funny. The movie’s genesis was an overlap between two projects Cosmatos wanted to do. One of these was a movie 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.

The presence of his parents haunts ‘every frame of this film,’ said the Rome-born filmmaker. His father, movie director George P. Cosmatos (whose credits include ‘Rambo: First Blood Part II’ and ‘Cobra’) died in 2005, and his mother (Swedish sculptor Birgitta Ljungberg-Cosmatos) died in 1997 after a lengthy battle with cancer. Unable to deal with his mother’s death, Panos ‘drifted into a slow motion mode of self-destruction and binge drinking.’ When elder Cosmatos died, the grief he felt compounded. After that the aspiring writer/director started therapy and decided he wanted to make a movie as part of the healing process. Cosmatos felt that his ‘filmmaking sensibility is a weird hybrid of both of them’ – his father’s ‘popcorn movies’ and his mother’s haunting, experimental art.

‘Beyond the Black Rainbow’ was financed by DVD residuals from ‘Tombstone’ (1993), directed by Panos’ father. The movie was shot in three weeks using a modified Panavision 35 mm camera. This was suggested by cinematographer Norm Li, for he noted the Panos’ references – mostly films from the ’70s and ’80s – ‘were all grainy, colorful, and full of texture.’

The film has been praised for its visual style. Cosmatos declared that his ‘modernist’ use of color was influenced by Michael Mann’s ‘Manhunter’ (1986) and ‘The Keep’ (1983). The blue hue cinematography – the ‘night mode’ as Cosmatos dubbed it – was inspired by the freezer room scene in John Carpenter’s ‘Dark Star’ (1974). Norm Li cited other references including Daft Punk’s ‘Electroma’ (2006), Dario Argento’s ‘Suspiria’ (1977), and George Lucas’ ‘THX 1138’ (1971). A number of reviewers noted similarities to Stanley Kubrick’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ (1968) and ‘A Clockwork Orange’ (1971). ‘I love Stanley Kubrick, and have seen, and probably internalized, all of his work, but any similarity was not my intent,’ explained Cosmatos. Critics have also compared Beyond the Black Rainbow to Andrei Tarkovsky’s ‘Solaris’ (1972), Ken Russell’s ‘Altered States’ (1980), and Gaspar Noé’s ‘Enter the Void’ (2010).[20] Of the latter, the director deemed it ‘a very interesting, very beautiful film.’

The 1966 flashback segment of the movie was inspired E. Elias Merhige’s experimental horror film ‘Begotten’ (1990), which was entirely shot in high contrast black and white. Cosmatos said it, ‘was a perfect look for the flashback because I wanted it to feel like a fading and decayed artifact.’ The young Barry Niles’s acid trip in that segment was inspired by the ‘Battle of the Gods’ sequence in Jean-Luc Godard’s ‘Contempt’ (1963). Cosmatos also takes influence from other visual media. The director declared his love for ‘Heavy Metal’ magazine and the work of French comics artist Jean ‘Moebius’ Giraud. Fantasy art was also an influence, especially Frank Frazetta’s paintings. Norm Li stated that both he and the director ‘also looked at abstract paintings, photographs, and architectural design books’ for inspiration.

One of the film’s notable characteristics is its deliberately slow, hypnotic pace. According to Cosmatos, ‘Beyond the Black Rainbow’ belongs to what he dubbed the ‘trance film’ subgenre. Cosmatos mentioned Francis Ford Coppola’s ‘Apocalypse Now’ (1979), Alain Resnais’ ‘Last Year at Marienbad’ (1961), and Saul Bass’s ‘Phase IV’ (1974) as cinematographic blueprints for his script. He explained the rationale behind his screenwriting, which downplays the ‘very concrete story at the heart of it’ in favor of an ‘atmospheric’ approach: ‘I decided to just write as straightforward as possible, then let the visuals and the look of the film bloom around something that was pretty straightforward. At the end of the day, I decided to bring down the story elements to allow the visual and the story elements to come more into the foreground, to make it more dream-like and less story-driven.’

Jeremy Schmidt, keyboard player for Vancouver-based band Black Mountain, was invited by Cosmatos to compose the movie’s soundtrack. ‘Evil Ball,’ a track from Schmidt’s solo project, ‘Sinoia Caves,’ was used by the movie’s director on a private screening held for Schmidt. A mutual appreciation for Tangerine Dream, John Carpenter soundtracks, and Giorgio Moroder’s music for ‘American Gigolo’ (1980) cemented their bond. Schmidt also said the background music from ‘The Shining’ (1980) and ‘Risky Business’ (1983) was influential.

Regarding the impact of The Shining’s soundtrack on his score, Schmidt singled out the compositions by György Ligeti and Krzysztof Penderecki as sonic touchstones. Their music had already been featured the sci-fi and horror genres, two of Cosmatos main cinematic obsessions when young. Ligeti pieces ‘Lux Aeterna’ and ‘Atmosphères’ had been featured in ‘2001: A Space Odyssey,’ and Penderecki’s ‘Polymorphia’ and a portion of ‘The Devils of Loudun’ was used in ‘The Exorcist’ (1973).

For his analog synth score, Schmidt used vintage equipment including Moog Taurus bass pedals, a Korg CX-3 organ, and a Mellotron. An extensive use of the Mellotron can be heard on the ‘flashback’ sequence, where Cosmatos had been using Pink Floyd’s ‘Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun’ as a temp track. All in all, ‘the chosen palette of sounds definitely harkens back to ‘The New Age of Enlightenment,” said Schmidt.

As themes for the film, Cosmatos stated that he’s interested in social control mechanisms, our own personal, internal controls and how religion affects our consciousness and society. ‘Beyond the Black Rainbow’ is centered on issues of repression and control of emotions. Cosmatos partly picked up these themes by reading the science fiction works of Beat novellist William S. Burroughs, books by and large dealing with societal control.

According to Cosmatos, the ‘rigid geometric world’ of the Arboria Institute visually fits the movie’s control theme. This is especially true for the Dr. Nyles character, someone ‘very knowledged, trying to create a very controlled environment to give himself a feeling of power.’ The light triangle, responsible for dampening Elena’s psychic powers, is another control symbol. The Institute’s plethora of reflecting surfaces – the walls in the hallways, the giant piece of glass in the therapy room, the infinity-mirrored Sentionaut room, Margo’s glasses– might somewhat hint at this idea. To many ancient cultures, the mirror was a symbol of self-awareness, consciousness and intelligence, but also a source of pride and vanity. The visual reference for Arboria Institute’s indoor design was ‘THX 1138.’

The movie’s control leitmotif is shown in a subtler way by reflecting North America’s political climate in the 1980s. ‘Beyond the Black Rainbow’ has been called a ‘Reagan-era fever dream.’ Its paranoid, Cold War mood contains nods to the late US president – through clips of ominous televised speeches by Ronald Reagan himself – and former Panamanian general and convicted drug lord Manuel Noriega.

Another of the film’s main themes is identity. In the course of the movie Dr. Nyles experiences a radical change of personality whose roots lie in the terrifying drug experience he had in the 1960s, under Mercurio Arboria’s supervision. Being exposed to his shadow side so intensely crippled not only his mind, but his body: Barry is forced to use appliances such as a wig and contact lenses. Similar to many a Lovecraftian protagonist, Barry Nyles is ultimately a pathetic character: his far-reaching knowledge, restrained demeanor and carefully controlled work environment are unable to dominate the forces of irrationality and chaos burning in his mind. In the end, the doctor undergoes a physical and psychological transformation where he forfeits all control and gives in to madness.

Cosmatos admits a dislike for Baby Boomer’s spiritual ideals. For him, the Boomer’s search for alternative belief systems made them dabble in the dark side of occultism, which in turn corrupted their quest for spiritual enlightenment. The use of psychedelic drugs for mind-expansion purposes is also explored, although Cosmatos’s take on it is ‘dark and disturbing,’ a ‘brand of psychedelia that stands in direct opposition to the flower child, magic mushroom peace trip’ wrote a reviewer.

UGO’s Jordan Hoffman noted both elements, stating in his review that in the movie some ‘up-to-no-good new age scientists have let their experiments with consciousness-altering drugs mutate a young woman’– in this case, Elena. Cosmatos explains why Dr. Arboria’s mission to create a superior human being ultimately failed: ‘I look at Arboria as kind of naïve. He had the best of intentions of wanting to expand human consciousness, but I think his ego got in the way of that and ultimately it turned into a poisonous, destructive thing. Because Arboria is trying to control consciousness and control the mind. There is a moment of truth in the film where the whole thing starts to disintegrate because it stops being about their humanity and becomes about an unattainable goal. That is the ‘Black Rainbow’: trying to achieve some kind of unattainable state that is ultimately, probably destructive.’

The film has had mixed reviews. Negative reviews focused generally on the surreal inscrutability of the plot and accusations of shallow pastiche, with Tony Norman of the ‘Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’ calling it ‘all ambiance and no substance.’ Mark Feeney of ‘The Boston Globe’ cited the atmosphere as initially being impressive but eventually becoming laughable, with the concept better suited to a short film. Jeannette Catsoulis of the ‘New York Times’ also gave a mixed review, highlighting the appeal to fans of midnight movies.

Positive reviews highlighted the cult appeal, such as Matt Singer of ‘Time Out,’ who welcomed the return of challenging, surreal midnight movies. Alison Willmore of the ‘A.V. Club’ rated it B+, praising its style and daring form. Don R. Lewis of ‘Film Threat’ also praised the film, saying, ‘As a cinema fan I was blown away at the control and attention to detail Cosmatos showed.’ Samuel Zimmerman of ‘Fangoria’ said the film ‘makes me lament that the general population of U.S. moviegoers isn’t more adventurous.’

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