Thursday, January 15, 2015


                When we call something “Cronenbergian” we’re usually referring to body horror. But there’s another aesthetic I associate with Cronenberg, at least his early flicks: a fascination with the place where science, (or at least pseudo-science) and the fringey counterculture mindset intersect. We might call it “hippie science”, this image of New Age ideologies and crackpot fringe theories being taken seriously enough to merit study in well-funded, superficially respectable institutes. It had its heyday right when Cronenberg was first making a name for himself as a filmmaker, and it pops up repeatedly in most of his early work. I don’t know if there were ever actually private institutions devoted to studying “Psycho-plasmics” or Cathode Ray Missions for allowing homeless people access to media signals, but this kind of thing was everywhere in pop culture for a while; it’s actually become part of our collective memory of the era, typified most memorably in Lost’s Dharma initiative with its synth music-backed videos and straight-faced statements about the betterment of humanity. Despite the memorably era-specific coat of paint, though, it’s really just a front for our old pal Meddling In God’s Domain.
                The Arboria Institute of Beyond the Black Rainbow may as well be the Dharma Institute under another name. The movie even begins with a similarly trippy propaganda video filled with bold proclamations on the part of its founder, “Mercurio Arboria” (I’m guessing that’s not the name he was born with). Dr. Arboria (Scott Hylands) is, predictably enough, a pop science guru whose specialty is pharmaceuticals, and whose institute is devoted to the usual blather about how tripping balls will usher in the next phase of human consciousness. Back in the 60s he performed some radical experiments in chemistry on himself and his inner circle, including his wife and his protégé Barry Nyle (Michael Rogers). The result of this, or one of the results, was the birth of a child, Helena, who seems to have superhuman powers. I think Helena is Mercurio’s daughter, but to be honest it’s a little hard to tell what the hell is going on in the flashback to 1966 due to heavily blown-out, high-contrast cinematography.
                The rest of the movie, set in 1983, is less impenetrable visually but still somewhat opaque narratively; we eventually learn that Dr. Arboria is clinging to a grotesque parody of life somewhere in an inner chamber while Nyle runs the institute, a job that largely consists of studying and psycholanalyzing the imprisoned Helena (the strikingly elfin Eva Allen). Unfortunately, in the proud tradition of movie psychiatrists everywhere, Nyle’s kind of a dick…well, no, actually, “kind of a dick” is  putting it mildly, though we don’t understand how mildly until the movie’s most of the way to act three.
                Beyond The Black Rainbow is not for everyone. It’s way too languid and artsy for people who prefer mainstream thrills and chills, and while ultimately a horror film it’s not in a hurry to announce itself as such. Of course, the movie also makes no bones about being a head film, starting with the title, so hopefully anyone who stumbles across it on Netflix will enter into it with the proper expectation that it’s a sensory experience first and a narrative second. The lush colours and warbly ambient soundscape are carefully constructed to draw you in in a way few movies bother with these days; Kubrick is obviously a touchstone, as is Mario Bava. In terms of mise en scene, though, it leans more to pre-Star Wars 70s SF, hence my evoking Cronenberg earlier.
                What’s most intriguing about the movie to me, though, is how it uses the genre trappings of the era it’s examining to comment on it seemingly without even trying. The movie presents a SF re-enactment of the death of the hippie dream, Hunter S. Thompson’s high water mark embodied in the shift of pop culture tropes over two decades. Begun with earnest ambition to make a better world, the Arboria Institute has become a house of horrors, its gurus detached from humanity, the chemicals meant to enhance lives become a withering addiction. Even the movie’s structural veer from portentious thoughtfulness to slasher flick echoes this decline.
                Setting out deliberately to make a “cult film” is usually a bad idea in the same way that a movie intended as “Oscar bait” spells trouble; you can’t force people to feel a certain way about your film just by using certain signifiers. But while I won’t claim that you can’t sometimes see Black Rainbow trying to deliberately weird you out, director Panos Cosmatos clearly has something to say behind his posturing. It’s definitely notable that I found this movie worthwhile, even though it’s the kind of thing I usually find to be a slog. 

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