Far Voyages — Lovecraftian Themes in ‘Beyond The Black Rainbow’
I first heard of Panos Cosmatos’ Beyond the Black Rainbow from someone on my twitter feed. I’m sure this happens a lot, with the exchange proceeding along the following lines…
Person A tweets: “Beyond the Black Rainbow… #WTF did I just watch?” Persons B through L then offer up their various fevered interpretations of a film that, thankfully, resists and confounds interpretations as much as it invites them.
The best response I ever read went a little something like this: “Beyond the Black Rainbow is your standard Boy meets Girl, Boy enters the Void and returns with knowledge that cannot be contained by a human mind, Boy rips Girl’s throat out with his teeth, Boy obsesses over Girl’s telekinetic daughter in a Black-Ops MK Ultra-esque research facility with psychic androids. You know, same old, same old.”
The film is deliberately, even meticulously, styled after the straight-to-VHS shock-horror films of the early 80s that graced the shelves of your local video rental joint. You could call it an homage, except that Cosmatos has gone far beyond that call and entered into a realm of deeply realized hyper-nostalgia, insisting upon fully analog period-compatible production methods in both his visuals and the soundtrack (brilliantly executed by Jeremy Schmidt of Vancouver BC’s Black Mountain). The film recalls and references 2001: A Space Odyssey, Altered States, Scanners, and THX 1138, among many others. It genuinely feels like it was made in the year the film is set in, 1983; made and then lost to obscurity, buried in some failed video distributors back-catalogue, only to be exhumed and made available again nearly thirty years later.
And, surging below the obvious cinematic influences of Kubrick, John Carpenter, and Michael Mann is the nighted existentialism of our man Lovecraft.
Beyond the Black Rainbow is Lovecraftian to the core. If we live on the shores of a black sea of infinity, then this film is a primer for what happens when we piece together dissociated knowledge and voyage far, against all reason and rationality, upon those seas.
Dr Mercurio Arboria (Scott Hylands) is the founder and head of the Arboria Institute, a quasi-mystical therapeutic facility utilizing a New Age-y mish-mash of techniques such as neuro-psychology and “energy sculpting”, hypnosis and “benign pharmacology” to help people attain “happiness, contentment, inner peace.” A tone-perfect promotional video for the Institute opens the film and immediately we can smell the hubris coming off the screen: this man, and anyone associated with him, is clearly about to venture into dangerous territories.
A note about plot: the same old same old summary above is as succinct as anything I could write here, but if I’m going to claim an HPL influence, some details (which will not spoil the film, guaranteed!) will be necessary. Halfway through the film, we are taken in flashback (using an arresting, visually blown-out photography effect that is migraine-like in its intensity) to the traumatic event that is the source of the later horrors: the young Dr Nyle (Michael Rogers) is Dr Arboria’s test pilot for an experimental drug used in conjunction with a thoroughly unsettling-looking sensory-deprivation tank that is, basically, a circular pool of black muck into which he descends. Dr Arboria, assisted by his young wife, urge Nyle to “bring back the mother lode” and the younger doctor does, in spades.
Using macro-photography techniques, analog smoke and water effects, jarring lighting contrasts and a very effective hollow maquette of the actor’s head, we experience Nyle’s takeover by a hostile, nameless force. The scene is reminiscent of some of the more hallucinatory images from Ken Russel’s Altered States. Scored with a droning, oppressive track that features heavy Mellotron use, the possession is claustrophobic, horrifying, and all the more so for what we imagine is occurring to the victim. Every terrible thing possible pours into his head like sentient smoke and we are sickened as much by the unknowable (by us) terror of it as we are by the aftermath. Nyle emerges from the pool and commits a monstrous act…
The good Dr Arboria, by now at least half-way insane if not fully, seeks to mitigate the awfulness of his loss by baptizing his now motherless infant daughter in the very same pool, believing that she will become the first of a new breed of humanity. She does, after a fashion, but grows to become a captive of the Arboria Institute and the new, power-mad Nyle, who has usurped Dr Arboria as Director, addicting the older man to research-grade opiates. Nyle keeps her powers suppressed with the facilities mysterious machines while he performs his malevolent therapies upon her. The rest of the film is largely Elena’s (Eva Allan) attempts at escape from Arboria.
Something I have always found fascinating about Lovecraft’s characters is their essentially pathetic nature. Despite their hard-won and far-reaching knowledge and their claims to a high level of competence and control over themselves and their world, they find themselves fighting a panicked, rear-guard battle against powerful forces of irrationality that arise just as often from within their own chaotic selves as from their contact with outer realms of being. For the Lovecraftian protagonist, Madness is absolutely certain, even if Death is not. And when Death does arrive, it often does so in a completely banal, pathetic manner: think of Wilbur Whateley’s ignominious passing by, of all things, a guard dog attack.
Nyle here fulfills that type well. By the third act, we learn that his transformation was not only of the mind, but of the body as well. We are witness to a physical transition, which, while understated, is made all the more sickening by our understanding of the twisted mind behind those eyes. Nyle is a man exposed to awful truths from Beyond, a man who has warped and mutated over the years from the constant pressure of hosting those truths within him. Within the stark, well-lit corridors of the Arboria Institute, he could maintain a fetishistic illusion of control over Eva, her father, even himself. But once Eva does escape, and Nyle goes on a violent hunt outside the facility for her, all control is lost, if it was ever there at all. Nyle’s death, when it comes, is sudden, laughable, almost ridiculous. Like many a Lovecraftian protagonist before him, his knowledge, and whatever small but horrific measure of power it gave him over others, has made him a victim.
It should be noted that Beyond the Black Rainbow is a glacially paced film. You have not seen “slow” until you’ve clocked its one hour, forty-five minute run time. Thankfully, it is so well-crafted visually, and the skillful intensity of the actors (who are often subjected to very close-up camera work so that we can see every twitch and anguished micro-expression) makes it a psychedelic slow burn that’s quite enjoyable. And, as mentioned previously, it’s a film that leaves a lot open to interpretation, and provides no easy answers, which as far as I’m concerned is another black feather in it’s Lovecraft cap.
Beyond the Black Rainbow is available from the film’s distributors here (trailer is there as well and worth a look even if you’re not planning to see the film) and it’s streaming on Netflix for the foreseeable future.
(This review written by Martian Migraine Press author S R Jones. It originally appeared on the Lovecraft eZine 12 March 2013)
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