Posts tagged Beyond The Black Rainbow
Howard Lovecraft’s thematic influence is all over the popular media these days, draped like a flaccid mass of fetid shoggoth protoplasm over everything from comics to My Little Pony to the films of Guillermo del Toro, a director who gets HPL and mostly gets his world and Mythos right. But for every del Toro, there’s a dozen lesser directors for whom the addition of some tentacles and a raving scholar or two constitutes the apex of what can now be called “Lovecraftian horror”, a term that’s pretty execrable due to the raft of cinematic garbage it floats in on, sadly.
Still, there are some moviemakers out there who are #KeepingItRlyeh, and this without resorting to the obvious. (I’m leaving out direct or glancing adaptations of Lovecraft’s actual stories.)
The following are my Top 5 Films That “Do Lovecraft” Better Than Lovecraft…
(2011, directed by Mike Flanagan, starring Katie Parker and Courtney Bell)
Part of the power of Lovecraft’s fiction derives from the extreme paranoia he brought to his conceptions of life and the universe. In Lovecraft’s worldview, the boundaries of our existence are porous and fragile, and the threshold between our world and other, more raw and powerful worlds is constantly being tested, probed, and violated. His Great Old Ones walk “primal and unseen” just the other side of our perceptions; indeed, they are “as one with [our] guarded threshold.” Director Mike Flanagan’s excellent Absentia plays with these concepts to chilling effect, situating one such porous boundary in a simple suburban underpass, a short tunnel regularly used by joggers and commuters. It is, of course, also a “weak spot” in reality, and the things that live and roam and abduct humans at random from behind the tunnel’s seemingly solid concrete walls are cleverly shown not-at-all, or at least only suggested at. An indie film that knows and practices the excellent rules for effective monster-ing: don’t show. Don’t show, and barely tell. Thanks to the two lead actresses, Parker and Bell, Absentia is not only terrifying, it’s sorrowful and bleak, and the Black Gnosis their characters reach through their exposure to the unknowable is tone-perfect and Keeping It R’lyeh.
4. The Corridor
(2010, directed by Evan Kelly, starring Stephen Chambers, James Gilbert, and Nigel Bennet)
The five-friends-go-to-a-cabin schtick has been done to death in horror films, but this brilliant Canadian production manages to turn the trope on its head and gift the viewer with great characters, believable male relationships, compelling interpersonal histories, and a completely bizarre terror wedded to wince-worthy depictions of madness and death. The terror is largely a psychic one, involving the augmentation of merely human senses, with the expected costs to human sanity. What makes this film Lovecraftian, aside from the elements of super-science and the supernatural, the uncanny and the unknowable? Unlike the vast majority of “cabin in the woods” thrillers, there are no women present: The Corridor is an all Y-chromosome joint. Removing the female dynamic and gender & power differentials from the narrative strips it down to some very base, and therefore genuine, places. There are no heroes in the film, no one to save and no mind that’s safe from what’s coming. In Lovecraft’s fiction, the all-male casting is often spoken of as a negative (which isn’t entirely untrue – certainly some diversity would likely have benefited HPLs stories) but here, you can see how it works. It’s Man (or men) laid bare and vulnerable before something incomprehensible, and with no ladies present, the import is all the more stark.
(1989, directed by Phillipe Mora, starring Christopher Walken)
Mora’s film, based on the runaway bestseller by Whitley Strieber, didn’t exactly hit the sweet spot of the public consciousness during the “alien abduction” craze. It was pretty much universally panned at the time (I blame the soundtrack by Eric Clapton – fiendish! inappropriate!) Watching it with hindsight now, one can see why folks couldn’t get excited about it. Clearly, the Greys (and their stubby little grunting servitors) were only interested in abducting and messing with the heads of sensitive creative types like Streiber (played wonderfully by the irrepressible Walken – the film is worth watching for his performance alone, though Streiber himself disapproved of his portrayal). And that’s why Communion (dated and overlong as it may be) is a Lovecraftian film that’s Keeping It R’lyeh: as an examination of the psyche of a human being pushed beyond reason by forces outside his ken, it’s excellent. But more importantly for our purposes here, it’s the manner in which Streiber tenaciously pushes through his eldritch experiences and out beyond the place of madness to a kind of grudging acceptance of his place in the universe, if not a full understanding of that place and the beings that reside there. For an 80s audience primed to expect Close Encounters-style alien shenanigans, Communion was likely too cerebral and preachy. Still, worth a viewing, with some genuinely ominous and unsettling imagery…
(2008, directed by Bruce McDonald, starring Stephen McHattie, Lisa Houle, Georgina Reilly)
A common theme running through Lovecraftian media products is the idea that Language Is The Key. Know the Right Words, Intoned from Some Black Book, Pronounced Correctly in the Proper Conditions? Good. You’re on the fast track to Madness and Death. The “magic word” is resonant because it’s kind of half-true already: language does have an almost viral affect on the world, or at least our brains, which we use to shape the world. But as a plot device it’s been so overdone for so long (it was a gag long before Bruce Campbell stood in that graveyard talkin’ “neckties”) that when a film like Pontypool comes along and subverts it, we almost don’t notice. On the surface, this Canadian production (yes, another one – “true North, strong and weird!”) is a zombie film (and was marketed as such upon release) but it is so much more. It’s an examination of language and meaning itself (or at least the malleability of language) and the insidious ways meaning (and its attendant phantom of Truth) gets its hooks into the meat of us and makes us dance. For the viewer with a R’lyehian mindset, Pontypool is almost a cautionary tale on the dangers of locking the Self down with arbitrary meaning. All words are made up / all words are magic / meaning is a cage / cages kill … embrace the Black Gnosis and be free? Sure. Good enough for me. Bonus points for a brutal and Lovecraftian not-happy-ending, and a very strong performance by Stephen McHattie doesn’t hurt either.
1. Beyond the Black Rainbow
(2010, directed by Panos Cosmatos, starring Michael Rogers, Eva Bourne, and Scott Hylands)
I’ve written a long-ish review elsewhere of Cosmatos’ one-of-a-kind film. It’s my top pick here for a thousand reasons, not least of which is Michael Roger’s thoroughly unsettling portrayal of a man of Science invaded, used, and ultimately discarded, by an alien intelligence. Black Rainbow has a glacial pace, and yet every second is packed with dire foreboding, very bad very mad science, and Lovecraftian implications. These latter may be missed due to, yes, the pacing, but also the hyper-nostalgic 80s film techniques Cosmatos clearly loves (the story is set in 1982, after all) and emulates to perfection. There is a portal (of sorts) and an entity (of a kind – and, again, never seen, only hinted at) and an asylum-like institution (clean and minimalist in its lines, but crawling with a madness-inducing sterility) but besides these subtly Lovecraftian set pieces, it is the utter dread evoked by Black Rainbow, the slow, crawling, inexorable build to destructive revelation that puts it in the top spot. People will tell you to see it while high, and mean it as a slight against the film and its viewers, but don’t. Or at least, see it sober first. Best advice I can give? Sit with it, breathe with it, get inside it … and let it in. “Is it not an avatar of Nyarlathotep, who, in antique and shadowy Khem, even took the form of Man?” Light is dark, and dark is light, babies! Enjoy. My full review is HERE
Honourable Mention: AM1200
(2008, directed by David Prior, starring Eric Lange, Ray Wise, and John Billingsley)
AM1200 is a short, so not technically a feature-length film, but that hardly matters, since once you’ve sat through its 40 minutes once, you’ll immediate want to do it again. And then possibly a third time, or maybe just from the moment Eric Lange’s on-the-run embezzler flees the flashlight in the woods and finds his way to the radio station.
That’s enough of a tease, right there. Go find this film. Watch it. And keep on Keeping It R’lyeh!
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Are you Keeping It R’lyeh?
You may be, and just not know it! Unclear on the concept? Curious about the #BlackGnosis? Wondering how you, too, might take the #Cthulhusattva Vow? Order your copy of When The Stars Are Right: Towards An Authentic R’lyehian Spirituality by Scott R Jones and get right with the Great Old Ones! Limited physical copies remain, ebook versions plentiful like the electrons they’re made of!
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Scott R Jones is the author of the short story collections Soft from All the Blood and The Ecdysiasts, as well as the non-fiction When the Stars Are Right: Towards An Authentic R’lyehian Spirituality. His poetry and prose have appeared in Innsmouth Magazine, Cthulhu Haiku II, Broken City Mag, and upcoming in Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine.
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)