Beyond the Black Rainbow (2012)
Dir. Panos Cosmatos
3 out of 5
Writer-director Panos Cosmatos’ sensory deprivation capsule Beyond the Black Rainbow is set in 1983 inside the Arboria Institute, a mysterious psychiatric complex introduced via a promotional video in which its founder, Mercurio Arboria (Scott Hylands), lays out his utopian goals of promoting human happiness. But the Namaste vibe is a ruse designed to mask the institute’s true purpose as a laboratory for the study of psychotropic drug regimens and mind control experiments (among others) performed on human guinea pigs. One of them, an orphaned girl named Elena (Eva Allan), has spent her entire life inside Arboria as a captive of Dr. Barry Nyle (Michael Rogers), a real creeper whose psychosexual obsession with his favored patient only scratches the surface of his issues.
Part psychological thriller and part chase movie, Beyond the Black Rainbow resembles the 1980s style homage House of the Devil in the way it attempts to tap into the horror at the outer limits of American society during the Reagan years. Rainbow’s best bits involve the mundane details of on-the-clock life at Arboria as well as Nyle’s bizarre life outside the facility. With the film’s heroine under heavy sedation for the majority of the film, sleazy mad scientist Rogers also rises to the occasion as a pathetic symbol of yuppie disappointment, racing home in his black sports car to swallow rows of antidepressant pills. He’s like a sadder, scrawnier version of American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman, except he's even worse at hiding his inherently twisted nature.
However, Rainbow is more of a mood piece than a character study. The portions exploring how the hermetic evil cultivated inside Arboria is seeping into the real world are a respite from the maddening slow burn of the film as a whole. Cosmatos has clearly chosen style over substance, creating an aesthetic that is best described as Tron inside a haunted house. The constant assault of audiovisual phantasmagoria isn’t boring, per se, but it often befuddles when it should intrigue, and makes it seem like Cosmatos is casting a smoke screen over a mystery that could be compelling if it was less obtuse.
The film doesn’t break free until Elena does the same, taking advantage of Nyle’s mental breakdown after an interminable flashback to the origins of his association with Arboria in the 1960s. That juicy subtext—the limitless possibility of new scientific and social frontiers gradually corrupted by Establishment excess and self-interest—gives the third act the impetus for its riotous spiral into madness. Cosmatos simply can’t resist providing the conventional horror movie payoffs once Elena begins her harrowing escape and triggers Nyle’s violent rampage. These tropes are like a breath of fresh air after a deluge of non-starting or perplexing sequences. But Beyond the Black Rainbow is challenging in a good way, too. It’s the type of impressively ambitious debut that tracks a visible improvement in the filmmaker’s skills from beginning to end. Cosmatos is a superb visual stylist, and deserves credit for seeing his premise all the way through to a wonderfully ambiguous ending that forgives flaws like the film's vexing pretension and lack of storytelling chops. While the former may or may not be fixable, he’s certainly earned the latter.
"Beyond the Black Rainbow" is currently playing in a special one-week engagement at the Cinefamily in Los Angeles.