There’s always some good weirdness to be found in the Midnight Movies strand at film festivals, and my top tip for the AFI FEST sponsored by Audi, starting this week, is the fantastically trippy Beyond the Black Rainbow. Let me be clear: this film has not been picking up fans at previous festivals, with complaints ranging from “deathly dull” and “unnecessarily lengthened student short” to “retro-hipster counterfeit” and “complete crapola”. It’s slow and derivative, with a jarringly misjudged ending, but far as I am from an ’80s nostalgist, I couldn’t help but fall a little bit in love with it.
Don’t worry about the plot, for it hardly matters. It’s an alternate 1983, and we’re introduced via a promotional video and the eerily red backlit Mercurio Arboria, to his institute for some sort of pharmacologically-assisted spiritual health-giving. Most of the film plays out in the Arboria Institute, which appears to have only one inmate, a semi-stupefied young woman (a surprisingly good Eva Allen, with no spoken lines). She clings to an illicit photo of her mother, and is questioned slowly and semi-sadistically by a younger doctor, Barry Nyle. There’s also a floating diamond pulsating with white light, motorbike-helmeted Sensonauts, and some weird veiny bald guy in a strait jacket. A mid-film flashback “explains” how the girl was born with telekinetic abilities. But since this involves Nyle submerging himself in an inky pool and turning into a weird upside-down version of the cover of Nirvana’s Sliver single (except he looks like he’s made of melting cheese), don’t expect to understand the finer points.
The movie’s a visual trip, the molasses-slow pace and sinister set-up excuses for a terrific succession of images employing heavily colored lighting, indoor lens flare, abstract close-ups, reflections wherever possible, billowing smoke, melting walls, a terrific sequence of double exposure, and cool, precise compositions framing the antiseptic lines of the sets. The flashback flips to a nice and freaky blown-out black and white look, and whether director Panos Cosmatos was actually trying to engage us with his story or merely mesmerize with visuals, he and DP Norm Li conjure one retina-dazzling image after another, accompanied almost non-stop by a throbbing synth score – analogue only! – by Sinoia Caves (Jeremy Schmidt of Black Mountain).
The hypnotic effect of the film is greatly helped by the creepy, robotic Michael Rogers as Nyle, with his malevolent black eyes and “that guy” look. He could have stepped out of early Cronenberg, and Stereo through Scanners are not the only films invoked: most obviously, a pulsating 2001 iris over the credits, swathes of THX 1138, and Vangelis noodling over dreamy golden architecture shots in Blade Runner (not to mention a literal eye-popping). There’s plenty of other direct steals, and many I no doubt missed – Cosmatos has spoken of wanting to make the sort of film he imagined was in the early 80s VHS cases his parents wouldn’t allow him to rent. He’s obviously caught up on many of them since, and his sense of period sci-fi design is entirely sure.
The film fatally loses its grip in the very final section, venturing outside the institute, inexplicably changing tone entirely, and relying on idiotic chance for its resolution. But for all the self-indulgence, blatant stealing and portentous mystification (what the hell does the title mean?), Cosmatos, Li, Schmidt and production designer Bob Bottieri have up until that point conjured a deliciously narcotic treat for the senses. So don’t try and understand it – it’s a midnight movie after all; you can cut it some slack – just open your eyes, get ready to trip, and let the sweet synth sounds wash over you.