The numbers, red on black, slowly reveal themselves, one at a time: 1. 9. 8. 3. Even a few minutes into Beyond the Black Rainbow (Magnolia DVD, Blu-ray, streaming, and download), the year is already almost a punchline. The stark, chromatic décor and the pulsing synth score alone telegraph the days when future visions were transmitted via VHS cassette, or maybe expensive laserdisc, and pointing it out is almost a little too on the nose. But then this isn't quite like any 1983 that ever existed on film, much less anything resembling the actual early Reagan presidency. This is more a 1983 of the mind—the mind of rookie feature writer/director Panos Cosmatos circa 2010, to be exact—and it is a singular place to spend two hours.
The sleek hallways and stark white walls of the futuristic Arboria Institute house Elena (Eva Allen), a subdued young woman who, we gather, has both a troubled mind and a psychically powerful one. At least that's the impression offered by the fact that she is being treated/imprisoned at the institute, under the dubious care of sinister ectomorph Dr. Barry Nyle (Michael Rogers). Details are scant—Black Rainbow isn't one of those flicks where you roll your eyes at all the exposition—but who and why and how aren't among Cosmatos' primary concerns.
The director not only captures the look of early '80s sci-fi/horror in the mod appurtenances and glowing Lucite, he also channels the stately surrealist dread of Italian masters such as Lucio Fulci and Dario Argento (Black Mountain's Jeremy Schmidt provides an electronic score worthy of venerable Argento collaborators Goblin), with just a pinch of early Cronenberg visceral enervation. Why Nyle allows (encourages? forces?) Elena to psychically attack her nurse (Rondel Reynoldson) until blood gushes from every hole in the poor woman's head, for example, is less important than the fact Cosmatos captures the sequence in an expressive style that uses cinema with an almost painterly hand (and that also manages to render the required horror-flick blast of gruesome in a way that's utterly fresh).
The plot, such as it is, is a mere thread, but there are no aesthetic details left to low-budget chance here. It's not difficult to imagine Cosmatos obsessing over the compounded shine of a hall of mirrors, over each of the all-white foods on Elena's dinner tray having a slightly different visible texture, over just how far her bare feet should sink into a patch of swampy ground. An entire squicktacular central sequence shot in lo-fi black and white only doubles down on the visual feast/overload element.
Surely many viewers will find themselves highly resistant to Cosmatos' compendium of aggressive design, painstaking shots, outré effects, and languorous pacing, but for '80s sci-fi/horror heads, avant-cinema fans, or just the superbaked there's something hypnotic about Black Rainbow's eerie slo-mo throb. The spell is so durable that it remains in place even after Elena breaks out of the institute and enters ordinary reality; for many, it may help paper over one of the most WTF-and-not-in-a-good-way final dramatic showdowns in recent memory. Nonetheless, watching Black Rainbow is a supremely memorable experience. It'll be interesting to see what the hell Cosmatos does next.
From an ambitious first film to a last film that uses time and aesthetic rigor in a similarly demanding and rewarding way. In Hungarian director Bela Tarr's 2011 The Turin Horse (Cinema Guild DVD and Blu-ray), an old man (Janos Derzsi) and his middle-aged daughter (Erika Bok) live together in a rude stone farmhouse amid a stark, treeless landscape constantly whipped by vicious winds. Water must be hauled in from a well. Dinner is a boiled potato eaten with fingers in silence (in real time). Their lone asset is a bedraggled-looking carthorse, but the horse has stopped eating and refuses to haul their wagon. Then the well runs dry.
Septuagenarian Tarr, known to cinephiles for forbidding epics such as Satantango and The Werckmeister Harmonies, has said that The Turin Horse is his last film. It's difficult to imagine a more final final statement. Half Biblical, half Beckettian, Tarr's meditation on the repetitiveness and ever-growing burden of life makes a mockery of typical cinematic time and would be almost unbearably bleak if not for the beauty and power of the director's trademark long takes and longtime collaborator Fred Keleman's gorgeous cinematography. Though this is an especially austere rendition of movie magic, its power to refocus your senses is formidable. A monument as much as a film.