If ever a film justified its inclusion in the Fantastic Fest lineup, it's Beyond the Black Rainbow, written and directed by Panos Cosmatos. The film is, in a word, fantastic, both as defined in the dictionary ("imaginative or fanciful; remote from reality") and as a cinematic experience that may best be considered a psychedelic head trip.
Saying that may conjure up images of drug-using hippies sitting stoned at late-night screenings of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. There is most certainly an element of free association in the visual compositions pieced together by Cosmatos, cinematographer Norm Li, production designer Bob Bottieri, editor Nicholas Shephard, special effects coordinator Brant McIllroy, and the rest of the crew. Yet it's still curiously engaging, even without much of a plot and without characters who are well-defined, due in part to a mesmerizing synthesizer score by Sinoia Caves (Jeremy Schmidt composed the theme music).
The time is 1983. Dr. Mercurio Arboria (Scott Hylands) founded the Arboria Institute to help people achieve "happiness, contentment, inner peace." The institute claims to be at the forefront of the emerging field of neuropsychology, and is also a place where new therapeutic techniques, and herbal and natural therapies are welcome. It all sounds like new-age leftovers from the 70s. The institute is located in a lonely rural area, starkly designed as an object from the future.
The two main characters are Dr. Barry Nyle (Michael Rogers), the Arboria Institute's head of research, and Elena (Eva Allan), a patient at the institute. Nyle is a tightly-compressed coil of an authority figure, asking Elena a single question before clicking his pen aggressively, the sound amplified on the soundtrack as though it were the sound of the world tearing apart. He asks Elena another question, and she begins to cry; Dr. Nyle says, coldly: "This is always the highlight of my day." He treats his wife much the same way when he goes home at night, in a cold and impersonal manner. Clearly, Dr. Nyle is not very good at interpersonal relationships.
Later, Dr. Nyle speaks to Elena about her mother, who she never met, and offers other hints as to why she is confined to the institute, despite her stated desire to leave. Elena remains a lovely, frustrating cypher, a fragile creature who rarely speaks. She stares with amusement at a small television playing cartoons, and is attuned to her environment, but the stillness of her body language and refusal, or inability, to engage with others bespeaks much greater personality problems.
Dr. Nyle is on a strict drug regimen himself; the drugs he takes causes the walls to melt and the screen to dissolve into a series of hazy, crazy-colored scenes that defy easy description. Eventually, Elena tries to break out, and that leads the story, such as it is, to a conclusion, but this is truly a case where the journey is what's important, not the destination.
Remarkably, Beyond the Black Rainbow represents the directorial debut of Cosmatos, and it is an impressively assured one. The movie plays like a dream, or maybe a nightmare, or perhaps a fantasy -- or, possibly, all three mashed together and pureed into its own creation -- with nearly every frame carefully composed and altered from reality in some way, whether it's soaked in color or framed in a manner that makes it difficult to determine the intended perspective. Often, objects and individuals are shot in such tight, extreme close-up that they resemble otherworldly creations.
Beyond the Black Rainbow is filled with eye-popping visual delights that would make the late Italian cinematic maestro Mario Bava proud, with a riot of colors that imbue meaning to entire sequences simply by changing from red to blue. It's a heady, healthy trip into the unknown.