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Retro Review: BLACK RAINBOW (1989)

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BLACK RAINBOW
(UK - 1989; US release 1991)

Written and directed by Mike Hodges. Cast: Rosanna Arquette, Jason Robards, Tom Hulce, Mark Joy, Ron Rosenthal, John Bennes, Linda Pierce, Olek Krupa, Marty Terry, Ed L. Grady, Rick Warner, Jon Thompson, Helen Baldwin, Ed Lillard, Darla N. Warner, Muse Watson. (R, 103 mins)

"If you knew for certain that there was nothing after death, that you only had one shot...maybe if we didn't indulge in the arrogance of thinking we go on forever, we'd be better people while we were alive."

A film that adamantly refuses to adhere to genre labels or even be clear about exactly what it's up to, BLACK RAINBOW has a deceptively straightforward narrative but still comes off at the end like a mystery wrapped in a riddle inside an enigma. It feels like the kind of ambiguous, "elevated horror" slow-burner that A24 would release to critical acclaim and mainstream derision today. Harvey Weinstein certainly didn't know what to with it back in 1989, when Miramax acquired the British-financed film and promptly shelved it for two years. They eventually sold it to Showtime, where it debuted as one of the cable network's original movies in August 1991 before turning up in video stores in 1992. It was a labor of love for Mike Hodges, best known for 1971's GET CARTER and 1980's FLASH GORDON. Hodges' career had been on a downturn throughout the '80s, and he cited BLACK RAINBOW as the first project in a long time where he was given complete freedom to make exactly the film he wanted to make. It's always intriguing and compelling, and the location work in rural North Carolina offers the kind of unique perspective of small-town America that can often only be achieved when seen through the lens of an outsider such as the British Hodges, much like two other British films made at roughly the same time: Donald Cammell's disturbing, Arizona-shot WHITE OF THE EYE and Philip Ridley's Canadian-shot, Idaho-set THE REFLECTING SKIN. But Hodges seems to be biting off more than he can chew, taking the clairvoyant elements similar to what was seen in Italian gialli like Dario Argento's DEEP RED and Lucio Fulci's THE PSYCHIC and weaving them into a supernatural ELMER GANTRY, while at the same time shoehorning in subplots about industrial corruption, hired killers, and NORMA RAE-esque concerns about safety issues in blue-collar workplaces, all bookended by wraparound story that could very well be taking place inside The Shimmer from ANNIHILATION. It's a unique and unconventional chiller that might have more going on that it needs, but it refuses to hold your hand and expects you to pay attention. It's the kind of film where even a local yokel's seemingly throwaway line about kudzu vines is there for a reason.






BLACK RAINBOW opens with journalist Gary Wallace (Tom Hulce) traveling to a small backwoods town in search of Martha Travis (Rosanna Arquette), described by the townsfolk as a "ghost." She's lived in the outskirts of town in a dilapidated house for a decade but no one's ever actually seen her. Wallace sees her, taking some photos from a distance before knocking on the door demanding to know what happened ten years ago on the night her father died and remarking "Your eyes, Martha. They look like they've seen too much." She slams the door in his face and there's a hard cut to a decade earlier. Martha is a renowned medium who travels throughout the small towns of the South with her alcoholic father and manager Walter (Jason Robards), conning Bible Belt rubes with their "contact your dead loved ones" act at local churches. At a stop at an industrial town in nowhere North Carolina, Martha is visibly shaken when she's struck with a legitimate contact from beyond from a woman's dead husband. She terrifies the woman by vividly describing the violent manner in which her husband was murdered.


The problem is, he's not dead. He's very much alive and at home watching TV. He's killed two hours later in a hail of gunfire by an assassin (Mark Joy) in exactly the way Martha described. In her vision, she also saw the killer, and it turns out that the victim (Olek Krupa) worked for Silas Chemical, the plant that employs most of the town, and was about to blow the whistle on rampant safety violations, prompting evil, Mr. Burns-ish owner Ted Silas (John Bennes) to hire a hit man to take him out. The corrupt police chief (Ron Rosenthal) notifies Silas that "we've got a problem" since Martha claims to have seen the killer. The Travises move on to their next gig, with local reporter Wallace following along, convinced Martha's act is a scam but gradually buying into her newfound ability to be contacted by spirits of the dead in the hours shortly before they actually die. He wants to break the story on the killer's identity but soon becomes a believer after Martha's next show has her contacted by a dozen dead souls of people who are all alive then but then perish in a fuel plant explosion the next morning.


It's an eerie premise that Hodges handles very effectively in the contact scenes, which are well-performed by a never-better Arquette. She's matched by Robards, who imbues Walter with the kind of weary, raspy cynicism at which the actor so excelled. They have, to say the least, a complicated relationship with deep-seated family dysfunction. He sees her as a reminder of his now-deceased "bitch" wife who walked out on them years ago. There's also a subtle implication that there's been some patterns of abuse on his part, especially with Martha secretly hooking up with strangers at each of their stops while Walter drinks himself into a stupor in his room down the hall. She resents being pulled into his con act and living a life on the back roads of America with no friends or roots of any kind. That would be enough foundation for BLACK RAINBOW, but it spends too much time on the extraneous shenanigans involving Silas and the hit man, and the unsafe working conditions at plants and factories in the towns that the Travises pass through.


One big mistake Hodges makes is filling the supporting cast almost entirely with regional actors from North Carolina and Virginia. They range from functional to embarrassingly bad, and while Hodges no doubt thought they would add some down-home legitimacy and a strong sense of local color, most of them simply can't cut the mustard acting with seasoned pros like Arquette, Hulce and two-time Oscar-winner Robards (interestingly, Robards and Hulce went straight from this to playing father and son in Ron Howard's smash hit PARENTHOOD). It's particularly noticeable with the characters of Silas and the hit man, both of whom should've been played by established character actors who could've done more with the roles than make them the one-dimensional caricatures they end up being. Knowing in the first scene that Walter is killed ten years earlier does undermine the proto-Shyamalanian twist at the end, but I don't think the plot twist was Hodges' chief concern. I'm not even sure what Hodges' chief concern was given what transpires in the ruthlessly ambiguous closing scenes, but he creates a cultural and religious portrait of red-state America that remains shockingly prescient today. While BLACK RAINBOW was issued on DVD with no fanfare in a subpar, cropped transfer on the budget Trinity label in the early 2000s, it's been somewhat difficult to see in the years after its ubiquitous video store presence in the '90s. As a result, it's found a decent-sized cult following over time and has just been given a pristine HD restoration on the new Blu-ray release from Arrow, because physical media is dead.





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