At the age of 10, Panos Cosmatos went to Sylvester Stallone’s house to watch Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. “Brigitte Nielsen was there playing an arcade game, and Frank Stallone was in the media room watching TV,” the Vancouver-based writer-director recalls, “and they had a screening room, and off to the side was Stallone’s knife collection: custom knives, this crazy collection of bizarre custom knives.”
The screening was a bust. Sly decided the film was boring and skipped a reel, but those knives stuck with Cosmatos. He wonders if they exerted a “subconscious influence” on the exotically nasty weapon you see being wielded in the poster for his own movie, Beyond the Black Rainbow.
His past—also pretty exotic, obviously— comes up a lot in a conversation. Cosmatos grew up in Victoria, where he nurtured an obsession with horror, science-fiction, and heavy metal. His dad directed Hollywood movies like Rambo: First Blood II, which explains why the family was hanging out with Sly, and his mom was an artist who, he says, “made these very disturbing, strange sculptures that were about identity and people’s souls”.
The grown-up Cosmatos eventually fell in with the city’s arts and music crowd and made a couple of music videos, including a minatory promo for Handsome Furs’ “Dumb Animals”. That clip, from 2007, reveals a true gift for mood and composition, something that Cosmatos scales up to towering effect in his debut feature, opening in Vancouver on Friday (July 6) at the Vancity Theatre.
When the Georgia Straight reaches him in L.A., Cosmatos has just learned that his film is being held over for an extra week at the cult movie–oriented Cinefamily theatre in West Hollywood. This is no big surprise: Beyond the Black Rainbow is an outrageously cool stoner mindfuck and a midnight movie par excellence.
Set in 1983, the film employs ravishing pictures and sparse, enigmatic dialogue to tell the story of a sinister new-age clinic called the Arboria Institute, the apparently telekinetic girl (Eva Allan) imprisoned inside its luminous, retro-future walls, and the reptilian psychiatrist who keeps her there (with the assistance of a big, glowing pyramid). Imagine David Cronenberg making a head movie for Roger Corman’s aggressively lowbrow New World Pictures in the thick of the Ronald Reagan era, take out most of the conventional narrative elements, add a lot of lovingly executed old-school optical effects, and you’re getting close to its deliciously weird texture.
Beneath that, Beyond the Black Rainbow is also a highly personal piece of cinema, perhaps explaining why early screenings were greeted with a baffled silence, and worse. “Initially, the reaction was so muted and downright negative,” Cosmatos reports. “I stopped watching the movie at festivals because I can’t help but take it personally. Every time somebody walks out, it’s like a dagger through my heart.”
The film eventually found its audience at the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival, where it occurred to Cosmatos that “before that, people were just looking at it as a science-fiction movie and being, like, ‘What the fuck is this?’ ”
So, indeed—what the fuck is this? Considering that the film’s villain (Michael Rogers) is a mutated humanoid who wears a turtleneck and calls himself “Barry”, you have to consider that Beyond the Black Rainbow is an extremely subtle comedy as much as anything else. Cosmatos certainly doesn’t disagree, pointing out that the film’s basic strategy of presenting a pulpy sci-fi story like it’s the resurrection of Stanley Kubrick is an inherently silly one.
“I’ve always liked the idea of merging esoteric art cinema with down-and-dirty exploitation films,” he says, adding that a movie like Cronenberg’s Shivers offers a model marriage of “intellect and trash”. He notes that one of his own nascent screenwriting efforts blended both Eric Rohmer and Bert I. Gordon. The former was a founding figure in the French New Wave, and the latter made a movie in which Marjoe Gortner is attacked by a huge rat.
“I was, like, ‘I really wanna see an Eric Rohmer movie take place in a Bert I. Gordon universe,’ ” he explains with a ferocious laugh. “Where there’s a story going on that’s about, you know, loss and desire, but with a giganticized-animal element.”
Cosmatos has another idea for a Weekend at Bernie’s prequel that he’d shoot “like a really depressing, black-and-white Ingmar Bergman film”. Unlikely (if intriguing) projects aside, he’s clearly a man who won’t let a high-concept punch line at least go unconsidered—something that viewers might keep in mind when they get to the WTF ending he drummed up for Rainbow. That booming laugh returns when Cosmatos remembers describing the climax to friends. “They were, like, ‘That’s fucking ridiculous; that’s a terrible idea,’ and the more I heard that, the more I wanted to do it,” he howls.
If that sounds needlessly perverse, well, Cosmatos actually has an elaborate rationale for the climax, one that refers to a recurring nightmare he had as a child, back when he was “really fucked up” on horror movies. Like pretty much everything in Beyond the Black Rainbow, he’s drawing on a private reserve of themes, motifs, ideas, and symbols that he’s been internalizing since his family moved to Victoria in 1982.
In other words, everything in Beyond the Black Rainbow means something to Panos Cosmatos, including all its crowd-pleasing references to other movies. If he tells his story obliquely, it’s a tactical choice, designed to pull you into the movie’s trancelike head space and bolstered by the extraordinary level of craft and care the filmmaker and his collaborators bring to the project, from Norm Li’s lysergic 35mm photography to Jeremy Schmidt’s pulsating analogue synth score. Further to that, Cosmatos offers a very satisfying rebuttal to those who assert that his film is just a brilliant but hollow pastiche.
“I think there are emotional undercurrents in there that are about grief and loss and regret,” he offers. “I think I manifested it in the screenplay in a very abstracted, fictional way, but it’s a real emotion.” Pushed to reveal more—grief over what?—he replies: “Over my parents’ deaths.” Cosmatos lost his mother in 1997; his father died in 2005, and the time between, he readily admits, was “like a slow-motion descent into annihilation”.
“I’d been drifting and in a very self-destructive bent ever since my mother died,” he explains, “and as soon as I dealt with the grief, for the first time in 10 years, I had clarity and I realized: ‘I need to make a movie, now, cause if I don’t make it now, I might never do it.’ That’s what pushed me forward, and I immediately moved to Vancouver.”
That was late 2008, and shooting began in 2009 on a film that, as it turns out, might be one of the most strangely transmuted forms of autobiography ever committed to celluloid. If you’re still not convinced, consider at the very least that Cosmatos was raised by a woman who made sculptures of “people’s souls”, while Beyond the Black Rainbow was financed by the DVD residuals from his father’s 1993 film, Tombstone. Talk about mingling the esoteric with the trashy.
“I think he woulda loved it,” Cosmatos says. “And my mother woulda loved it. She was as big an influence on this movie and my life as he was. I think they’re both sort of in this movie in the same way that Bert I. Gordon and Eric Rohmer are.”
Watch the trailer for Beyond the Black Rainbow.