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The 1989 paranormal thriller Black Rainbow focuses on earthly mystery and intrigue for most of its runtime before letting its story completely slip into the realm of metaphysical riddles. Writer-director Mike Hodges (Get Carter, Croupier) knows his way around a stylish genre flick, and his intelligence and confidence keeps Black Rainbow agreeably humming along. If the film doesn't fully articulate its myriad thematic intentions before the final fade-out, that is only a minor setback.
It helps that we get to spend the film in the company of a first-rate cast. Rosanna Arquette stars as Martha Travis, a medium who makes a living doing flashy public readings for religious folks in the South. Jason Robards is her father Walter, a drunk huckster whose only belief is in the cash that suckers put in his palm. Tom Hulce makes a relatively rare appearance as reporter Gary Wallace, who enters the Travises' lives when Martha unwittingly speaks to the spirit of a "dead" person who doesn't end up dying until later that night.
Gary smells a hoax, Walter presumes it's a fluke, but Martha fears that she has greater abilities than she ever understood. Whatever the case, Martha announces publicly that she saw the murderer in her vision and she even knows his name. This causes concern for the powerful man who ordered the killing, inspiring him to order another: Martha's.
The central villainous conspiracy of the film has the whiff of a '70s political thriller, but the concern is firmly rooted in the '80s: exploitation of workers in the name of greed (which, despite Michael Douglas's Wall Street exhortation, is not good for these characters). The Big Bad is a nuclear energy big shot and pillar of his community, Ted Silas (John Bennes); the murder in question involved the silencing of a whistleblower in one of Silas's plants. That death is not the last in the film, and it is not the last to come as a result of Silas's unethical professional tactics.
Hodges balances the conspiracy plot with the personal struggle between the Travises. Martha knows that she has inherited some sort of psychic gift from her (absent) mother, while Walter refuses to acknowledge the possibility that any of it could be real. This fundamental difference, along with Walter's years of financially exploiting his daughter, serves to alienate father and daughter. Martha resorts to casual sex with complete strangers as an outlet, which means that she quickly beds reporter Gary within moments of meeting him. This might make more sense as a bit of hard-boiled nihilism if the film had a more distinctively noir attitude, but instead it reads as Hodges finding a sloppy way to get the reporter to care about the misunderstood psychic woman.
On the other hand, that sense of sloppiness could stem from Hodges's compassion for most of his characters, no matter how opportunistic they can be. (Only Ted Silas and Mark Joy's yuppie hitman come off as totally unredeemable.)
Black Rainbow bubbles with a number of provocative ideas, even if the story can't satisfyingly pay a lot of them off. Still, in the hands of this director and this cast, it's a worthwhile journey into the realm of the unknown and the unknowable.
Black Rainbow is packaged with reversible cover art. The new art option is by Nathanael Marsh. The first pressing includes a booklet featuring a new intro by Mike Hodges, an essay by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, and a reprinted letter from Stanley Kubrick.
The AVC-encoded 1080p 1.85:1 transfer is sourced from a new scan of the negative, and it looks great. Strong color, detail, and contrast. Film grain is pleasingly resolved. There is one brief section of shots that looked like some sort of blurry misalignment, but it passed quickly.
The disc offers both a DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround option and an LPCM 2.0 stereo option. Both are well-supported with the 5.1 making a concerted effort to put listeners within the spaces onscreen. The stereo mix is much more present and is far better suited for simpler set-ups and headphones. An English SDH option is provided.
- New commentary reflecting on the film, featuring plenty of good information and a pleasantly chatty style.
Neglected upon its original release, Black Rainbow has grown a small cult over the years. It's well-made and well-acted, with an intriguingly offbeat sensibility. I hope this great-looking release only helps to grow that cult of fans. Recommended.
Justin Remer is a filmmaker, oddball musician, and frequent wearer of beards. His new holiday single, Oh Hanukkah / Last Night of Hanukkah, is now available to stream or download on Bandcamp, Spotify, Amazon, Apple, and wherever else fine music is enjoyed.