Arrow Video: Black Rainbow (1989) - Reviewed

British writer-director Mike Hodges has a reputation that’s a bit like film industry legend Orson Welles in that after having one critical and commercial smash hit the remainder of the filmmaker’s career was beset by preproduction and/or postproduction problems.  Aside from his first success Get Carter and his science-fiction classic Flash Gordon, Mike Hodges never seemed to get a break.  While unsurprising given the often uncategorizable nature of his works (Pulp being no exception), that much of Hodges’ career is plagued with misfortune is a shame as he remains one of the more eccentric and enigmatic voices in film yet to be fully rediscovered by the public. 

One of his best films, rescued from cinematic purgatory from Arrow Video, is the 1989 genre bending and difficult to categorize ensemble thriller Black Rainbow.  Previously dumped on Showtime by Miramax after mixed reactions from test screenings, the film was more or less forgotten until now.  As such the film is a clandestine, offbeat little supernatural drama featuring strong central performances from the ensemble cast with many unexpected surprises ahead, leaving you blindsided and yearning for more even after the end credits finish rolling. 

Set in Charlotte, North Carolina, this cross-cutting narrative told largely in flashback follows reporter Gary Wallace (Tom Hulce from Amadeus) trailing a potentially hot story involving traveling psychic Martha Travis (Rosanna Arquette) and her domineering boozing father Walter (Jason Robards).  After a séance seemingly predicts the impending death of the husband of an audience member, a chain of events is set in motion involving a dangerous assassin, political intrigue echoing the fascist commentary in Pulp and just enough of the otherworldly to confuse your perception.

The first thing one notices watching Black Rainbow unfurl is the cinematography by Gerry Fisher (Highlander) which is colorful in a peculiar mixture of vivid neon-fluorescent and bleeding deep reds.  There isn’t a film out there with a color scheme quite like this one which begs the question why a film as visually inventive as this didn’t garner a big screen release.  Also eccentric is the score composed and conducted by John Scott, leaning towards Southern gospel and gothic horror.  From the beginning, as the opening credits roll to Scott’s music, you’re not exactly sure what you’re in for.

Then come the performances which are mostly carried by Rosanna Arquette.  Already a terrific actress for her work with Martin Scorsese, Arquette takes the strange role of withdrawn (and sex starved) clairvoyant as far as she can, creating a character that’s frail, sympathetic and oddly fearsome in her own manner.  Robards is overqualified as Martha’s alcoholic father, playing a role he’s more or less sleepwalked in the past.  Hulce proves to be a strong lead in the role of an impersonal reporter who gets in over his head though his best role will always be Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

At times this lean and mean indie has more genre-bending crossroads than, say, Brian De Palma’s The Fury with the disparate elements threatening to pull the film apart.  Though this dark pond of a film seems a bit murky once you step into it, the offbeat genre cocktail served up here proves to be an inspired little number you can’t quite put your finger on but don’t mind being confused by either.  Oddball but always interesting and well worth your time even if it doesn’t precisely fit into any set niche.

--Andrew Kotwicki