GORE IN THE STORE
BLACK RAINBOW ****
Directed by: Mike Hodges.
Starring: Rosanna Arquette, Jason Robards, Tom Hulce.
Horror, US 1989, 103 mins, Cert 15.
Released on Blu-ray by Arrow Video on 6th July 2020.
“We steal if we touch tomorrow. It is God’s.”
Criminally under distributed on its initial release, this intriguing late-80’s metaphysical thriller is finally now getting the HD release it merits courtesy of Arrow Video. In a brand new restoration from the original negative, approved by writer-director Mike Hodges (FLASH GORDON, GET CARTER), all the colours of this dark rainbow radiate in a spectrum of themes and ideas about religion, bilocation, corporate corruption and the darkness that lies ahead for the planet.
In a spellbinding performance eschewing her early 80’s ‘kookiness’ Rosanna Arquette (DESPERATELY SEEKING SUSAN, CRASH) plays Martha Travis, a travelling medium who tours across the Bible-Belt with her sceptical alcoholic father (Jason Robards, ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN). Conducting séances on stages to relay messages from the deceased to their ticket-paying loved ones in the audience, during one such séance, Martha communicates with a dead man, violently murdered, all of which comes as quite a shock to his wife who insists she left him watching TV at home only an hour ago! But Martha has been given the blessing/curse of foresight – for later that evening the husband is indeed assassinated by a hit man whilst he’s at home watching James Cagney in WHITE HEAT on the tele. But this is only the beginning of Martha’s prophetic messages from the afterlife, and as more of her psychic predictions come true, this attracts the attention of both an investigative journalist, Garry Wallace (Tom Hulce, AMADEUS), and the aforementioned hit man, for Martha knows his name...
Although labelled a supernatural thriller, Mike Hodges twisty, serpentine-like film is a Hydra of multiple plot strands, much like the Kudzu weeds whose tendrils invade the Southern US, consuming the landscape and the film’s ambiguous coda. Perhaps there’s actually just too much going on here for one film? For example, you could certainly argue that the sub-plot involving the hit man seems somewhat incongruous given the main thrust of the subject matter and it’s over reliance in the trailer miss-sells the film’s ambiance as a result.
Rosanna Arquette’s medium, (sister Patricia would coincidentally also go on to play a medium in the literal-titled TV show ‘Medium’), is not only a conduit for the dead to relay words of comfort to their loved ones, but also it seems a prophecyer for the destructive path human beings are on course for to turn the world black. If that wasn’t heady enough material, religion also comes up for close scrutiny and Hodge’s sprinkles in some spicy quips in amongst the debate. A corrupt policeman warns his dodgy benefactor that: “As the only Jew in the area, I know where the nails are going...” Hodges’s dialogue is often ripe and juicy with a hard-boiled pulp cynicism, as when Martha explains her willingness towards one-night stands to reporter Garry: “This way men lie with me and not to me”.
Industrial corruption, health and safety whistle blowing scandals, meditations on the afterlife; it’s certainly a rich concoction. Little incidentals such as Martha’s wristwatch always seeming to be an hour or two behind merely float on by without further extrapolation. I was tickled by the wryly mundane scene at the airport check-in where the ruthless hit man is firstly informed his ticket isn’t for first class, that he cannot therefore access the first-class lounge, and finally, to add insult to injury, his flight is delayed!
The North Carolina shooting locations provide a richly rewarding backdrop, and veteran cinematographer Gerry Fisher (EXORCIST III, WOLFEN, THE NINETH CONFIGURATION) pulls out all the tops with his crisp cinematography. A particular standout sequence encapsulates the early morning rising sun gradually illuminating the reflective glass of downtown office blocks before cutting to the raising of the American Flag and concluding with an ominous gust causing traffic lights to sway in the breeze as an explosion rings out in the distance and sirens are heard.
Jason Robards is splendidly grizzled (and guzzled) as the burnt out father who dismisses his daughter’s abilities (as he did her mother’s) but relies on the takings from her séances to keep him in liquor. Tom Hulce acquits himself equally well as the reporter initially described as being “...an agnostic and an arsehole” who starts off merely chasing a story before gradually becoming obsessively entangled both with Martha’s psychic claims, and then with Martha herself, spiralling downward into one of the film’s open ended strands.
This is not a film that provides a neat explanatory wrap-up. As the weeds encroach upon the finale, the fate of one, (and the very nature of another) lead protagonist is ambiguous to say the least. Listening to the director’s commentary, this is intentional, so don’t castigate yourself if you too can’t immediately formulate a satisfactory hypothesis upon first viewing. Normally, I find open-ended conclusions frustrating, but given the richness of the material presented beforehand, combined with the strength of the performances, most notably Rosanna Arquette’s hauntingly beautiful and ethereal Martha, I’m willing to concede there is still a pot of gold waiting at the end of Mike Hodges’ BLACK RAINBOW.
Extras: - The newly restored HD print is pin-sharp and colours pop out, especially in the almost Giallo-like lit final third set piece. As well as the archival commentary from Mike Hodges you also get a new commentary from film historians Kat Ellinger and Samm Deighan together with a host of archival features. There’s an 18-minute making of documentary entitled ‘Message in a Bottle, along with interviews with key cast members Jason Robards, Tom Hulce, Rosanna Arquette, producer John Quested and behind-the-scenes footage. Naturally there’s a trailer, a reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Nathanael Marsh and for the first pressing only a booklet featuring new writing on the film by author Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, Mike Hodges and more illustrated with stills.