Join host Andrew as he tortures *ahem* engages guests by subjecting them to the weirdest, most mind-boggling films in existence (and sometimes he has the tables turned on him!). See what he has in store for his guinea pigs biweekly on What Did We Just Watch?!


The Film: Beyond the Black Rainbow

The Guest: Hotshot comedian Ken Reid


Beyond the Black Rainbow (2011) is an odd film to crack. It’s beautifully shot, with its neon lights and retro-futuristic setting on full display. The plot, however, is the conundrum. It’s deft with its own history; one of which, we are not very privy to. We are just meant to roll with it. To say the film is psychedelic, isn’t allowing it to be what it is: a beautifully rendered but frustratingly surreal ‘escape from’ movie. It’s an endurance test, but to help me through it is this episode’s guest, comedy hot shot, Ken Reid* (TV Guidance Counselor). Listen as we try to unravel the enigmatic Beyond the Black Rainbow.

*Click this sentence to check out Ken’s new comedy album!

The full foldout cover for Ken Reid’s new comedy platter. It’s a hoot!


  1. BtBR didn’t “go straight to video”. It had a wide release in Canada in 2010, a limited release in the US in 2012, and since 2010 has also been to a lot of film festivals around the world where it always gets highly polarized opinions as one of those love-it-or-hate-it movies.

    And you obviously have to be German and know German dubs to appreciate Gert Günther Hoffmann, who was the German voice of both Shatner, Sean Connery, and Paul Newman, and in his day was known over here as “the king of dubbing voices”, not necessariyl because he spoke many different actors but because of how popular his voice was with audiences. Although his voice was definitely a tad higher than Shatner’s or Connery’s, it has a certain cowboy’s, young (ca. in his 20s-30s) rebellious and daredevil adventure hero’s womanizer charm a lot like Newman, James Dean (only less angsty), or maybe Errol Flynn, in a way that seems pretty vintage now looking back from the 2010s. A bit like an adventurous big brother and natural group leader for the guys to look up to and at the same time with a charm making him the crush of all the girls.

    But I like how you guys talk about weird movies on TV and where to catch them. Over here in Germany, the channel for this kind of poison used to be VOX. VOX originally started out as a news channel back in the early 90s and was close to going out of business when around 1995, it was bought by Rupert Murdoch who turned it into this weird, slightly vintage (s)exploitation B-movie channel for the second half of the decade, with lots of funky and obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s that was somewhere between trash and cult, somewhere between the lower end of avantgarde arthouse and cheesy schlockhouse. During that period, it was a place for stuff like Argento, “Help” (1965), “Magical Mystery Tour” (1967), “Wonderwall” (1969), “Straw Dogs” (1972), “Don’t look now” (1973), “Dark Star” (1974), “Phase IV” (1974), “The Tenant” (1976), “Phantasm” (1979), “The Shining” (1980), “Scanners” (1981), “Dead Zone” (1983), “Terminator” (1984), “Brazil” (1985″), “The Fly” (1986), “Radioactive Dreams” (1986), “Biggles: Adventures in Time” (1986), “Batman” (1989), “Naked Lunch” (1991), “Total Eclipse” (1995), “Dark City” (1998), “Velvet Goldmine” (1998), coupled with lots of soft porn by people such as Oswald Kolle or Russ Meyer, or 70s and 80s German trash and auteurs such as Christoph Schlingensief, Werner Herzog, Wim Wenders, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, or Thomas Schamoni. During nighttimes, I would just sit and watch the channel, hoping to come upon something like the premise to “Videodrome” (1983) that would absolutely melt my brain, pretty much like Cronenberg himself describes his own nightly childhood memories of foreign and pirate TV. If the film was just slightly more fast-paced, BtBR woulda been just at home there. Unfortunately, RTL Group bought the channel around 2000 and pretty much inofficially turned it into a womans’ channel.

    Cosmatos didn’t use a “grain filter”, the film was actually shot on film, Fuji Eterna 400T, to be exact. He and his DoP Norm Li did do a lot to “milk the image” though, as they call it, by means of vintage slight soft focus lenses and lots of overexposure and underexpose combined with according push and pull processing.

    You guys obviously didn’t get the “point” of BtBR. It takes several viewings to get “beyond” the trippy, overwhelming visuals and deliberate Tarkovskyian pacing (and reading lots of interviews with the makers also helps, of course). BtBR is basically a film about how the optimistic flights of fancy of the 60s turned into this dark, paranoid abyss of the Reagan-era 80s, illustrating this by having a New Age institute founded in the 60s by its hopeful, naive owner, and by the early 80s this commune has turned into this totalitarian nightmare under the original founder’s oppressive successor of a control freak. It’s why it has those sublime nods to Ronald Reagan, Noriega, and especially with the latter also to the Iran-Contra affair and how Reagan and his international cronies were basically running the world on paranoid fear and control (“war on drugs” when the CIA was actually involved in drug trafficking and such, etc.). You guys also seem too young to remember Carl Sagan (“terrible fake hair piece” on Barry Nyle and all that) (or to remember Tangerine Dream, at that). Cosmatos is pretty much saying that Sagan was a popular New Age fraud by lulling people into sleep so they let it happen that people like Reagan took over the country. The character of Barry is pretty much a cross between Sagan and what paranoid Reagonite control freaks did to the world.

    As for the relationship between Barry and Elena, due to Dr. Arboria’s successfull, more benign experiments, she’s sort-of become this psychic Übermensch or next step in evolution whose powers Barry wants to harvest in order to use them to rule the world. Cosmatos sees this relationship as that Barry is pretty much preying on Elena’s power like some sort of supernatural dark vampire, which is why when Barry’s true nature is revealed, Cosmatos visually models him on Nosferatu from the famous silent movie. And BTW, the scene where he takes his “appliances” off is modelled after a very similar scene in Nicolas Roeg’s “The man who fell to earth” (1976), another film one has to have seen to really appreciate BtBR (next to “2001”, “A clockwork orange”, “The Shining”, “Dark star”, Tarkovsky’s “Stalker”, “Altered states”, “Brainstorm”, Jodorovsky’s “The Holy Mountain”, Merhige’s “Begotten”, plus lots of early Carpenter and Cronenberg). According to Cosmatos, Barry paranoically controls Elena by means of MKULTRA leftover technology (such as the glowing pyramid) obviously given or sold to him by the (Reagan?) government that has just as sinister motives as Barry’s.

    Dr. Arboria never “snapped” as much as that Barry has made him a junkie to take over the institute for his own sinister plans. The one who ultimately snaps is Barry after killing Dr. Arboria and watching that paranoid Reagan speech on TV, and to a degree, the traumatic bad trip he’s received in 1966 has disfigured him enough already to be less than human and become this psychic vampire. It’s just that in 1983, Barry ultimately snaps so badly with paranoia that he gives up his long-term plans of world domination in favor of short-term gratification in killing Dr. Arboria and trying to do the same with Elena. That’s also why he’s so “weird” with the two hashers because his paranoia is running rampant at that point.

    The way you guys talk about that “House” film that BtBR reminded you of sounds a lot like how I feel about Tarantino: Trying to emulate vintage, better directors than he is, but being utterly puerile, facetious, and obnoxious about it. Which is not like Cosmatos and BtBR at all, because Cosmatos is a lot more than just an imitator. He does have his influences and they play a crucial (and deliberate!) role in his art, but the end result is a lot, a lot more than just the sum of these parts. As much as I’m aware of the fact that professional critics are pretty much divided in equal parts either calling Cosmatos just a phony, style-over-substance imitator (which is usually those people who fall asleep during the first five minutes and then complain afterwards that BtBR “wouldn’t have a plot”), or saying what he does has much more substance than just being a sum of these parts. Basically, the last director who used to be so much in control of his cinematic medium has been Terry Gilliam until the millenium, after which his output has overall become less convincing. The way I see it, Cosmatos is the new Gilliam, pretty much like Gilliam was the new Kubrick ever since “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” (1975) (granted, after that early triumph he took until the 80s and “Time Bandits” to get back into full form).

    My take on the Sentionaut in BtBR (the “worker” as you’re calling him) is informed by a sci-fi short story I’ve once read, and the fact we hear this eary white noise when the Sentionaut takes off its mask. In the short story, a scientist wrote a computer program which in turn composed the perfect melody, and when the scientist was the first person to listen to it via earphones, the poor guy starved to death while he was in a sort-of hallucinogenic delirium because he couldn’t let go of the earphones and the perfect melody in them. In the illustration to the story, the scientist looked a lot like the unmasked Sentionaut, with those towering huge earphones clamping down on his shrinking head. So my take is that the Sentionaut is one of the outcomes of Barry’s sinister experiments on other patients at the Arboria Institute, where he first transforms them with drugs and then remote-controls them like robots by means of this white noise coming from earphones within their masks. So, either that, or the Sentionauts are genuine robots that Barry has built. My take on the disfigured mutant lying on the ground also takes from the fact that this mutant looks a lot like Barry: My two cents is that the mutant is the other outcome of Barry’s experiments, another paranoid control freak of a psychic vampire bent on world domination just like Barry, and the institute just wasn’t big enough for the both of them, so Barry had him drugged and locked up in that air stack.

    The Sentionaut action figure in the end partly relates to the background as to how BtBR came about, as Cosmatos’s hommage to his early 80s childhood of sneaking into the local video rental and imagining what all the R-rated and NC-rated horror and sci-fi flicks there on display could be like, and of how BtBR is not supposed to make sense on the surface because it’s supposed to resemble a hazy childhood memory of a scary film from the era that you secretetly caught on TV or video and while it scared you shitless, you were too young to understand the plot, and during your initial watch, BtBR is supposed to resemble this blurred memory you have of this film from your childhood as an adult. But one thing that’s also crucial to note is the last shot before the credits roll: Notice how Elena walks onto a first row of suburban houses next to the fields and the window of the house she’s walking towards seems lit only by a running TV? The Sentionaut action figure shot after the credits looks a lot like a shot from inside that house at the same time…

    As for Barry’s qualities as a guru, well, as for the nurse, she just cares about her paycheck (I don’t get why you guys seem to think anybody’s “following” her, she’s just a torturer jailer or henchwoman following Barry’s orders), and as for his wife, it’s clearly a kind-of dependent-neglective relationship where his wife is dependent on him and he’s pretty much neglecting her. I think we even see a few detail shots in his house where we see Barry’s wife is or has been reading his books and those by Dr. Arboria so she kind of seems to worship or at least prescribe to their philosophy.

    It’s also odd how you guys get the joke about the “normal waiting room” and yet you don’t. Partly, it’s a joke, and partly, it’s to set this part apart from this weird outer space we’ve seen so far. It’s fully on purpose, just like this weird, supernatural atmosphere about the Arboria Institute (whose miles and miles of subterranean bowels are also a distant cousin to the impossibly-constructed Overlook Hotel in “The Shining”) is entirely absent from Barry’s home, and it’s just as intentional as how “Alien” (1979) was the first time where astronauts were not soldiers or scientists but pretty ordinary truck drivers and wrench monkeys. In both cases, it adds in realism as well as making the supernatural part even more supernatural by means of contrast via a realistic counterpoint.

    Also, you don’t seem to get the whole point of retro sci-fi, retro-futurism, or how sci-fi can sometimes be wholly situated in the past. I mean, from your POV a dieselpunk aka Deco-dence film like “Brazil” (1985) is probably an utterly pointless exercise in style a lot like “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow” or “La Antena”, and maybe you even feel the same about the steampunk classic “The Time-Machine” (1960). Here’s a take barely scratching upon the surface of the entire thing but he catches at least a little of what it’s all about: More in-depth and more insightful would be this 4-part essay on Gilliam’s films and his use of both history and sci-fi: I wish I could link you to a German essay on Terry’s retro-futurism but I’m afraid you couldn’t read it.

    BtBR’s title makes perfect sense and that’s that Barry in his paranoia is trying to achieve something that doesn’t exist and doesn’t work, just like a black rainbow, and that’s perfect control over people and nature. Out of his paranoia, he’s following this evil ideology of full scheming control and oppression, and that’s how Barry’s goal of a black rainbow has tainted Dr. Arboria’s original dream.

    The “twist ending that doesn’t work” for you is partly due to the fact that Elena has much greater psychic powers than Barry at that point – when he confronts her and she’s not under the influence of his MKULTRA controls for the first time in her entire life, she kills him on the spot. And when you listen to some of the audio interviews with Cosmatos and his DoP Norm Li, Barry’s death was also partly meant as hilarious slapstick to them. It’s why some interviewers and reviewers have compared Cosmatos to Franz Kafka who would burst with laughter when reading out the most gruesome and goriest parts in his stories to his friends. Though some of this reviewers have obviously mixed up the “slapstick humor” of the final showdown and the hasher scene with funny anecdotes from the set that Cosmatos and his partners in crime still find funny recalling them, such as when they shot the scene in the fields and one of their internees stumbled upon a beehive and they had to abandon their entire equipment to the bees and never got it back, and their laughter from recalling those anecdotes has pointed some reviewers to interpret the whole film as torture-slasher comedy a la “Dale & Tucker vs. Evil” or something.


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