Tales from the Video Store
As a child I’d spend hours in my local video store reading the backs of boxes I was far too young to rent, films like Maniac Cop, Hellraiser, and The Evil Dead. I’d read the blurbs over and over, and construct entire narratives from the stills accompanying the text.
The most vivid of these was Wes Craven’s The Serpent and The Rainbow, likely due to the particularly gruesome images on the back cover; a screaming white face reaching out from a coffin chief among them. Every Saturday, while my parents browsed through cop dramas and crime thrillers — choosing between the likes of Blue Steel and Single White Female — I’d be sitting cross legged on the carpet in the horror section upstairs, gravitating toward these same titles again and again. I didn’t particularly want to see them. I’ve still never seen The Serpent and The Rainbow (perhaps that would spoil the fantasy). Looking at the pictures was enough of a thrill. It was a safe scare. A controlled terror.
Some 20 years later, I found myself doing the same thing with Beyond the Black Rainbow. I first heard about it when I was working at Total Film in 2010. That was the year before I discovered synth wave music, a year before all I wanted in life was a neon-lit retro-futuristic ’80s aesthetic, and several years before instant streaming arrived in the UK, when Netflix was just a queue of DVDs and you didn’t know what they’d send next.
I’d seen the stills for Beyond the Black Rainbow. I’d seen the poster. I’d read the blurb. I’d constructed what I thought it might be about. Perhaps that’s why I waited so long to see it: the fantasy. Perhaps it was that you only get one first time, and I love to delay pleasure. Perhaps I thought I might not like it.
I needn’t have worried.
Sometimes a film finds you at the right time. In this case, amid a pandemic, rewatching old favourites, reflecting on my past selves, and finally crossing films off my watchlist. It wasn’t til I was watching this that I clicked onto IMDb trivia (a habit I’m sure many of us share), and read that writer/director Panos Cosmatos had experienced the exact same fascination with the VHS artwork of films he wasn’t allowed to see when he was younger. Not only that, he’d gone a few steps further, working backward from the idea of the eventual promotional stills to construct a narrative for an original work.
But Beyond the Black Rainbow is more than a collection of esoteric imagery set to a thumping synth score. It’s a meditation on our relationship with mass media, particularly Generation X, the Reagan kids, the children of the hippies who traded protest marches and acid for gold-plated pensions and property rights (Google Jerry Rubin sometime). We were raised on a full-fibre diet of flashy visuals and disposable credit, with hyper-gendered role models celebrated for lustful ultra-violence.
It’s this particular set of circumstances that birthed Beyond the Black Rainbow. The naive idealism of the ’60s counter-culture — represented here by the Arboria Institute — that gave way to the consumerist nightmare of the ’80s, when psychedelic experimentation and self-improvement made way for a cocktail of drugs that proved ever more addictive than progress; prozac, capital, and cable television. Empathy made way for psychopathy. Mercurio Arboria made way for Dr. Barry Nyle.
Elena, a proto-Eleven straight out of Stephen King — or a Stephen King big box VHS cover, at least — was raised in the institute, the product of a gifted telepath. Her only contact with the outside world is via the television set in her cell. The opposite of the boy in the video store, Elena is left to piece together the real world via the snippets she gleans from ever changing cable channels. That her world is a neon-lit, synth-scored, retro-future nightmare is no wonder.
Clean cut mother-charmer Barry Nyle’s eventual outing as a hairless sociopath who harbors a psycho-sexual obsession with Elena is no surprise either. Like a real estate agent or a politician, he screams “auto-erotic masturbator”. The strangely sexless American conservatism that persists today was cemented in the ’80s — a reaction to the free love of the ’60s and the economic hardships of the ’70s — and Barry Nyle is repression incarnate, his subjugation of — and obsession with — Elena stemming entirely from his desire to consume her.
This is American Vampirism: the old and the wealthy preying on the young and powerful, feeding on sex and in capital, if not on blood. Barry Nyle is the worst step dad, the ur-creepy youth pastor, stealing the future of a teenage girl to fuel ego and erection both.
The film is set in 1983. The year I was born. If the ’70s were when the various counter-culture movements revealed themselves as nothing more than patriarchy-in-disguise, branching belief systems with new rhetoric but the same old vampiric structures — New Hollywood chief among them — the ‘80s were when mainstream culture caught up with Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left (1972), and women fighting back became the dominant horror narrative of the decade, not least in Craven’s own output. And yet this was a flawed narrative predicated on assumed truths: That women are there to be possessed, that desire is consent, and death is the penalty for denial.
In 1983, as in 2020, slashers are still reckoning with these truths — knowing a system exists and destroying that system are different things — so even when the genre became self-aware and reflexively post-modern in Scream and its descendants (Wes Craven again), these ‘truths’ still form the foundation.
Cosmotos’ somewhat controversial choice, according to the reviews, to end Beyond the Black Rainbow as a slasher therefore makes perfect sense to me. During the first two acts we move through a veritable Criterion Collection of images lifted from 1960s and ’70s cinema, with Goddard, Kubrick, Argento, and Tarkovsky, among others, informing the look and feel of the film.
But once Elena emerges into 1983, things go full on video nasty. This is her idea of the world, built via the media she consumed in her cell. Cold concrete and neon — Michael Mann’s paint box — with synths Mann could only Tangerine Dream of and a particularly 1980s idea of female empowerment. This is the final piece of the puzzle. The final act. And Elena is the final girl.
Dr. Barry Nyle — impotence with a bowl cut — couldn’t look more like a walking phallus once the wig comes off. With his special knife (all the better to penetrate you with), snazzy jumpsuit, and jet black eyes, Nyle is part Michael Myers, part Jaws in appearance, and all impotence in practice. After chasing Elena down in his sports car (during the drive Nyle has a conversation with his ideal self, the man he thinks he is while driving it), and dispatching two slacker youths (American Vampirism), his demise comes swift and easy.
There is no grand battle, no tete-a-tete. No contest. With his control gone, Nyle is reduced to pathetic, whimpering pleas. Elena casts him aside, crushing him like the insignificance he was. She wraps his foot in a tree root (shout out to Sam “Mr. Video Nasty” Raimi) and gravity does the rest. Bye bye Barry.
After a small giggle of relief, Elena walks towards the glow of a nearby television, called home by comfort of the flickering screen as our credits roll.
If this film were made in 1983, Elena would have had to struggle, she’d have to get bloody, she’d have to scrap and claw and will herself to live. But this was 2010, and Beyond the Black Rainbow subverts the Victim Problem with minimal effort. Cosmatos’ counter-thesis to the prevailing genre narratives of today — that women are incredibly powerful — appears to be “then let them be powerful.” Hollywood execs, take note: Feminism isn’t imagining a world where women fight back, it’s creating a world where they don’t have to.
There’s way more to mention than I’ve covered here. The pacing, straight out of New Hollywood. The casting, not a name among them but the right faces properly deployed in the right roles. The score, a synthwave symphony that hits my brain in all the right places. It’s three weeks since I’ve seen it and without it fresh in mind I’m sure I’m missing much.
This review could have just been 499 still images from the film that I want to decorate the walls with. As it is, it’s this; 1300+ words on my childhood, big box VHS, 1980s gender politics, and my love of this film. Which if you hadn’t guessed by now, is vast and sweeping, lit in shades of blue and red, my glowing heart thumping with gated reverb. I wish more films were this literate, this formally experimental, this cinematically rich. I wish I’d seen it a decade ago. I’m so glad I’ve seen it now. Thanks, Panos, for this gift.
Perhaps one of these days I’ll finally get around to The Serpent and The Rainbow. If I do, it’ll be a wonderful way to remember Crosland Moor Video, the store where I spent many a Saturday night hour growing up, one which was lost to the cheap DVD boom of the mid-00s, felled in the final act by Capitalism, the most American Vampire. RIP CMV, the Netflix interface doesn’t hold a candle to your worn carpets and wonky shelves.
This review was originally published on Letterboxd, June 2020.