Black Rainbow, 1989.
Directed by Mike Hodges.
Starring Rosanna Arquette, Jason Robards, Tom Hulce, Mark Joy, Ron Rosenthal, and Helen Baldwin.
A touring medium has a vision about a murder before it happens.
Directed by Mike Hodges (Get Carter/Flash Gordon), Black Rainbow is a slightly more low-key affair that sees Rosanna Arquette (Desperately Seeking Susan) star as Martha Travis, a medium who is constantly touring the country with her ‘act’ and is accompanied by her alcoholic father/manager Walter (Jason Robards – All the President’s Men). The father and daughter team have conned people for years by giving hopeful audience members fake messages from their departed loved ones but during one show the voices that Martha claims she can hear become real and she gives an audience member a message apparently from her dead husband, much to the woman’s shock as she left her husband at home watching the TV.
This sparks off a chain of events that leads Martha to have precognitive visions as various townsfolk succumb to accidents and, in one case, murder, carried out by a hitman who becomes very aware of Martha and her powers. Luckily, newspaper journalist Gary Wallace (Tom Hulce – Amadeus), who was intent on debunking Martha’s stage show, is convinced about what she can do and, as the killer closes in, tries to protect the medium.
It is a bit of a strange story, to be sure, but Black Rainbow works surprisingly well as a thriller with supernatural leanings. As with mediums, fortune tellers or any sort of similar hocus pocus you have to believe in the subject and take it seriously to get anything out of it and Mike Hodges does just that with his script and direction, and so do the main cast, especially Rosanna Arquette, who delivers Martha’s ‘visions’ with all the confident false sincerity of a carnival performer trying to swindle money out of a audience desperate to hear from a departed loved one but once she starts to receive the real visions she is totally convincing as Martha has to try and get her audience to believe that the list of names she is reading out seemingly at random are real people in real danger, some of them actually in her audience.
The problem that Black Rainbow has, however, is that it tries to cram in too much once Martha has revealed the first vision, with the whole hitman side-plot playing second fiddle to the much more interesting dynamic between Martha, Walter and Gary, despite the urgency of a cat-and-mouse game with the hitman. With large sections of the film concentrating on the Martha-Walter-Gary triumvirate, when hitman Lloyd Harvey (Mark Joy – Dogma) does appear his presence almost feels like an interruption that takes away from what the meat of what the story should be, alongside an apparent attempt to set up Martha as some sort of sexual deviant that just falls flat with no proper explanation as to why she invites men she has just met into her room. All of this leads to a climax that also feels a little underwhelming given the monumental setup, and although Rosanna Arquette shines as she delivers her final diatribe to her paying audience the payoff that we get at the very end feels tacked on and not thought through enough to add any weight to what could have been a more striking reveal had it been fleshed out a little more. As it is, it feels like Mike Hodges filmed his first draft and said “That’ll do”.
Coming backed with a brand new audio commentary by film historians Kat Ellinger and Samm Deighan, archive commentary by Mike Hodges and archival cast and crew interviews and featurettes, Black Rainbow has been restored from the original negatives in a director-approved print and it looks fantastic, the clear, vibrant colours popping from the screen and although there aren’t that many special effects to look at, each set piece is superbly photographed and highly detailed. If it slipped under your radar back in 1989, or you saw it in a less-polished version, then Arrow’s Black Rainbow Blu-ray is certainly worth checking out for the performances, Mike Hodges’ skill at creating busy images with very little, Gerry Fisher’s gritty cinematography and a story that, if a little overcooked in places and undercooked in others, is intriguing enough to overcome its flaws and make for a darkly entertaining and solidly put together thriller.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★