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You need to watch the most overlooked sci-fi cult thriller on HBO Max ASAP

Before "Mandy," Panos Cosmatos explored the sinister allure of nostalgia, cults, and ESP in this psychotropic science-fiction freak-out.

Modern pop culture is addicted to the past.

It’s difficult to draw any other conclusion from our cultural zeitgeist’s continued raiding of decades gone by, recycling the 1970s, ‘80s, and ‘90s into an endless parade of reboots, references, and generalized retro patchworks. From hit series like Netflix’s Stranger Things to Disney’s endless strip-mining of its best-known IP (from comic-book adaptations like Guardians of the Galaxy to live-action remakes of its animated classics like Cruella), the entertainment of today feels stuck looking backward.

Of course, submerging oneself in all this nostalgia can be pleasurable, whether a film or series is recreating a given decade (from The Americans to Wonder Woman 1984, both set in the ‘80s) or emulating its atmosphere (the Black Mirror episode “San Junipero,” whose characters reveled in neon lights and disco-edged synths designed to simulate their youth). But it can also be dangerous, even deadening, to spend too long wallowing in the past. Living in a memory, it’s easy for a culture to lose sight of its present, to stagnate and let new ideas wither on the vine.

The feature debut of Canadian-Greek filmmaker Panos Cosmatos, 2010’s Beyond the Black Rainbow doesn’t initially appear to be about the dark side of nostalgia. Then again, this vividly psychotropic science-fiction horror feature doesn’t initially appear to be about much of anything.

Years before collaborating with Nicolas Cage on Mandy, another freakout of a fever dream that descends into a hellbound bloodbath, Cosmatos emerged fully formed with the cryptic, horrifying story of a young girl subjected to mind-control experiments by a secretive institute. A miasma of cinematic influences, Beyond the Black Rainbow invokes Stanley Kubrick’s cold, geometric precision and David Cronenberg’s clinically filmed eruptions of the flesh, even as George Lucas’ fascistic sci-fi and John Carpenter’s menacing, minimalist synth-scapes hang heavy in the air.

Rather than just referencing these genre luminaries, Cosmatos imagines an alternate ‘80s in which their aesthetics can be so completely expressed they assume physical form, seeping through the Arboria Institute like a fog of cultural memory. Cosmatos’ heady, overlooked masterpiece is streaming on HBO Max; here’s why you should give it another look.

Elena (Eva Bourne) in Beyond the Black Rainbow.

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When Beyond the Black Rainbow first premiered at a Canadian film festival in 2010, slowly making its way to other North American fests through the following year, it was greeted by most as an inscrutable art object, though some hailed it as the kind of midnight-movie experiment intended only for acid-trip enthusiasts.

Mainstream critics were baffled, with most decrying the film’s ominous pace and accusing Cosmatos of favoring style over substance. And it’s easy to understand that point of view, given all the dreamlike, monochromatic imagery of pupils dilating and cigarette ashes crumbling.

At the heart of the story is the Arboria Institute, a New Age research facility once established to explore the boundary between science and spirituality. During an unnerving promotional video that opens the film (following an Alien-inspired title card that sets it in 1983), founder Dr. Mercurio Arboria (Scott Hylands) explains that the Institute seeks to bring humankind toward a form of enlightenment. To achieve this goal, scientists are utilizing three techniques: benign pharmacology, sensory therapy, and something called “energy sculpting,” which might explain all the throbbing Masonic triangles.

A scene from Beyond the Black Rainbow.

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Cosmatos gradually reveals that a young woman, Elena (Eva Bourne), is being held captive deep inside the facility, heavily sedated in order to keep her extrasensory abilities under control. Overseeing her treatment is the deranged Dr. Barry Nyle (Michael J. Rodgers), a therapist who uses a glowing prism to contain Elena’s powers and whose sessions with her amount to gloating, occasionally lecherous interrogations. Nyle is one of the few researchers still working within the Arboria Institute, which sequestered itself away from the world after Nyle assumed control of its daily operations from the facility’s aging founder.

Crimson-red stormtroopers, known as sentionauts, patrol the hallways in an obvious hat-tip to George Lucas’ generation-defining Star Wars, though it’s the director’s dystopian THX 1138 that’s more actively invoked by images of sterilized enclosures and urges sublimated by state-imposed pharmaceuticals. The freezer-room sequences in John Carpenter’s Dark Star, meanwhile, inspired the bluish tints Cosmatos employs to offset all his baleful, industrial reds and purples. Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, with its glacial pace and gleaming surfaces, is another clear inspiration, while Ken Russell’s psychedelic Altered States gradually emerges from the black ooze that lurks beneath all the Institute’s bleached exteriors.

But with its forensic remove and escalating dread, Beyond the Black Rainbow most evokes the body horror of David Cronenberg: from psychosexual masterpiece The Brood, with its story of a young woman subjected to a cult-like experimental therapy called “psychoplasmics” at a remote institute, to Scanners, with its chemically enhanced bursts of telekinesis. Videodrome is yet another reference point, given its existential prodding of membranes separating the televised from the real, while nods to Shivers, Rabid, and especially Crimes of the Future (also set inside an airless, modernist clinic) abound.

A scene from Beyond the Black Rainbow.

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Elevating the elliptical qualities of Beyond the Black Rainbow is a drone-y, chimerical score by Sinoia Caves, full of shimmering synthesizers, analog keyboards, and scorching organ riffs. Employing the Mellotron and other ‘80s synth instruments in order to tap into the time period, the score feels indebted to Carpenter, as well as his contemporaries Giorgio Moroder, Vangelis, and Tangerine Dream, who spent the early ‘80s contributing melodic synths to films like Michael Mann’s Thief, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, and Brian de Palma’s Scarface.

But Sinoia Caves’ music for Beyond the Black Rainbow moves with striking fluidity, never restricting itself to a focused homage of one influence in particular. Omnipresent but alternately inviting and ominous, it flickers between quiet, minor-key foreboding and moog-fueled prog-rock intensity, as dynamic as any of the characters.

Between the visuals and that score, it’s easier to think of the atmospheric, abstracted ‘80s of Cosmatos’ film as a recombination of all its influences than as any stab at larger historical accuracy. Through its suffused colors and relentless synths, Beyond the Black Rainbow harkens back to a moodily retrofuturistic ‘80s that only truly existed in the films of that era; its Arboria Institute is like an oppressive art exhibition that might be titled “Yesterday’s Tomorrows.”

Dr. Nyle (Michael J. Rogers) in Beyond the Black Rainbow.

Perhaps the best comparison point for what Cosmatos aims to accomplish in Beyond the Black Rainbow is Drew Goddard’s The Cabin in the Woods, which co-writer/producer Joss Whedon described as a “loving hate letter” to the horror genre, mercilessly deconstructing its archetypes even as it revels in all manner of blood splatter and brutish boogeymen. But whereas The Cabin in the Woods’ postmodern critique of the horror genre thrived on the strengths of Goddard and Whedon’s barbed, ironic screenplay, Cosmatos opts for a primarily aural, sensory tribute to his preferred eras of science-fiction and horror.

“When I was a kid I wasn’t allowed to watch R-rated films, but I would spend hours at the video store just looking at the box covers of the horror and the science fiction films and imagining my own versions of them without seeing them,” Cosmatos told Filmmaker Magazine in 2011. “Remembering that time was the inspiration of the film — the idea of making a remembered or imagined film.”

Dr. Nyle (Michael J. Rogers) in Beyond the Black Rainbow.

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Though Beyond the Black Rainbow submerges viewers in retro aesthetics from its first frame, it does so in order to explore the dissonance between memory, imagination, and reality. Hermetically sealed off from the rest of the world, the air within the Arboria Institute is polluted by all that’s swirling in its atmosphere — namely, an endless, oneiric stream of cinematic reference points — and the forward-thinking ethos of those who’ve remained there has unraveled into psychosis. Twisting its genre influences into a labyrinth then locking his characters inside, Cosmatos leaves audiences trapped in a feeling.

“The mood of the film is my memory of how the late 70’s and early 80’s felt to me,” Cosmatos explained in a director’s statement. “Both the reality and the fantasy world of the pop culture I would immerse myself in. I think in making it I was trying to grasp something intangible. It’s a nostalgic movie, but it’s a poisoned nostalgia.”

That phrase, “poisoned nostalgia,” captures so much of Beyond the Black Rainbow, and Cosmatos’ comments encourage a reading of the film as a story about the enervating pull of cultural memory. Elena senses that she must escape the Institute, but even for the scientists it feels impossible to live inside of; so unrelenting is the film’s psychotropic atmosphere that its characters inevitably start to suffocate.

Elena (Eva Bourne) in Beyond the Black Rainbow.

Cosmatos gives the game away in this respect with his end-credits needle-drop, SSQ’s “Anonymous,” first released by that short-lived LA synthpop unit in (you guessed it) 1983. As hard-driving analog synths glimmer in the background of the track like a laser light show, angelic vocals deliver the lyrics, “Masking identity/Lost in a memory/Of how it used to be/Anonymous.”

SSQ lingers on that final word as the song evaporates, to haunting effect. It’s a pointed endnote for a film so concerned with loss of control and identity. Beyond the Black Rainbow is a vision of a once-idyllic place that stagnated by refusing to advance, ultimately curdling into something sinister and self-destructive.

As the emptiness of pop culture’s ongoing love affair with nostalgia increasingly finds Hollywood huffing its own fumes, Beyond the Black Rainbow aesthetically leans in to tease the endpoint of all that retromania — and tells a cautionary tale about how institutions of culture and memory can become prisons if we spend our days inside them, languishing.

Beyond the Black Rainbow is now streaming on HBO Max.

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