Color, 1989, 103 mins. 2 secs.
Directed by Mike Hodges
Starring Rosanna Arquette, Jason Robards, Tom Hulce, Mark Joy, Ron Rosenthal
Arrow Video (Blu-ray) (US/UK RA/RB HD), Anchor Bay (DVD) (UK R2 PAL) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9), Trinity (DVD) (US R1 NTSC)
The end of the 1980s found the horror press championing a number of mysterious genre films that seemed to fall between the cracks as theatrical distribution channels crumbled, and few had louder cheerleaders in 1989 than Black Rainbow. Featuring a strong cast and a potent atmosphere of undiluted Southern Gothic, this was yet another jinxed film from writer-director Mike Hodges who had made a flashy feature debut in 1971 with Get Carter but had most of his later films (apart from the much-loved Flash Gordon) plagued by distribution and/or production woes, even his much-lauded 1998 "comeback" film, Croupier. Difficult to classify and featuring a fragmented narrative that threw many viewers off course, the film faced a rocky road upon its completion and ended up being dumped straight to cable on Showtime n the U.S. by distributor Miramax. Since then it's been quite under the radar, earning a reasonable U.K. DVD release from Anchor Bay in 2004 but otherwise remaining something of a peculiar little cinematic secret. In 2020, Arrow Video salvaged the feature from oblivion to find a new audience, and with numerous intervening films similarly playing around with tricky time warping and genre blurring, it's hopefully much easier to appreciate.
Predominantly shot around Charlotte, North Carolina, the film chronicles the efforts of reporter Gary Wallace (Amadeus' Hulce) to untangle the fate of the isolated Martha (Arquette), whom he last say just before her father was murdered. In flashback we find out how Martha, a traveling psychic, was once a regular on the evangelical circuit along with her hard-drinking father and handler, Walter (Robards). Trouble starts at one appearance when she seems to fumble an attempt to reach the dead by communicating with a woman's husband who is very much alive back home... except he gets shot to death in his living room later that night. The victim, a whistle blower against local labor and environmental abuses at a chemical plant, proves to be a harbinger of darker things to come as the presumably fraudulent Martha turns out to have a real gift that puts the lives of herself and her father in grave danger.
Blending elements of crime film, conspiracy thriller, and supernatural yarn, Black Rainbow would have been at tricky sell at any time despite the caliber of its performances, with Arquette in particular pulling out all the stops and proving once again why she was considered one of the top talents of her generation. Robards is excellent as always, of course, giving his role some interesting and vaguely perverse shadings at times, with Hulce also doing fine in the least demanding role by far. With its cockeyed view of Southern religion and quirky symbolic touches (like the kudzu creeping across the land which becomes more significant than it seems), Black Rainbow isn't a film for all tastes and may strike some as overstuffed at times with everything swirling around on the way to the obligatory twist ending. Fortunately it's just going along for the ride that really counts with the Carolina atmosphere soaking into ever single frame of the film (not to mention some of the mosts blatant local bit players this side of Trauma).
For the Blu-ray release, Arrow has gone out of its way to give this film the treatment it deserves with a fresh scan from the original negative signed off by Hodges himself. The image quality looks pretty much flawless; film grain, colors, and detail levels all look spot on and infinitely better than the transfers we've had before (including a truly dire U.S. DVD from Trinity to be avoided at all costs). The English audio options include a DTS-HD MA 5.1 mix (which is fine apart from shoving the opening and closing gospel song completely in the rear channels, which sounds odd), and a 2.0 track designated as stereo but sounding an awful lot like mono to these ears. Optional English SDH subtitles are also included. Ported over from the Anchor Bay disc are a Hodges audio commentary (excellent and loaded with detail about his personal views, the location shooting, and putting the script together) and a "Message in a Bottle" (19m19s) featurette with Hodges and producer John Quested chatting more about the evolution of the production. The image gallery from the DVD is dropped here, but you do get a new audio commentary by Kat Ellinger and Samm Deighan who sink their teeth into the Southern Gothic elements, the narrative similarities to gialli like Deep Red and The Psychic, the narrative touches that stand out on multiple viewings, and possible interpretations of the various supernatural strands. (Also, in one moment very geographically amusing to this writer from the South, they say the film was shot in "the town of Charlotte on the Florida Straits.") Also included are three brief EPK-style interviews with Robards (2m23s), Arquette (2m17s), and Hulce (2m22s), as well as four archival featurettes, "8 Minutes" (8m22s), "Disasters" (2m12s), "Seeing the Future" (2m19s), and "Behind the Rainbow" (20m32s). That last one (which was augmented with pieces of the others for a 38-minute piece on the earlier DVD) is the most substantial as it features extensive behind-the-scenes footage and additional interview material not found elsewhere. The theatrical trailer is also included (in gorgeous quality), while the disc comes with reversible sleeve art showcasing a design by Nathanael Marsh; the first pressing only also has an insert booklet with liner notes by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas and additional notes by Hodges.
Reviewed on July 28, 2020