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Black Rainbow (1989)

She can see the killers face. She knows the victims name. The only thing she doesnt know ... is when the murder will take place.

Directed by:

Mike Hodges

Rating: 7/10

Running Time: 98 minutes

UK Certificate: 15

On DVD

Country: United Kingdom

Near the beginning of 'Black Rainbow', when a journalist, Gary Wallace (Tom 'Amadeus' Hulce), traces Martha Travis (Rosanna Arquette) to a secluded, gothic house, where he tells her that he has been looking for her for ten years, and asks what happened, he might as well be discussing the career of the film's writer/director, Mike Hodges. For while he was acclaimed for his seminal debut 'Get Carter' in 1971, followed rapidly by films as varied as 'Pulp', 'The Terminal Man', 'Flash Gordon' and 'Morons from Outer Space', in 1987 Hodges disowned 'A Prayer for the Dying' when the studio insisted on a recut, and in 1989 'Black Rainbow' itself was denied a proper theatrical release owing to cash-flow problems with the distributor. Like his character Martha, Hodges disappeared for a decade, and was not seen again on the big screen until his successful comeback in 1997 with 'Croupier'. With 'I'll Sleep When I'm Dead' due in cinemas this year, Anchor Bay's re-issue of the virtually l ost 'Black Rainbow' is a timely addition to the filmography of one of Britain's most important directors.

Told almost entirely in flashback, it follows Martha, a medium, and her alcoholic father Walter (Jason Robards) as they travel the US Bible Belt profitting from a scam in which Martha channels supposed messages from the dead to paying congregations. Except that one evening Martha gets a signal from someone who is still very much alive, but is killed later that same evening in precisely the manner that Martha described – catching the attention not just of the young reporter Gary, but also of the crooked industrialist (John Bennes) who had arranged the murder, and of a compromised local policeman (Ron Rosenthal). As Martha accurately predicts further deaths, the yuppie hitman who carried out the original murder (Mark Joy) is summoned back to eliminate the only eyewitness, Martha herself. At which point she receives a premonition of Walter's demise…

If 'Black Rainbow' is a thriller, it is certainly an unusual one – and not just because of its supernatural elements. On the way to its head-scratching conclusion, it takes in a motley bunch of themes – the human need for showmanship, the effect of development on small towns, the relationship between religion and big business, the changing face of the media, industrial corruption, and a strong concern with ecological matters (already seen in Hodges' contributions to the script for 'Damien: the Omen II').

All this guarantees a more thought-provoking experience than is found in more conventional supernatural thrillers like 'The Gift', but it also makes the script seem meandering and unfocussed, as though you are watching a disparate bunch of ideas all thrown haphazardly together into the one film – an impression that is hardly dispelled by the accompanying audio commentary from the director.

Still, 'Black Rainbow' is consummately directed, well-acted, and steers clear of cheap shocks or cliché – and it is probably the only film ever to begin with the word “kudzu” (a type of weed rampant in the American south).

It's Got: A superb bit-part from John Bennes as the sinister industrialist Ted Silas (who seems to be the inspiration for Mr Burns of The Simpsons); a bizarre satirical scene showing the ruthless hitman at home with his well-to-do nuclear family; a spookiness that is conveyed without resort to special effects or cheap shocks; and a whole lot of weed.

It Needs: Just a little more coherence.

DVD Extras Animated menus (accompanied by an eerie musical loop from the film); choice of Dolby stereo 2.0, Surround 5.1, or dts; bios of Rosanna Arquette, Mike Hodges, Jason Robards and Tom Hulce; Electronic Press Kit, which is essentially promotional material (film clips, making of scenes, interviews with starts and filmmakers) cut into seven different (but repetitively similar) edited packages, 38 minutes in all; a nineteen minute featurette, featuring Mike Hodges and producer John Quested reminiscing about the films genesis and production; audio commentary from Mike Hodges, full of interesting anecdotal material articulately delivered (e.g. Ron Rosenthal, who rather convincingly plays a local policeman, was in fact a local dentist; Hodges himself has a very swift cameo as a priest; Mark Joy, who plays the hitman, was chosen in part for his physical resemblance to Michael Douglas) - but even Hodges seems at times puzzled by his inclusion of some scenes (you get used to hearing him a sk "where did that come from?"). DVD Extras Rating: 8/10

Alternatives:

The Dead Zone, The Gift, The Sixth Sense

Summary

An effectively eerie supernatural thriller – even if it tries to exorcise a few too many ghosts for its own good.

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