Blu-ray Review: Black Rainbow

When I was at the North Carolina School of the Arts, there were always tales of our famous alumni which included Diedrich Bader, Mary-Louise Parker, Judge Reinhold, Terrence Mann and Randy Jones, the Cowboy from the Village People. One of the biggest names to come from the school was Tom Hulce. The story of Tom was that he still had a year to go before graduation when he landed a leading role in Equus on Broadway. He was going to share the stage with Anthony Hopkins. He nicely asked the Dean of Drama if he could take a year off from school to perform. He was promptly told no. The school had a strict policy that students didn’t semesters off for any reason. You completed NCSA in four years or no diploma. It was like the West Point of the Arts. Hulce realizing that nobody at Equus asked him for his diploma when he landed the role decided to split Winston-Salem for the gig. He was an art school drop out which nobody seems to care about in the art world. The big rumor was that after Hulce achieved worldwide stardom and an Oscar nomination for Amadeus, the school slid him a degree so that he would be an honored alumni and not on the DNF list. Nearly 15 years after leaving NCSA, Hulce returned to North Carolina to make Black Rainbow with Rosanna Arquette and Jason Robards and director Mike Hodges (Get Carter & Flash Gordon).

Martha Travis (Desperately Seeking Susan‘s Rosanna Arquette) is a clairvoyant that’s traveling around the South doing shows. Her father Walter (A Boy and His Dog‘s Jason Robards) is her only companion on the road. She does the usual schtick of telling people messages from their relatives that have passed into heaven. Except one night she relays a message to a woman from a relative. The woman is shocked because the relative was alive when she left home. Martha describes the way the person died to the gathered audience. It turns out the person really is dead. Everyone wants to know how she knew including pesky reporter Gary Wallace (National Lampoon’s Animal House‘s Tom Hulce). Gary gets a little too close to the story when he lands an exclusive with Martha. He does think she’s a phony when she mentions quite a few people who aren’t dead during a show. Walter is upset that his daughter is telling people about relatives that aren’t dead yet since it’s kind of making a bad buzz. The crowds want to hear about their long departed great grandmother. But soon after the show, Wallace discovers that she’s might be right. It’s just her clairvoyant ability is predicting who is going to be on the other side.

Black Rainbow is an engrossing film. The tension is kept up when Martha goes beyond the usual psychic element of telling people about dead relatives. You see the nervousness on faces when word gets out that she’s able to predict the soon to be dead. There’s also the story of the reason all those people have died which plays out perfectly at the end of the film with the supernatural tone.

Even though I live in North Carolina, Black Rainbow is one of those films that nobody talks about being part of the state’s cinematic legacy. Mostly this is because 633+ the movie was dumped upon release by Miramax back in 1989. Miramax was still an indie film distributor and not a dependie with its Disney deal that would come in the ’90s. The company did a rather pathetic job of releasing Black Rainbow in America with few theaters outside of New York and Los Angeles. Making matters worse was the VHS tape didn’t hit rental shelves until 1992 so those that might have heard about the film before its release were pretty much clueless when they overlooked the box on the shelf at Blockbuster. Even when director Mike Hodges’ scored critical acclaim with the Croupier, nobody mentioned check out Black Rainbow.

The video is 1.85:1 anamorphic. The new restoration is from the original negative approved by writer-director Mike Hodges. The 1080p imagery brings out the details of the Carolinas. The audio is stereo 2.0 PCM uncompressed audio from the original release – if you saw it when it was originally released. There’s also a fresh 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio Surround Sound options to put the spirits around you. The movie is subtitled.

Audio Commentary by film historians Kat Ellinger and Samm Deighan has them go deep into the film. They discuss how the film was forgotten. They sense the blend of genres was too much for the marketing department to sell.

Audio Commentary by Mike Hodges was recorded for a British DVD release a few years back. He speaks of how tough it was to find an actress to play Martha.

Message in a Bottle (19:19) is an archival ‘Making of’ documentary that features Mike Hodges. He talks about his fascination with the Bible Belt and how it inspired the script. They have footage of what the Charlotte area looked like back in 1988. He speaks of how they shot near the notorious chicken plant in Hamlet, N.C. where 25 workers burned to death a few years later. He talks about the ending so watch the movie first. Producer John Quested talks of his experiences too.

Archival Interviews were made by Goldcrest during the production and feature Jason Robards (2:23), Rosanna Arquette (2:17) and Tom Hulce (2:22). It’s mostly clips between a few words about the film. Arquette was turned onto the script by Martin Scorsese while making New York Stories.

Archival featurettes are from the original release. ‘8 Minutes’ (8:22) reminds people that this is a thriller. Mike Hodges explains the titles. ‘Disasters’ (2:12) deals with the chemical plant destruction in the film. ‘Seeing the Future’ (2:19) talks of seeing into the beyond and how Hodges thinks Martha collects thoughts. ‘Behind the Rainbow’ (20:32) goes deeper into the film with plenty of behind the scenes footage with interview with the cast.

Trailer (1:41) sets up the film as more of a hitman story. But it does feature Roseanna Arquette in her seductive scene.

Arrow Video present Black Rainbow. Directed by: Mike Hodges. Screenplay by: Mike Hodges. Starring: Rosanna Arquette, Jason Robards Jr., Tom Hulce, Mark Joy & Ron Rosenthal. Rated: R. Running Time: 103 minutes. Released: July 7, 2020.

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