‘Why does everything have to be turned into entertainment?’ is the question asked by Rosanna Arquette’s troubled medium in Mike Hodges’ long-lost supernatural thriller from 1990. It’s a good question, and one that still resonates today; entertainment is how we consume most of our information, so why does information have to be disguised as something else for our consumption?
Martha Travis (Arquette) and her father Walter (Jason Robards Jr) travel the US with their dog and pony show; he hires the venues and sells the tickets, she performs as a medium, supposedly connecting audience members to loved ones who have passed to the ‘other side’. It’s the same routine Walter and her mother used to mine, expect Martha starts to have some demonstrably real premonitions, with deaths described on-stage coming to pass the next day. Reporter Gary Wallace (Tom Hulce) investigates, and while he immediately assumes that Martha is faking, events demonstrate that she actually is in touch with the spirits of the soon-to-be-dead.
Black Rainbow offers a variation of The 39 Steps and the Mr Memory scene; the staged sequences are tense, suggesting at first that Martha will be found out as a fake, but then leaning into the theatre audience’s discomfort as they discover that their loved ones, supposedly comfortable at home, are in mortal danger. Hodges treats the material with respect, showing few of the violent incidents and concentrating on Martha’s beliefs; like Howard Beale in Network, she speaks a frightening truth that people don’t want to hear. This is a film where the genre elements lead to something more substantial; there’s a terrific little scene near the start when Gary tries to convince Walter that two men waiting at a desolate train-station are CIA; Walter points to a funeral casket being unloaded from the train and reasons that the two men are undertakers. Each man fears a different bogeyman, but only Martha’s intuition reveals the real danger amongst them.
There’s plenty of fortune tellers and premonitions in film; any Madame Misty Moonface at the end of the pier promises a cheat-code for the afterlife, but few are expected to deliver. Life, death, tragedy; all are part of our news cycle, packaged and interpreted for our entertainment. Although the bookends don’t quite register or satisfy, the majority of Black Rainbow sticks rigidly to exposing Martha’s conflict with a shadowy, uncharted world that she can’t help but expose. It’s thoughtful material for a supernatural thriller, and with smart dialogue and good acting from all concerned, this is a great little movie you’ve probably not seen due to a botched release, and should be up there with Hodges’s Get Carter. Thankfully revived and on Arrow Video for 99p in the UK via the link below.