British director Mike Hodges has suffered numerous setbacks and disappointments in his frequently glorious career. His little seen masterpiece The Terminal Man (1974) was subjected to gruelling test screenings and resultantly given only a cursory release in America and no real release at all in the UK (Terence Malick was a fan however, and recent years have seen its stock continue to rise).
Having turned down the opportunity to direct The Omen a clash of artistic differences and a desire to bring a more intelligent approach to the nuts and bolts of the horror genre saw him depart from its follow-up Damien: Omen II (1978). More recently, amidst several tantalising projects and scripts that failed to get off the ground – including the fascinating, corporate-baiting Mid-Atlantic – the director saw his masterly, existential Croupier (1998), given only a limited release in the UK. Thankfully, the re-released film went onto achieve phenomenal success on the back of its critical and commercial reception in the US and a re-appraisal of the Bristol-born director’s career began in earnest.
The momentum was maintained with the recent I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead (2003), another slow-burning, pin-sharp noirish thriller. And now we are given the chance to catch-up with another shabbily treated gem, the incisive, self-written and utterly prescient supernatural thriller Black Rainbow (1989), a film released in the UK by a company on the brink of bankruptcy (Palace Pictures) and sent straight to cable television in America.
Shot in North Carolina on a modest budget of $7 million, Black Rainbow, which unfolds in flashback, concerns Gary Wallace (Tom Hulce), a young reporter on a local newspaper who is assigned to investigate Martha Travis (Rosanna Arquette), a spiritualist medium travelling the community halls of America’s Bible belt with her regularly soused father Walter (Jason Robards). When Martha speaks to her eager money-paying audiences of a beautiful and tranquil life hereafter (a place without the need to work or maintain mortgage repayments), Wallace is sure that she is a phoney, exploiting the grief of mourning relatives desperate to contact their deceased loved ones.
But Wallace’s scepticism is shattered when Martha accurately foretells the violent murder of Tom Kuron, an employee at the local Silas chemical plant who is about to blow the whistle on the plant’s disregard for health and safety regulations. Threatened by Martha’s apparent visionary skills, ruthless industrialist Ted Silas (John Bennes) – in collusion with the local police chief – hires a professional hit-man to eliminate the medium. Sensing that their lives are in danger, Wallace follows Martha and Walter to their next engagement in a nearby town and witnesses Martha publicly foresee the deaths of a large number of plant workers whose wives and mothers are amongst her audience; the prophecy comes horrifyingly true. The following night Martha has a violent vision concerning her father and collapses on stage; at that same moment, the assassin arrives in town….
Made for Goldcrest films, who at the time were looking for an Elmer Gantry-like project about an evangelist preacher, Black Rainbow came out of Hodges’ research into local newspaper reports on factory workers whose injuries and deaths were linked to failing standards of safety in their place of work. The project was also filtered through the writer-director’s concern with the ways in which we are so ready to destroy the planet’s natural resources and how reliance upon a belief in the afterlife can lead to diminished responsibilities. As one bereaved relative says, ‘if we didn’t pay so much attention to the hereafter, maybe we’d take more care with what happens down here on earth’.
Another key and audacious element of the film, amidst its dealing with familial dysfunction, corporate/political skulduggery (a recurring Hodges’ concern) and religious hypocrisy and spiritual exploitation, is a pivotal awareness of contemporary society’s need, propagated by the media, to turn everything into entertainment, a sentiment that no doubt did Hodges few favours when it came to securing theatrical distribution for the project in America.
A film possessing both a brain, a heart and socialist principles, Black Rainbow is also a spookily effective genre piece. There is a particularly intelligent use of lighting (witness an early scene in which the shadow of a hotel clerk menacingly looms) and an acute attention to both music (John Scott is the composer) and mise-en-scene that corresponds with Hodges’ recent proclamations that the finished film is exactly as he had intended. Citing Edward Hopper as an influence, there is a rich evocation of time and place that nonetheless assiduously avoids merely replicating geographical and cultural stereotypes of the American South and its fervent, church going community.
Recommended by Martin Scorsese for the lead role after several other high profile actresses had declined, Rosanna Arquette is outstanding as Martha, achieving a complex and potent combination of vulnerability, fear, sexuality and power. The veteran Robards almost matches her and is perhaps the prime beneficiary of Hodges’ deft writing, remarking to a train orderly who has caught him drinking whisky for breakfast that it is for medicinal purposes. ‘For the liver?’ enquiries the orderly, ‘More metaphysical than that’ responds Walter, ‘for the soul’.
Heightening the pleasure of becoming re-acquainted with this minor gem is a flawless DVD transfer (in 2.0 stereo with optional 5.1) that goes some way toward compensating for a dearth of opportunities to enjoy Gerry Fisher’s Anamorphic cinematography on the big screen. There is also a tantalising array of extras, including a photo gallery, film notes, biographies, an interesting and illuminating making of featurette and perhaps most of all a characteristically insightful and edifying commentary from Mike Hodges, undoubtedly one of Britain’s foremost – if devilishly unlucky – film-makers.