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  Black Rainbow An Unhappy Medium
Year: 1989
Director: Mike Hodges
Stars: Rosanna Arquette, Tom Hulce, Jason Robards Jr, Mark Joy, Ron Rosenthal, John Bennes, Linda Pierce, Olek Krupa, Marty Terry, Ed Grady
Genre: Thriller, FantasyBuy from Amazon
Rating:  6 (from 2 votes)
Review: Reporter Gary Wallace (Tom Hulce) has been tracking down an ex-medium, Martha Travis (Rosanna Arquette) for around ten years when he finally finds her in an isolated shack in the middle of nowhere. He tells her he will find out what occurred when her father Walter Travis (Jason Robards Jr) was murdered, and solve the mystery of what happened to her, but she closes the door in his face. Ten years ago, Martha had been a spiritualist travelling the churches of America with her father as her manager, providing comfort to the bereaved, but what had previously looked like a harmless scam took a sinister turn one night when she predicted the death of an audience member's husband, putting her own life in danger...

Although it starts as a variation on Elmer Gantry, Black Rainbow grows into a meditation on the connections between life and death. Written by the director Mike Hodges, it shows spiritualism as a manipulative branch of showbusiness, which causes Martha no end of guilt, but her hard drinking father is happy to reap the rewards of the operation. When we first see Martha in action, we're sceptical as she apparently makes a mistake, then smoothly covers it up like an old pro, but the film is a believer in her powers, just not in the usual "is there anyone here who knows a Little Johnny?" type of psychic display that is so popular.

That night, the audience member is told her husband will die in a violent attack goes home and informs the husband, who shrugs it off. Well, he does until a hitman fires a few rounds at him through the window shortly after, killing him instantly. The victim was a worker at the local nuclear fuel plant, and was prepared to be a whistle blower over the lax health and safety conditions there, so the elderly head of the plant, sort of a Mr Burns without the laughs, arranges to have him murdered. Now that Martha has predicted the death with unerring accuracy, she is the next target of the corporate conspiracy.

This is where Wallace enters the story, investigating the medium with a view to exposing her as money making exploiter of vulnerable people's feelings. The film is in two minds about how close to the truth Wallace's outlook is, because we are in no doubt that Martha has developed real talents. When the audience go to see her and hear, not vague tales of how their deceased loved ones have passed over into Heaven, but how the loved ones who are still alive are to die in a horrific accident, the tone could have been played for dark humour, but Hodges keeps things determinedly low key, making the supernatural element grounded in a reality that is almost mundane - we even see the hitman's cosy home life, as if he's a common businessman.

As Martha, Arquette is in control on stage, almost patronisingly reassuring, until visions of the future enter her head. Offstage, she smokes nervously, pushes herself into Wallace's arms for a brief fling (the latest of many), and is overwhelmingly bitter that her father has reduced her friendless life into what it has become, with only the promise of an early retirement on the proceeds as a consolation. Robards is equally as good, a cynical, pretentious man who has the appearance of a seasoned con artist. Rounding out the trio, the reliable Hulce props up the prosaic arguments that look less and less convincing as the film draws on. Alas, what has been pleasingly ambiguous in a "make your own mind up" manner is made less so when Martha drifts full scale into the supernatural, and the puzzle of whether there is an afterlife is resolved in a corny twist. Questions do linger, but the prologue and epilogue seem unnecessary. Music by John Scott.

[Anchor Bay have given an admirable treatment to this unjustly forgotten film, with an informative commentary from Mike Hodges outlining the themes of the piece, a featurette which summarises the commentary, the original press kit, and more.]
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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Mike Hodges  (1932 - )

British director, from television, with an interesting take on crime movies. His first film was the gritty, gangster cult Get Carter, but the offbeat follow-up Pulp was not as successful. The Terminal Man was a Hollywood science fiction thriller, and Flash Gordon a gloriously over-the-top comic book epic which showed Hodges' good humour to its best effect.

However, the straight comedy Morons from Outer Space was a flop, though it found a few fans, and while IRA drama Prayer for the Dying and the supernatural Black Rainbow weren't successful either, gambling thriller Croupier was an unexpected sleeper hit in America. Tough gangster movie I'll Sleep When I'm Dead followed.

 
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