What happens when your fake medium act turns real? When you’ve been pretending to see visions of dead people in order to bilk their living relatives out of some cold cash and suddenly, you’re having real visions in which you see actual deaths before they happen, what do you do? In the case of Martha Travis (Rossana Arquette) in Mike Hodges’ 1989 thriller Black Rainbow, you’d better run because the hitman paid to commit one of the murders she envisions is fast on her trail.
Martha and her alcoholic father Walter (Jason Robards) travel by train from Southern town to Southern town visiting churches where she puts on her clairvoyant act. She dresses in flowing white gowns, tells the crowd that the afterlife is full of peace and happiness, then speaks to the dead. She’s very good at her con artist act. She calls out a name and asks if anyone in the audience knows someone by that name. Invevitably, someone does and comes to the front where she uses various tricks of the trade to suss information out of them about the deceased in order to pretend she’s actually seeing them in the afterlife.
This has apparently been working for them for quite a while. There are numerous mentions of Martha’s mom who seems to have run the same scam before she died in some undefined past. Martha is good at it but you can tell her heart isn’t really in it. She seems to want another life, but hasn’t the slightest idea how to obtain it. During one meeting, she goes through the motions, telling various people about their dead loved ones. She tells one lady about how her husband died a horribly violent death. She describes it in detail. Shocked, the lady says her husband isn’t dead; she left him a while ago sitting on the couch watching TV.
Martha leaves the meeting undone and disturbed. That vision was real; she saw that man’s death plain as day. The next morning she learns that soon after the woman returned to her husband a stranger shot him dead on his living room couch. A few days later, at another meaning, she has visions of several deaths in a fire. Sure enough, the next morning there is an explosion at a factory.
It all has to do with some conspiracy involving poor safety standards at several nuclear plants. The big whigs hired a hitman to kill the guy on the couch to keep him from whistleblowing or some such thing. Now, the hitman knows Martha has seen him in her visions so he’s out to get her. Or something. This subplot is the weakest aspect of the film. Director Hodges seems to recognize this as he spends very little time with it, always rushing past it to get back to the relationships. Which is strange since he also wrote the film.
A newspaperman, Gary Wallace (Tom Hulce), begins following the story. He tries to interview Martha and Robert. At first, he gets the brush off, but when he shows up later at Martha’s hotel room, she seduces him. It is an odd moment in a film full of them. We’re given no indication that Martha is religious, or that her father has oppressed her sexuality. There is no rebelliousness to her seduction. Nor does she seem like the type who needs a good lay once in awhile. She’s very attractive and has an opportunity elsewhere. There is no witty banter or sexy rapport with Gary. In fact, when the deed is over, Gary begins asking more questions and she instantly kicks him out. The film gives no answers or supports why she suddenly decided to seduce him other than the film needed a sex scene and a few moments with Rosanna Arquette without her clothes.
Where the film works is focusing on the interactions of the three main characters. Walter has been a conman his whole life; it is all he knows. But it’s taken its toll. He drinks too much; he gambles all their money. Martha wants out but is trapped. She knows her father is toxic, but he’s still family. Gary seems like a way of escape, but he’s a reporter at heart and the story comes first. The three actors are quite good, with Arquette putting in a very lovely, conflicted performance.
As someone who has spent most of his life in the Bible Belt, I find it quite curious that all of the spiritual meetings Martha performs are in Christian churches. She’s called a medium throughout the film and one church even has a big poster proclaiming that outside its doors. She always hires the church choir to sing during her performances. In all the churches I’ve ever attended and all the variations of I’ve seen of the religion, not one of them would welcome a medium into their sanctuary. Mediums and spiritualists are of the devil. I don’t know if this comes from Mike Hodges being from Britain and an ex-Catholic thus not knowing the inner workings of southern evangelicals, or if I’ve just been going to the wrong churches. But I found it quite distracting.
Arrow Video presents Black Rainbow with a new high definition transfer from the original negative approved by director Mike Hodges. Extras include a new audio commentary from film historians Kat Ellinger and Samm Deighan, and an archival one from Mike Hodges. Plus there is a making-of documentary and archival interviews with Jason Robards, Rosanna Arquette, and Tom Hulce plus the usual assortment of trailers and the standard full-color booklet with an essay on the film.
Black Rainbow was one of several films in Mike Hodges career that had difficult releases. After a very limited theatrical release, the film’s production companies found themselves in dire straits and so the film sat in limbo until it found new life on VHS. It is then quite lovely that it is finally getting a proper high definition release from Arrow Video. It is certainly a flawed film, but well worth experiencing.