She tours the Bible Belt filling church halls, standing on stage in her white dress and speaking of serenity and an end to worldly toil, a comforting picture of the realm beyond; her voice is soft yet carries, every member of the audience in silent rapture, listening to every word, while offstage her daddy sits and counts the money.
Her name is Martha Travis, his is Walter Travis; she knows he drinks, though perhaps not how much, but she has yet to find out how much of her share of the takings he has lost through gambling. They love each other but it is not an easy relationship, always on the road together, sleeper trains and hotel rooms in burnt out towns full of needy people desperate for the meagre comfort she offers.
Martha’s promise is that even if this life is harsh the next will be better, that those who have moved on are happy, until the night the voices prompt her to tell Mary Kuron about the violent death of her husband Tom – a murder which will not occur until later that night. And in the next town, it happens again, an industrial accident at the nuclear fuel plant, the women waiting anxiously at the gates those who were in the audience the night before, hearing Martha’s prophecy.
Filmed on location across North Carolina, distribution issues caused Black Rainbow to vanish almost without trace on release in 1989 without a major star name to sell it with; written and directed by Mike Hodges, it was nine years past Flash Gordon and almost two decades past his debut Get Carter, films which struck a chord with audiences but never turned to box office gold, while Morons from Outer Space was shunned by almost all who came into contact with it.
Restored from the original negative for Blu-ray by Arrow, Black Rainbow is far from a masterpiece or an overlooked classic but it is an interesting premise similar to those of Medium and Ghost Whisperer, worthwhile for the performances of Desperately Seeking Susan’s Rosanna Arquette as Martha, apparently fragile but possessed of a firm resolve built upon her knowledge she has only herself to rely on, and Magnolia’s Jason Robards as the self-serving Walter, cynical and unsympathetic.
A supernatural thriller of religious fervour and Southern Gothic trappings, it is framed by an unnecessary prelude and epilogue set ten years after the main action, and despite the bright sunlight the tone is often dark, particularly during Martha’s “readings,” Arquette utterly convincing that she is as surprised and disturbed by her revelations as her audience; Cassandra foretelling doom to those who do not wish to hear, they turn on her and call her a witch.
Where the film is less confident is in the mechanics of the thriller aspect which grind unconvincingly, Mark Joy’s corporate hit man presumably intended to be quirky but instead coming across as inept, and the underlying motive of silencing a whistle-blower is revealed immediately after the killing then as swiftly forgotten and never returned picked up again.
With two commentaries, one from 2004 by Hodges and a newly recorded one from film historians Kat Ellinger and Samm Deighan, the new edition of Black Rainbow also carries archive features including extremely brief interviews with Arquette, Robards and Tom Hulce who plays reporter Gary Wallace and four longer pieces focusing on various aspects on the themes of the film.