The Obscure, Peculiar, and Clairvoyant Black Rainbow

I first watched the 1989 film Black Rainbow a few years ago, and I took an interest in the movie for three reasons: 1. It was directed by Mike Hodges. Hodges is the auteur behind what are, to me, two superbly-made films: 1971’s Get Carter and 1998’s Croupier. I’m up for seeing anything the guy directed. 2. It stars Rosanna Arquette. I have a soft spot for her, and not just because I think she’s pretty. I like her acting, particularly in John Sayles’ 1983 title Baby, It’s You and Martin Scorsese’s After Hours (1985). If she’s in a movie, I’m curious about it. 3. The film’s obscurity. You almost never hear or read anything about Black Rainbow, even in quarters where you might expect it to come under discussion. I’ve read lengthy overviews of Hodges’s career, that don’t even mention the film. It only got a limited theatrical run at the time of its release and doesn’t appear to have scored any notable rave reviews or awards nominations, but still… it’s a film directed by a living legend and that has a big-name star (two, actually, as Jason Robards plays another lead role). So I wanted to know why is it so forgotten despite all of that, and despite its having been released on DVD in 2004 and on VHS before that.

I enjoyed the film that first time I saw it, and ditto when I watched it again just before writing this. The story, which was written by Hodges, goes as such: Arquette is Martha Travis, a troubled young woman who is a clairvoyant. Her particular cosmic talent is she can make contact with the deceased. Yes, she sees dead people; or, as her alcoholic father (portrayed by Robards) says of her, she’s like a telephone line to the afterlife. The tale takes place in a town called Oakville (presumably meant to be in South Carolina, as that’s where the film was shot). The Travis family has a longstanding connection to the place, and the father and daughter come there and put up in a hotel so Martha can engage in a series of her performances, wherein she charges customers to come to a holy place and try to have her make contact with their dearly departed.

Where the conflict of the story comes in is when something goes very wrong at one of these functions. Martha is talking to a woman and she is seeing the lady’s deceased father and telling the woman what her dad’s up to in the afterlife. That’s all good and well, if eerie and hard for some to fathom. But then the channel in Martha’s otherworldly vision gets changed and she starts seeing who turns out to be the woman’s husband. She tells the lady some things about her hubby, like that his life ended in a violent episode and that he is now contentedly strumming guitar in the next life. But here’s the problem: the man is alive. The woman just left him before coming to the gathering. The guy, who works at a chemical plant, was just at home, watching TV, and apparently not in any danger. But Martha sees him dead in her medium’s vision, and even has the name of the man responsible for his demise. The woman rushes home and is relieved to find that her man is still breathing and functioning as usual; but then he is murdered in their house shortly after, and now everybody in town knows something uncanny is happening around them.

Things pick up from there. A local newspaper reporter (played by Tom Hulce) who doesn’t believe in the afterlife, nonetheless gets fascinated by Martha and her predictive vision of the factory worker’s death. He gets intrigued on a deeper level when it turns out a safety inspection unit was scheduled to visit the plant soon, and that the dead man had plans to report some hazards he knew the company was willfully committing. Meanwhile, when word gets around that Martha is able to name the killer, that man and the factory honcho who paid him to off the employee, both would, you know, like to get a hold of her. Meanwhile, Martha keeps performing and sees more visions of near-future deaths which, again, come true.

I’m not going to make the claim that Black Rainbow is on the same quality level as Get Carter or Croupier; it isn’t.  But it is worthy of a status far beyond the one it holds, as being somewhere between unmentionable or simply forgotten. The basis of the story might seem a little trite, but as the tale plays out through Hodges’s writing and direction, and Arquette’s and Robards’s and the others’ acting, it’s compelling. Arquette and Robards are particularly convincing in their roles. There’s interesting depths to their father-daughter relationship. They appear to be a wholesome and loving family when Martha’s performing and her dad’s playing middleman between her and the audience, but in private they fight more than they bond. And he’s a lush and she’s a sexually promiscuous wild woman. Hulce and the minor actors are all competent and believable in lending support to Arquette’s and Robards’s parts. Some of the extras are a little wooden, but then again, they’re extras.

In addition to having characters that draw you in, Black Rainbow contains effective suspense. As the viewer watches to see what will become of Martha and her visions, of the quest of the factory boss and his assassin to silence her, and of the newspaper man’s drive to get the facts of all that’s going down and get them into print, the viewer gets treated to a head rush of excitement inducement.

Don’t let the silence surrounding this movie fool you; it’s worth your attention.

Brian Greene's short stories, personal essays, and writings on books, music, and film have appeared in more than 20 different publications since 2008. His articles on crime fiction have also been published by Crime Time, Paperback Parade, Noir Originals, and Mulholland Books. Brian lives in Durham, NC with his wife Abby, their daughters Violet and Melody, their cat Rita Lee, and too many books. Follow Brian on Twitter @brianjoebrain.

See all posts by Brian Greene for Criminal Element.


  1. David Cranmer

    I can’t say that trailer did anything for me (a tad bit 80’s hokey) but your review certainly did, Brian. As always, well written. And I agree that Mike Hodges is a living legend. Maybe an uneven career but I also like another offbeat film he did called Pulp that starred Michael Caine. And its been years but I remember enjoying The Terminal Man.

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