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John Connor [Celluloid 03.30.23] scifi horror cult arthouse avant-garde

With only two features and a short film to his name, Panos Cosmatos has nonetheless emerged as one of few true genre auteurs of the past two decades.

And whether you’re down for his particular brand of bleak, psychedelic arthouse horror or not, there’s no denying his dedication to a singular vision of retro-fueled, cosmic mayhem… and a quick survey of his output shows he has a clear preoccupation with certain themes and settings that are truly unique.

All his films are set in what I would describe as a 1980’s dreamscape – like a nostalgic nightmare pulled from the mind of a child that fell asleep in the living room while an Italian horror movie flickered on the television and then turned to static when the clock struck 3am.

They are the movies that GenX youth imagined when they scanned rows of R-Rated VHS tapes that they’d never be allowed to rent and by now have forgotten the names of… and, honestly, would have been too scared to slip into the VCR if they had been.

They’re less narrative films than low-resolution artefacts, heavy metal record sleeves found in a flea market except the vinyl is missing… so you’re left imagining what the songs might sound like. And they’re original and amazing.

Beyond the Black Rainbow in particular feels like this. It’s pure cinema, pure aesthetic, with any semblance exposition not only taking a back seat, but being left behind while the artist takes a tab of acid and drifts into oblivion.

That’s why you feel like you’re going crazy when you watch it. You’re slowly being hypnotised. The more you grasp for reality the more it slips through your fingers and you’re left in a kind of arthouse coma.

Despite all of this dreamstate ambiguity however, the evil lurking at the centre of Panos Cosmatos’ nightmare cinema is actually not hard to locate. In fact, like Dr. Barry Nyle rising from the sludge of his black lagoon, Cosmatos’ villains emerge from the screen and stare the viewer dead in the face.

So, what’s Panos Cosmatos scared of?


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Each of Cosmatos’ films - Beyond the Black Rainbow, Mandy and The Viewing - feature evil 1980’s Baby Boomers, warped by their New Age predilections and obsession with mastering the transcendental, or becoming gods.

In an interview with Filmmaker Magazine, Cosmatos elaborated on this thematic obsession with the Boomer generation of the 1980s and how it influenced his work:

"I wanted to explore the baby boomer New Age religion fixation, like the way people expose themselves to mind viruses and let these things control their lives. With Mandy I wanted to continue that exploration specific to how most, if not all, modern religions are reinterpretations — or perversions — of their original intentions."

And to anyone who grew up in the 80’s this all makes sense.

It was a secular age and, in the absence of God, educated Liberal atheists became obsessed with what was called Self-Actualisation, which humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow defined as “the process of becoming everything you are capable of becoming”.

It was a time of spiritual free-for-alls with cults and gurus rising up all over the world offering promises of spiritual awakening through strange new rituals that often blended modern psycho-therapy and ancient wisdom.

For many of these false gods, the process of self-actualization slipped into self-aggrandizement. When there is no God, YOU are God, and you must transcend your banal, mortal reality to achieve your true nature…

In Beyond the Black Rainbow this theme is represented by Dr. Barry Nyle and his work in Arboria, the fictional New Age research facility and prison to his subject, Elena.

Nyle was a follower of a scientist Guru in the 1960s and is now, in the early 80’s, trying to merge science and spirituality to allow humans to move into a new age of perpetual happiness through transcendence.

Years earlier he was submerged in a black liquid and experienced an otherworldly moment which changed him forever. He also submerged Elena in the mysterious liquid and has been experimenting on her because he believes she will realize his ambition.

A notable characteristic of New Age thinking was its high regard for modern science. Gurus interpreted scientific discovery in ways that legitimized a spiritual worldview…

And so here, Cosmatos is also presenting the Boomer obsession with his mastery of science as proof of his godlike nature.

In his heavy metal revenge thriller, Mandy, Cosmatos introduces us to another evil Boomer figure, Jeremiah Sand.

An unsuccessful folk singer from the 1960’s, Sand is a stand-in for the kind of Charles Manson style cult leader that emerged from the tune-in, drop-out generation before everything went dark.

Sand’s backstory is meticulously detailed and you can find copies of his albums and singles online, their style an eerily perfect recreation of early 70s psych folk era freak-outs.

The single Amulet of the Weeping Maze even includes a B-Side called “My Journey” which lays out Sand’s righteous vision and New Age resurrection.

As the story goes, the commercial failure of Sand’s album became the catalyst for him to leave Southern California and settle in a place where his "Truth" would be "Received by pure and open hearts".

But by 1983, when Sand and his dwindling followers meet Mandy Bloom in the secluded forests of the Pacific Northwest, his journey to enlightenment has faded and he’s succumbed to his inner hateful demons. He’s a corrupted, sadistic burnout who commands nothing but dark spiritual forces… or… perhaps he’s simply in the throws of an endless LSD trip, sinking deeper into the abyss of pure boomer ego…

One thing is for sure… if Jeremiah Sand was a prophet, he never predicted his fiery end at the hands of a man named Red.

In 2022, Cosmatos debuted a short film on Netflix called The Viewing which was part of a horror anthology series curated and produced by Guillermo del Toro called The Cabinet of Curiosities.

Apparently, del Toro approached Cosmatos to direct a segment based on a short story… but he declined the offer stating he prefers to direct his own material. Del Toro relented and agreed to let him write his own screenplay which ended up being The Viewing.

Here again, the film is set sometime in a shadowy and almost dystopic 1979, a decaying cold war America on the eve of the 1980s.

A group of talented young people, experts in their field, are invited by an ultra wealthy Boomer to his uber stylish and technically dazzling mansion for a mysterious once-in-a-lifetime experience.

The villain of this almost theatrical short is Lionel Lassiter played by Peter Weller. Lassiter is a mysterious wealthy recluse who rumor has it made his fortune stockpiling uranium.

He is the embodiment of the self made, profit-at-any cost Boomer figure, who believes his wealth and success sets him apart from the civilian population.

He is – special – and he deserves to be surrounded by the best of all things, designer drugs, expensive whisky and even the most accomplished experts and artist for his special night.

As the strange night progresses, Lionel brings the group into what he calls the Obelisk Chamber to view a mysterious object.

They are all fascinated and confounded by what looks to be a meteorite, or perhaps an ancient artefact dug up from a millennia ago.

When one of them lights up a joint, the object seems to draw in the smoke and, as though engaged by the primordial nature of the drugs, begins glowing and pulsating until it hatches like some kind of alien or demon egg.

The entity inside quickly takes control of everyone's minds and as Lionel stares at it, transfixed, it consumes and merges with him to become some kind of devil creature that takes off into the night.

The final shot of The Viewing is a skyline view of a city in disrepair as the creature emerges from a water drain and heads towards the distant buildings.

To my mind, this is another example of perverted New Age self-actualization which is really just an ego trip by narcissists. Perhaps the creature that Peter Weller turns into is the ultimate version of himself… more devil than man, ravenous and immoral.

Recommended Release: MANDY

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Wumpus (2 months ago) Reply

Thanks for the article/thesis! I don't agree with all of the details, but there's no denying that Nyle, Sand, and Lassiter have a lot in common.

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