The literature of H.P. Lovecraft has had a significant influence on cinema, though surprisingly, there haven’t been many straight adaptations of his stories. Instead, many films are loosely based or inspired by his work. The most notable ones were helmed by Stuart Gordon, such as Re-Animator, From Beyond and Dagon. One of John Carpenter’s most underrated films, In the Mouth of Madness, is basically a loving ode to Lovecraft’s brand of cosmic horror.
Guillermo del Toro had tried to gather financing for an adaptation of Lovecraft’s arguably most famous tale, At the Mountains of Madness, but the project was considered too risky by studio executives. Perhaps understandably, the studio wasn’t exciting about greenlighting a big-budget horror film, that will be faithful to Lovecraft’s ideas, such as the notion of “cosmic indifference” — in which the universe has no regard for our individual humanity. In which characters encounter strange and terrifying phenomena, for which they can find no explanation. Neither religious superstition can comfort them, nor the scientific method can grasp its supernatural mechanisms. They must accept their insignificant place in this world or risk losing their mind.
After all these years, we are finally getting a semi-straight adaptation of one of Lovecraft’s stories: Color Out of Space. It’s relatively low-budget — give or take $6 million — means the filmmakers have enough creative freedom to do justice to Lovecraft’s fiction.
One intriguing element is that it boasts the return of Richard Stanley to feature-filmmaking, after being rightfully disillusioned with the industry after being fired from The Island of Dr. Moreau. Another intriguing element that it stars none other than Nicolas Cage. Cage has managed to revive some dignity after starring in countless VOD fodder, especially with films like Dog Eat Dog, Mom and Dad, and especially Mandy.
Lavinia Gardner (Madeleine Arthur) lives with parents and two brothers in an isolated farm. In her spare time, she delves in occult rituals, hoping its powers could somehow protect her mother from cancer as she had recently endured a mastectomy. While performing a ritual by a nearby lake, she comes across a charming and hansom hydrologist Ward (Elliot Phillips). Ward’s presence is initially academic as he’s planning to study the local water supply, though he does find himself infatuated by Lavinia.
Meanwhile, Lavinia’s mother, Theresa (Joely Richardson), is still dealing with the psychological aftermath of the operation and tries to find distraction through her work as a financial advisor. Due to the operation, Theresa considers herself sexually unappealing, much to the chagrin of her husband, Nathan (Nicolas Cage), who still finds her as entrancing as ever. Nathan has become a fanatic farmer and alpaca expert.
Jack (Jullian Hillard) is their youngest child and innocently oblivious to the eccentricities of his family. His older brother, Benny (Brendan Meyer) has become a committed pothead and seems destined to turn into the hermit, Ezra (Tommy Chong), who still seems to be recuperating from one of his many acid trips.
Each existence is interrupted when, one night, a mysterious light bears down on them, followed by a meteorite that crashes down onto the Gardner’s lawn. From then on, each of them is beset by unexplained phenomena which grow increasingly disturbing — from the distortion of time, vegetation growing rapidly, characters finding themselves in fuguelike states or receiving disturbing hallucinations to animal mutation. To try and understand this alien force is futile; its existence seems to transcend conventional biological understanding.
But it doesn’t matter what motivates it. What matters is that their survival becomes increasingly unlikely the more they are influenced by its ‘colors’.
After more than two decades, Richard Stanley is finally back directing another feature film. Infamously, and entertainingly documented in Lost Souls: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s The Island of Dr. Moreau, Stanley was robbed of the opportunity to film his passion project. He was replaced with John Frankenheimer, whose personality clashed with co-star Val Kilmer (while also having to deal with the eccentricities of its lead, Marlon Brando). The resulting film would become an infamously critical and commercial flop. Needless to say, the documentary about the making of the film is far more entertaining than the actual film.
It probably wouldn’t have been a masterpiece if Stanley had been permitted to film his version. But it would have been more interesting. I don’t think Stanley is an unsung visionary of cinema, but he’s a bold and interesting filmmaker. I think his directing and visual eye is stronger than his scriptwriting but accompanied by a greater script and fellow talent, he might one day make his masterpiece.
Similar to his work on Hereditary, Colin Stetson’s soundtrack brilliantly accompanies the horrific madness on screen. Stetson’s experimental roots are here. The music can switch from the sweetly melodious to an eruption of sinister screeching. It emphasizes the otherworldly, the unexplained forces at play on the Gardner’s property. It’s beautiful but terrifying.
Unlike most horror movie soundtracks, the music isn’t just there to create suspense or to deliver walloping jump scare. It’s there to amplify Lovecraft’s central theme: the cosmic indifference to our existence; the boundless mystery underlying the series of supernatural occurrences.
When characters find themselves amid something beyond their understanding, the music reaches to a powerful and moving crescendo — oftentimes through the use of Stetson’s signature saxophone skill. In the hands of a more conventional musician, these scenes wouldn’t have been nearly as powerful or interesting.
If you’re hoping for some hammy Nicolas Cage, then Color Out of Space will certainly deliver. In the beginning, however, he’s surprisingly subdued. Occasionally his brand of zaniness comes through — such as his weird monologue about milking alpacas — but it’s not until the second half when Cage is truly unleashed.
This is certainly not a bad thing because it does give Color Out of Space some delightful humor, especially when tragedy strikes indiscriminately, to some of the most helpless characters. It’s just unfortunate that his character’s descent into madness is poorly written. Out of nowhere his characters just seems to lose his mind.
The film doesn’t spend enough time to show his declining mental state. The Shining was gradually building to Jack Torrance’s eventual derangement. It didn’t overexplain his madness but his shift feel natural. It doesn’t feel natural in Color Out of Space. Nicolas Cage just goes bonkers.
The character does occasionally muse about the past, about how he suffered from an abusive and alcoholic father, but it’s not enough to justify the change to his character It just devolves into a few sketchy comical scenes of Nicolas Cage doing his thing, which is nothing to really complain about mind you. I just wish it had been better written.
Having said, though we do get plenty of humor from Cage’s character, his dramatic moments shouldn’t be understated. Cage is quite effective in one particular scene in which he is forced to do something terrible. He’s certainly not slumming it in this movie. It’s obvious that he was passionate about the material — he’s reportedly a big fan of H.P. Lovecraft.
Besides Cage and the great Joely Richardson, the film also receives support from one of the world’s most beloved stoners: Tommy Chong. The role of Ezra, an aging hippie squatting on the Gardner’s property, seems tailor-made for him. It wouldn’t surprise me that Chong was the only actor Stanley had in mind for the part.
Unfortunately, Chong has only a few brief scenes in the film. Considering the genre, you’d hope Stanley would give him an opportunity to show some dramatic skill, but the script doesn’t give him much to do. We don’t really get to know him. He’s just a spaced-out dude living off the grid.
We do get the impression that he has a greater understanding of what drives these alien forces. Similar to the Shades character in Stanley’s debut film, Hardware, we have another stoner character whose actually smarter than the rest.
One of the most suspenseful scenes does feature Chong, in which we hear an ominous recording of him musing about the Color.
As a horror film, Color Out of Space is surprisingly intense. Even with the presence of Cage, you shouldn’t expect any Mandy–esque comical grand Guignol antics. This doesn’t mean there isn’t any gore, but it’s the body horror that is the most effective. It’s the unrelenting ferocity of the Colors and the effect it has on its victims.
Without spoiling too much, there’s one particular mutation that is uncomfortable to watch. It’s not even necessarily the ickiness of it. It’s the agonizing yelps of pain from its victim that might stay with you for a while.
If you’re an animal lover, as I am, be forewarned: some scenes will be hard to stomach.
Having said that, mostly CGI is used to portray the transformative powers of the Colors. Some works better than others. I hate sounding like a broken record, but I do miss practical effects. If this film was made in the eighties, for example, by someone like Stuart Gordon or David Cronenberg, then the horror scenes would be so much more effective.
Stanley wisely doesn’t linger too long on certain digital effects. An experienced eye will certainly notice them, but I think it was mostly was acceptable. The outstanding performances and incredible music elevated the material so that it hardly bothered me.
One fantastic practical effect is used for a particular creature. Its appearance is sadly too brief, but even so, it’s goddamn awesome.
Color Out of Space is a satisfying piece of science-fiction horror cinema, that comes close to greatness. It does feel that the characters could have been explored with more depth. There are hints of inner turmoil but it’s mostly surface level. It would have been interesting if the Colors had a greater effect on the psychology of its central characters — apart from Nicolas Cage’s character who just turns crazy without any apparent reason.
The villain in the piece can be frustrating, mostly in its inscrutable nature. Naturally, this is the point. Some of the mutations make you think of Alex Garland’s Annihilation, though the alien forces in that film seem to follow its biological code. But this was always the point of Lovecraft: the mechanisms of these forces are not for us to understand. It’s part of a different world, something far beyond human comprehension.
Color Out of Space could be destined for cult status, though I don’t think it will ever be hailed as a science-fiction masterpiece. It just squanders a few too many opportunities to reach that height.
Even so, it’s an atmospheric gem thanks to its cinematography and soundtrack. And it has some classic Nicolas Cage antics. If that’s what you’re expecting, I don’t see how you can be disappointed.
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