Written by: Scarlett Amaris, Richard Stanley (screenplay) H.P. Lovecraft (short story)
Directed by: Richard Stanley
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Joely Richardson, and Madeleine Arthur
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
“What touched this place cannot be quantified or understood by human science. It was just a color out of space. A messenger from realms whose existence stuns the brain and numbs us with the gulfs that it throws open before our frenzied eyes."
Through no fault of his own, Richard Stanley’s filmmaking career has been fraught with discord and struggle. Each of his first two films, Hardware and Dust Devil, had to contend with the Weinsteins’ notorious fuckery, while his attempt to adapt The Island of Dr. Moreau is one of the most infamous chapters in Hollywood history, so much so that it inspired a fascinating documentary. Between that documentary, his interviews, and his sporadic output it’s clear that Stanley has never lost his passion for filmmaking. Not only has he produced a number of documentaries and shorts during his “hiatus,” but he’s also been eager to show off work for aborted projects, revealing an artist still bursting with creative impulses that have been sadly thwarted again and again.
So even if Color Out of Space—Stanley’s first narrative feature in nearly 30 years—technically isn’t a comeback, it sure feels like one. And what a way to resurface after all this time, with an adaptation of one of H.P. Lovecraft’s most famous and most frequently adapted tales. He goes all in with it too: this does not feel like the work of a hesitant filmmaker delicately dipping his toes back into the water. Instead, it’s more like Stanley recognizes this opportunity as a lifeboat, and he’s taking it right into the surf, cresting on a wave of Big Nic Cage energy and Lovecraftian delirium on his way to the best adaptation of the author’s work this side of Stuart Gordon.
Cage is Nathan Gardner, patriarch to a family of five who used to be a rebellious acid-dropper. Now that he’s a family man, he finds himself resigned to living on his father’s farm, something he swore he’d never do. Still, it’s not so bad: it’s an idyllic countryside setting, perfectly nestled away from the constant noise of the outside world. It’s an especially perfect place to retreat after his wife Theresa’s (Joely Richardson) mastectomy, not to mention an ideal spot for an alpaca farm. But the universe has a funny way of finding you out, even when you’ve settled on raising peculiar livestock for a living. One night, an incandescent meteor lands right in the Gardners’ front yard, and its mysterious contents unleash an insidious, creeping terror on the farm and its surrounding grounds. Curious authorities from nearby Arkham descend on the place, including Miskatonic University hydrology student Ward Phillips (Elliot Knight).
Lovecraftian horror is often intertwined with the unfathomable depths of cosmic dread. His vision has a sweeping grandeur to it that makes it difficult to translate on-screen, but Stanley has taken a page out of Gordon’s playbook by distilling those horrors down to an intimate scope and weaving their path of destruction through this family. The Gardners are a peculiar lot, which is perhaps to be expected from a collaboration between Cage and Stanley. The oldest daughter, Lavinia (Madeleine Arthur), is a purple-haired Wiccan who’s introduced casting spells by the lake; middle Benny (Brendan Meyer) spends his time getting high with a local hermit in the woods (Tommy Chong); and Jack (Julian Hilliard) is the doting baby of the family, forever getting shit from his older siblings but taking it in stride.
Nathan and Theresa are delicately reckoning with the latter’s illness. When we meet them, she’s especially worried about the intimacy between them because she’s anxious that her scars have left her undesirable, but Nathan reassures her that nothing has changed between them. She’ll always be his girl, he insists, blissfully unaware that these anxieties will bear grotesque fruit once the horrors take hold later in the film. There’s a sweetness to all of this that’s charming, as these quiet moments with the Gardners are arch, if not downright twee at times. You sense that Stanley is craftily setting them up only to knock them right back down, but the distinctive dynamics between them, like their playful banter and their eclectic interests, add an extra dimension to the macabre theatrics that eventually unfold. The family is just off-axis enough that viewers aren’t quite sure if Color Out of Space will be a splattery romp or a genuinely harrowing, heartbreaking ordeal.
Cage is expectedly pivotal in keeping Color Out of Space off-balance. His eccentric screen presence sometimes feels more meme now than a mannered performance, and Stanley plays with expectations. At times, Cage is muted, portraying Nathan as an odd, burned-out ex-hippie grappling with his failures and worried about looking like an idiot on TV; you catch a hint of those tics that we’ve come to expect, but you’re not sure if he’s going to go full tilt. Once his farm becomes a crucible of horror, he leaves no doubt though, putting that odd inflection into his dialogue and resorting to those wild gesticulations that have made him so indelible. By the time he’s slam-dunking rotten vegetables and ranting at his family, he leaves no doubt: we’re getting the full, glorious Cage experience.
Even this, however, ultimately feels like a misdirection. Tapping into the campy dimensions of Cage’s persona gives the audience tacit permission to assume that Color Out of Space will be a sort of perverse black comedy, one that’s more outrageously gross than it is unsettling. As the unseen menace lurks about, painting the landscape with an otherworldly fluorescence and mutating the various wildlife, it’s easy to marvel at the sort of four-color horror Stanley has fashioned out of Lovecraft’s tale. After all, if it was good enough for Lucio Fulci to oversee a splatter movie version The Color Out of Space, then it’s good enough for anyone.
Foregrounding this aspect is a brilliant disarming tactic, though: it turns out that Color Out of Space is legitimately fucked up. Stanley cleverly threads the Gardners’ familial anxieties through the macabre carnage that unfolds and eventually arrives at one of the most disturbing instances of body horror in recent memory. With part of his family reduced to an inhuman mass of mangled flesh and tangled hair, he must confront the complete and utter oblivion of everything dear to him. Lovecraft often dwells on oblivion, imagining horrible cosmic depths capable of consuming existence as we know it, and Stanley gives this fear a palpable, intimate form through Nathan’s awful reckoning. Somewhere along the way, Color Out of Space evolves from a delightfully weird, gross-out movie into a truly frightening existential freak-out. Cage is marvelous in the film’s waning moments, his outsized persona reduced to a terrifying husk as he rambles about, his possessed body now literally haunted by this ordeal.
Stanley does occasionally overreach during the climax here, when he’s unable to resist the temptation to peer into the void and treat viewers to a glimpse of the cosmic horrors that are better left unseen. But this is fleeting and easily forgiven, a small misstep in an otherwise tremendous adaptation. Had Stanley been content to simply fiddle around in a Lovecraftian sandbox, exploiting it only for its splatter potential, Color Out of Space would have still been a rousing success. There’s enough neon-soaked mayhem and goopy mutilations to satisfy the gorehound lurking within us all; however, he goes a step further by finding the gut-wrenching terror of total annihilation descending from the vast reaches of the beyond. When Knight (who quietly anchors the film with a subdued mix of curiosity, fear, and righteousness) paraphrases some of Lovecraft’s prose, it’s a completely earned moment because Stanley has masterfully harnessed the inexplicable nature of the author’s horrors.
By the time the film winds down, you’re similarly left with the sensation that you’ve witnessed something that can’t merely be described but instead must be experienced. The first of a proposed trilogy of Lovecraft adaptations from Stanley, The Color Out of Space is only disappointing because it reminds us that the universe has done us wrong by depriving us of one of our great filmmakers for so long. Don’t call it a comeback—call it the universe making up for lost time and doing us a solid for once. Cthulhu knows we could use more of that right now.
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