When Stanley met Lovecraft.
I’m pretty sure the first time I ever saw H.P. Lovecraft’s works brought to life was in the classic series Night Gallery. Rod Serling’s horror anthology show of the early 1970s was the perfect mix of earnest horror and campy fun, making it the idea platform for the works of Lovecraft. Two short stories were filmed for the series, both dealing in doomed romance of sorts: Pickman’s Model and the lesser-known Cool Air. The episodes remain perfect translations of the emotion behind Lovecraft’s work and the horror he was capable of. The same year, a film version of one of his best works, The Dunwich Horror, came to the screens. Besides being notable for containing Sandra Dee’s lone nude scene, response to the movie showed that as popular as Lovecraft was, perhaps the feature arena was not the right place for his material. While others have tried, it hasn’t been until the release this week of Richard Stanley’s version of the author’s short story, Color Out of Space, that Lovecraft has finally gotten the cinematic treatment his work has always deserved.
In Color Out of Space, an average family named Gardner (Nicolas Cage, Joely Richardson, Madeleine Arthur, Brendan Meyer, and Jullian Hilliard) live a seemingly idyllic life on Nathan’s (Cage) old family lakeside home. However when a meteor crashes on their property, each member of the family begins to undergo a transformation as a bright purple-colored force begins to take over.
Fans of a very specific horror can celebrate in director Stanley’s return. The directing wunderkind, who gave genre fans the cult classics Hardware and Dust Devil before infamously fighting a losing battle with Hollywood over his version of The Island of Doctor Moreau, hasn’t missed a single beat where his visual creativity or love of genre is concerned. Color Out of Space maintains a great sense of fun thanks to the director. Stanley has always been able to bring out the shocking as well as the horrific and then unashamedly revel in the sheer lunacy of both. It’s for this reason that when a possessed Theresa (Richardson) gets into a chopping frenzy with a kitchen knife, eventually hacking off her own fingers before holding up her hand to her youngest son and proclaiming, “dinner’s ready,” that we can’t help but laugh. Only someone with Stanley’s affinity for old school effects and the bizarre beauty they contain could make a group of alpacas morph into one giant mutated creature that viciously snarls as it oozes purple sludge and make it look oddly striking. Yet the reason Color Out of Space works as well as it does is because Stanley is able to deal out his frights in a careful manner thereby always maintaining the threat of something about to happen as we delve into this family’s story.
Like every good horror film, Color Out of Space is not without an underlying motif or two. There are a few moments where characters believe the strange occurrences happening are due to the local water the family has been consuming. Having recently watched Water and Power: A California Heist, which chronicles the ongoing battle over clean water in California, that theme feels especially relevant. Ultimately, however, Color Out of Space is about the familial bond and the strength of it. This is a film about family. Without going into spoiler territory, Stanley and Lovecraft both take the opportunity to truly test the limits of what is supposedly the strongest of bonds by filtering them through a terrifying end of the world situation. From the start, we get a sense of the various problems each member of the family is facing. Among their struggles are Nathan finding himself back in his own father’s home as a father himself, Theresa struggling to be a working wife and mother, and Lavinia’s desire to break away from everyone to find her own voice. When their individual and collective loyalties are called into question as a result of the supernatural events which seem to be befalling only them, Color Out of Space is able to balance the emotional and the terrifying beautifully.
In spite of the wonderful execution in virtually every other department, the performances in Color Out of Space are a bit of a mixed bag. The younger members of the cast all do a fine job. Arthur is great as the semi-despondent daughter whose own moods echo the impending doom awaiting the family. Richardson is quietly hypnotic as Theresa, giving the character a deeper essence that goes beyond what’s on the page. Cage, however, never seems to find the right balance as Nathan, going from a character that’s so bland, he’s virtually unplayable, to sounding like an even whinier Donald Trump when the strange forces takes him over.
Elijah Wood and his team over at Spectrevision seem to have done it again. Their mission to be the face of independent horror fare which pushes boundaries and has no problem straying from convention has helped shepherd a film which does just that. Even the more traditional aspects of Color Out of Space can’t help but have a slightly edgier element to them, making the film feel similar (while remaining undeniably distinct) to some of the company’s other titles such as The Boy, Mandy, and the recent Daniel Isn’t Real with its willingness to “go there” in a slightly operatic and unpredictable fashion. Spectrevision is the perfect home for a filmmaker of Stanley’s sensibilities; they both seem to value the overall nature of horror; not just for what it can deliver, but also for what else it can deliver. Hopefully Color Out of Space is just the beginning of a long-lasting and creatively rich relationship together.