Brave is the soul who goes down the path of adapting HP Lovecraft to the big screen. Many have tried, and failed. Even the small successes, such as Stuart Gordon’s camp classic RE-ANIMATOR, seem to be a fluke and more dependent on changing the nature of the literature than faithfully adapting it. Thus, when COLOR OUT OF SPACE opened with a hushed monologue taken directly from the actual Lovecraftian text, I was stunned, not to mention a little nervous. Could they really pull this off?
See, I was coming at this film not only from a horror-loving perspective, but as a devout reader and admirer of Lovecraft’s work. “The Colour Out of Space” has always been one of my personal favorites of his (along with “Pickman’s Model”), and I’ve read it many times.
I do not tread lightly when I say that COLOR OUT OF SPACE is not only the best modern Lovecraft adaptation I’ve ever seen, but one of the only movies that manages to replicate the sense of unnerving anxiety that permeates his catalogue. It is a triumphant return to directing for Richard Stanley (HARDWARE), and another stuck landing for the near-spotless track record of SpectreVision (MANDY). It is, simply put, a must-see. [Very light spoilers follow.]
The thing about Lovecraft stories is that like so much classic horror literature, they’re told mostly through hearsay — the narrator hears someone talk about something that happened to someone else. It’s impossible to make that exciting for a two hour film, so in this case they’ve replaced the nameless narrator with the character of Ward Phillips (no doubt an homage to both “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” and Lovecraft’s own middle name, and played by the likeable Elliot Knight), a hydrologist who comes into town to survey the water table. We see much of the action through his eyes; he serves as an entry point to the Gardner family’s isolated existence.
Nathan Gardner (Nicolas Cage) and his family have retired to his father’s house in the middle of nowhere, New England. Theresa Gardner (Joely Richardson) has recently suffered from breast cancer; Lavinia (Madeleine Arthur) practices Wiccan rituals and prays to be set free from her family, while her brothers Benny (Brendan Meyer) and Jack (Julian Hilliard) cope with their boredom the best they can — with getting stoned, in Benny’s case, while youngest Jack lets his mind wander while staring into the family well. Then a meteor falls into their front yard, and very peculiar things start happening.
The visuals in this film are, dare I say it, out of this world. Lovecraft has a famous tendency to call things “unknowable” and “unimaginable”, which works great for literature but doesn’t help much when you’re trying to depict something onscreen. In the short story, the namesake “color” is described as such: “No sane wholesome colours were anywhere to be seen except in the green grass and leafage, but everywhere those hectic and prismatic variants of some diseased, underlying primary tone without a place among the known tints of earth.” Thanks, Lovecraft.
The film has gone with a strange fuchsia tone somewhere between pink and purple, which works insofar as it is not a color that tends to occur in nature beyond certain types of flower, and seeing the bright fuchsia flora and fauna encroach upon the Gardner farmhouse is incredibly unsettling. Animals, too, noted in the story as “slightly altered in a queer way impossible to describe”, take on that purple-pinkish hue that seems to simultaneously make them translucent and twist their jaws into monstrous snouts. Since the original story is so mysterious, these specific (and very creepy) images are able to be inserted into the story without betraying its nature.
In another win over something that often plagues adaptations, modern technology is integrated quite seamlessly. As the alien energy encroaches upon the house and its inhabitants, it also messes with the Wi-Fi, scrambles cell phone signals, and kills car batteries. The movie does not have to invent an awkward deux ex machina to isolate the family — it’s already there, as the source of the horror.
The ensemble cast is uniformly good. It’s easy to forget Nicolas Cage is even Nicolas Cage; he’s very good in the film, but it doesn’t really need him in the way that the star vehicle MANDY needed him. He plays the unhinged Gardner father in a way that best serves the story instead of the other way around — as part of the greater family, all of whom are going insane in one way or another.
Other positives worth mentioning: the early scenes’ dialogue is ordinary enough to emphasize the presence of the weirdness later on — everything changes, even the way they talk. The teenagers are typically obnoxious, but not detestable. The addition of Lavinia’s witchcraft does a great deal to illuminate the obvious difference between the natural world and whatever horrid thing has spread from the meteorite into the earth. Ward Phillips is not an idiot. No one in the film is stupid, in fact — not even Tommy Chong’s crazy old hippie. There is only one death that feels unearned in terms of the character doing something stupid and basically offing themselves. The animal deaths are dealt with mostly off screen, and with reverence.
Leaving things off screen is reflective of the basic technique that makes COLOR OUT OF SPACE work: the horrors are never fully shown. The instances of monstrous animals, gross body horror, even the extraterrestrial presence in the well — we get fleeting glimpses, quick cuts, and suggestions rather than a pull-back reveal of some boastful use of special effects. It is truly in the Lovecraftian spirit, and makes the entire experience much more frightening. Best of all, no explanation is given where there doesn’t need to be one. The effects of the alien life force seem to be randomized. All are welcome changes from so many modern horror films. Richard Stanley really knows his s–t.
Ultimately, COLOR OUT OF SPACE succeeds twofold: one as a modern Lovecraft movie, which is one for the history books in itself. And two, as a truly effective science fiction horror film that brings on the kind of existential dread I haven’t really felt since NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD or INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS — that sense of the inevitable, that no amount of good will or valiance will stay the hand of the horror. It will keep coming, regardless of your efforts. It will keep going. Relentless, evil, unstoppable. Your actions are futile. You don’t matter. You’re only in the way… a fly swatted from the air.
BOTTOM LINE: Watch this movie. Then watch it again. And again. A few cliché character tropes are not nearly enough to bring down what is unquestionably a masterpiece of the sci-fi/horror genre. 9.5/10
Following its successful festival run, COLOR OUT OF SPACE hits regular theaters on January 24, 2020.