Color Out of Space (2019)
City guy Nathan Gardner (Nicolas Cage) has relocated his family to a remote New England farm where he attempts — rather unsuccessfully — to raise crops and alpacas. Further stress comes from his wife Theresa’s (Joely Richardson) cancer diagnosis; since her mastectomy six months past, their marriage has been sexless. Teen daughter Lavinia (Madeleine Arthur) enacts Wiccan rituals beseeching the spirits to restore her mother’s health, while adolescent son Benny (Brendan Meyer) smokes pot with local hermit Ezra (Tommy Chong), and littlest Gardner Jack (Julian Hilliard) keeps his own counsel. And then an unearthly meteor comes thundering into their front yard, and the Gardners find their already considerable personal demons taking a back seat to — and being mediated by — madness, mutation, terror, and death. Along for the ride is Ward (Elliot Knight), a young hydrologist surveying the water in the area as officials plan to build a hydroelectric dam.
Horror icon H.P. Lovecraft’s 1927 short story The Color Out of Space is one of his best; a tight, unnerving tale of the uncanny intruding into the quotidian world, with all the attendant terrors one could want. Despite the inherent difficulties in visually depicting the otherworldly effect the tale is named for — like Terry Pratchett’s Octarine it’s meant to be a shade outside of the normal color spectrum and nigh-indescribable to people who haven’t personally witnessed it — it’s been adapted to the screen a number of times, beginning with 1965’s Die, Monster, Die!, then 1987’s The Curse with Star Trek: The Next Generation’s Wil Wheaton, followed by 2008’s Color from the Dark and 2010’s German effort, Die Farbe. Annihilation (2018), both Jeff VanderMeer’s novel and Alex Garland’s film adaptation, owes a debt to Lovecraft’s story as well.
But now here comes cult filmmaker Richard Stanley, making his first fiction feature since he was unceremoniously booted off 1996’s disastrous The Island of Doctor Moreau, to give us a fresh take on the material, and he’s bringing #filmtwitter’s favorite onscreen lunatic, Nicolas Cage, with him (Elijah Wood produces through his SpectreVision shingle, making this a perfect storm of film hipster icons).
It’s a wonderful match of artist and material no matter how you slice it; Stanley’s an old weirdo from way back, deeply interested in the occult, secret history, and high strangeness in general, and Cage has earned — unfairly, perhaps? Let’s come back to that — a rep as a performer who never knowingly gives a regular line reading, while Lovecraft, thanks to the game-driven preponderance of his Cthulhu Mythos, is not so much a cult figure these days as the Patron Saint of the Weird and Spooky. That’s a heady cocktail.
And it works! It works a treat. In fact, it’s the best of Stanley’s admitted sparse oeuvre: atmospheric, deliberately gonzo but not oppressively so, an exercise in steadily building strangeness and horror that takes time to lay out its characters and situation before leading them — and us — into the abyss.
That’s important, welcome, and a little unexpected; given the reputations of all concerned, you wouldn’t be surprised if Color Out of Space put the pedal to the metal right out of the gate, walloping the viewer with willfully bizarre batshittery and letting confusion and shock do the heavy lifting in terms of impact and effect — Panos Cosmatos’ Mandy (2018), which also stars Cage, is more than a little guilty of this. Color seeds in its unusual elements, and while there are oddities in play from the get-go — we meet Lavinia doing a witchcraft ritual in the deep woods and, yes, Nic Cage rants about milking alpacas and, yes, Tommy Chong is a hippie stoner conspiracy nut — they don’t overwhelm the scenario. We’re grounded in the emotional reality of this family, and their situation before the horrors come creeping.
And what horrors they are. The conceit of Color Out of Space and its literary predecessor is that whatever the interloping meteor was, it poisons the land and animals around it, giving rise to somatic and psychological mutation. Crops grow huge but are inedible, animals are twisted into strange and horrific shapes, the earth sours — you know the drill. It’s good, grotesque, stuff; Stanley depicts the Color as a kind of sickly pinkish-purple glow and gets a lot of mileage out of good old fashioned practical effects to render his monstrosities — there’s one scene that’s a direct nod to Rob Bottin’s pioneering work on John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) that is recognizable without being overly intrusive.
But it’s the psychological effects that are the most interesting, and the film plays it coy as to whether the growing insanity of the characters is in reaction to the unnatural things they witness over the course of the film or a direct effect of the unearthly Color working on their squishy human brains. I suspect the latter; the film specifically puts cancer-sufferer Theresa through the wringer, wreaking horrible physical and mental changes upon her, and Stanley has spoken about his own mother’s death by cancer influencing the film. So, like David Cronenberg’s 1986 version of The Fly, Color Out of Space is at least in part a metaphor for terminal illness, and it’s interesting to wonder if Cage’s character’s growing derangement throughout the film is more a response to his inability to deal with his wife’s illness than anything more uncanny — of course, the exact line can’t be mapped.
Ah, Nic Cage, right? If there’s a criticism to be leveled here it’s that, much like Jack Nicholson’s casting in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980), his mere presence undoes some of the assumptions inherent in the narrative — it’s hard to do a ‘descent into madness’ thing when you’re lead actor already has a well-earned reputation for insanity. Here that’s kept mostly in check, except for the metatextual material that Cage’s mere presence in the film brings to the table. Personally, I think the commentary on Cage’s frequently-deployed bag of acting tricks and tics often mistakes what he can do for something he is compelled to do; while Cage can — and does — go ‘full Cage’ for a lot of his roles, he’s a superbly gifted performer who is more than capable of playing it straight when required. Here we get both — a retrained portrait of an everyday guy gradually coming off the rails until the Cage of cinematic legend is revealed. It’s not a perfect transition, but neither is it scattershot — this is a carefully controlled descent.
Which is not a bad descriptor for the whole enterprise, really. While Color Out of Space is packed with gore and gruesome effects, madness and mayhem, it’s not just flung at the screen recklessly; Stanley’s control of the medium works in concert with his appreciation of the uncanny, resulting in a genuinely singular exercise in cinematic Lovecraftian terror. I love it, and if Stanley’s planned Lovecraft trilogy comes to fruition, I’m more than up for more of it.
4 / 5 – Recommended
Reviewed by Travis Johnson