The Agony and the Ecstasy of Color Out of Space

© SpectreVision

No flesh shall be spared in this psychedelic Lovecraft adaptation from iconic goth-shaman director Richard Stanley and the producers of 2018’s similarly lurid horror hit, Mandy.

A relatively straightforward science fiction-horror hybrid, Color Out of Space centers on the Gardener family, caught in the dangerous alien light of a meteor that crashes into their farm. Freed from the purple color of Lovecraft’s prose, the story has room to stretch its tentacles and revel in all manner of chaotic evil while giving Nicholas Cage plenty of gory scenery to chew as the Gardener family patriarch, Nathan. It’s a formula that worked perfectly for Mandy and might work even better here, where Cage has a solid supporting cast of sympathetic family members to protect and, ultimately, terrorize.

[There’s definitely something in the water…]

“The Colour Out of Space” (the short story) hews more toward Algernon Blackwood’s mounting environmental dread than the sweep of Lovecraft’s Old Gods; a copy of “The Willows” even makes a cameo. Viewers might also be reminded of a more recent, color-saturated SF-horror adaptation, Annihilation. Like the VanderMeer story, past traumas inform the characters long before shit gets really weird.

Theresa, Nathan’s wife, and their three children have already known body horror, having recently watched Theresa undergo a masectomy after a cancer diagnosis. Joely Richardson plays Theresa’s fragile remission with anxiety and vulnerability. Teenage daughter Lavinia (Madeleine Arthur), a character not in the original short story, practices Wiccan rituals and seems most perceptive to what’s going on – or going wrong – in nature. Older brother Benny smokes pot and fights with his dad, while Nathan’s youngest son is becoming nonverbal.

The family’s move to the sticks is supposed to be a fresh start, but it’s apparent that Nathan is a failure at homesteading and his family is unhappy. What’s worse is that Nathan knows they’re disappointed in him, too, try though he might to force optimism about things such as alpacas and their boobs. I’m not even joking here. Listening to Nathan fret over his alpacas is often the only intentionally funny bits of the whole movie.

© SpectreVision

It’s unfair to project too much onto Nathan’s relationship to failure, but perhaps a bit interesting to see through the prism of a director probably most widely-known for his biggest professional failure, the 1996 adaptation of The Island of Doctor Moreau. There is, in fact, a whole documentary about this ambitious, intended American breakthrough for Stanley that instead drove him to a nervous breakdown in the cogs of a terrible Hollywood machine of financial pressures and celebrity egos. After his notorious firing via Val Kilmer and Marlon Brando, Stanley rejected Hollywood, moved to a haunted monastery in the Pyrenees mountains, and got involved in a feud between two local geomancers. I am not making this up. A much more bitter chaser to Jodorowsky’s Dune, the Lost Soul documentary has just as much to say about creativity, integrity, and success.

Color Out of Space is the South African director’s first feature-length film in over twenty years. Fans of his earlier movies, particularly his arthouse Terminator shocker Hardware, weird western Dust Devil, and his own documentary about his home in Montsegur, will find little nods to his goth-rock style, from the “No flesh shall be spared” sign above Benny’s desk or Benny’s friend, the neighboring New Age hermit, played by Tommy Chong. I missed Richard Stanley.

Stanley’s enthusiasm for metaphysics finds a great partner is such an esoteric Lovecraft story, and his vision of the Color sees him use palettes of pale purples and bright magentas, an atmospheric prog rock score by Colin Stetson (Hereditary, Red Dead Redemption 2), and some great, gooey practical FX. Mutation is frightening, but it doesn’t always have to be ugly… until it is. Glowing plants and weird vegetables are one thing, but you’ll look at alpacas about the same way you looked at Malamutes after watching John Carpenter’s The Thing. But it’s nothing compared to the absolutely horrific moment when mother and son are caught in the Color and fused together into a gibbering monster.

The utter shock and disbelief of Theresa as her youngest is slowly absorbing back into her body tinges this Oedipal nightmare with something almost ecstatic as she whimpers “Oh my god,” over and over. That’s pretty much the movie’s hinge and can go a way towards reading Nicholas Cage’s deliberate acting choices.

This is definitely Vampire’s Kiss-vintage Nicholas Cage, and it can be distracting, but almost always fitting, especially in the last third of the film. One can imagine Cage, before a take, informing Stanley that he thinks Nathan would take on the persona of Nathan’s unforgiving father and make him sound just like Donald Trump on an Adderall bender. Why? Because why not, I guess? But it definitely makes you uncomfortable, and I think that’s a smart choice to bring a different element out in Lovecraft.

If you want to cheer on a comeback for Richard Stanley, or you want to experience something scary, a bit silly, and a lot surprising, or you just want to get a little chemically enhanced and look at the Color, man, you need to see this midnight-movie-meets-planetarium-laser-show. Color Out of Space is a hallucinogenic winner.

Color Out of Space is playing now in select theaters.



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