LFF 2019: Color Out of Space Review
H.P. Lovecraft was a racist scumbag. That isn’t just an effect of the time he lived in either, even by 1930s standards he was really, really, racist. Many of his stories have not so subtle critiques of immigration, The Horror at Red Hook, or inter-racial relationships, The Shadow Over Innsmouth, and many feature descriptions of non-white people being bestial and hardly human. His writing style, in addition to this, isn’t actually very good, with prose that can best be described as being beaten with a thesaurus.
Lovecraft had a few adjectives that he used to the point of nonsense, and there also comes a point where the novelty of something being too horrific for description wears off. Yet his work, in particular his Cthulhu mythos, is something returned to time and again across geek culture. Part of this is because, if nothing else, Lovecraft understood fear the way few other horror writers do, and particularly its ability to get under the skin.
It also helps that the cosmic horror genre that Lovecraft essentially created - the idea that we humans are insignificant in the face of the unknowable and infinite - really tapped into something and has grown beyond him in the years since his death, with writers and artists of all different backgrounds contributing. Him being dead also helps. Despite my issues with him as a person, there are pieces of work by Lovecraft I find very effective; The Rats in the Walls, The Dunwich Horror, The Music of Erich Zann, and The Colour out of Space, which has newly been adapted as Color out of Space by director Richard Stanley.
The Gardner family live a secluded life outside of town, father Nathan (Nicolas Cage) is attempting keep the old family fun running while dealing with the aftermath of his wife Theresa’s (Joely Richardson) cancer treatment, which has also taken its toll on their children Lavinia (Madeline Arthur), Benny (Brendan Mayer), and Jack (Julian Hilliard). One night a meteorite crashes onto the farm, bringing with it an alien essence that transforms both the land and the family that may leave them unable to ever escape.
In some ways the best execution of the concepts and ideas brought up in The Colour out of Space already exists in Alex Garland’s 2018 film Annihilation. Although that takes a more science fiction than horror approach, the elements of bodily mutation, time distortion, and a normal landscape being turned alien over time are all present. In focussing on a small family unit you can really get into the emotional trauma of a small group of people being consumed by this horror and ultimately being powerless against it. The atmosphere is very uneasy and tense, leaving you feeling a little lost not unlike the characters.
The problem with Color out of Space is that the actual telling of the story isn’t very compelling. The original story had two narrators; an unnamed surveyor working for a dam project, here reworked as Elliot Knight’s Ward Phillips, and a friend of the Gardner family. With a story like this you can either go to an outsider viewing the horrifying events or within the horror, and the film tries to do both and ends up feeling uneven.
You feel bad for the family, sure, but the empathy that is necessary for something like this isn’t there, especially when the characters start making the stupid horror movie decisions for no reason. One character ritualistically cuts their whole body and it doesn’t merit much of a reaction or discussion. The movie is missing something on a script level, a connection to the characters or something deeper in the script, to really make it work.
Visually the movie does almost everything right. The changing landscape looks beautifully strange and it manages the difficult task of creating a visual of a colour beyond description. Many of the gorier effects appear to have been achieved practically, something I always appreciate, and the alpaca abomination specifically looks very much inspired by Rob Bottin’s work on John Carpenter’s The Thing. The problem is when it relies on CGI it ends up looking silly and cheap. A potentially really creepy visual of the story, that of trees moving in unnatural and intelligent ways, turns into a tentacle grabbing a minor character because the film is getting into the third act and we need someone to die.
There are also little things that hint to the wider Lovecraft Mythos, mostly in the form of location namedrops, but one I did enjoy was Ward wearing a Miskatonic University shirt. It’s a nice touch that makes the story feel like a piece of something bigger. Although one that ends up being a little weird is that apparently, the Necronomicon, a tome of forbidden knowledge and spells that is features in a number of Lovecraft stories and which the act of studying has been known to drive people insane, is now available in mass market paperback edition, so that’s handy.
Then we come to dear, dear, Nicolas Cage. Half the fun of seeing him in something new is to see just how “Full Cage” he will go, and here there is a very funny scene of him losing it at some tomatoes. However, I think in other scenes his “Cageness” works against him. If anything, in a couple of moments where he turns off the manic energy and instead delivers it straight it ends up being much more effective because it feels off and unnatural. Watching Cage act crazy isn’t weird or a novelty like it used to be, it’s an easy laugh and we walk into a film expecting it. It just would be nice if more films utilised subverting that particular expectation.
Color out of Space is a frustrating watch. It gets the weird visual atmosphere for cosmic horror but everything else falls too flat to work. If it had developed the story more and turned down the Cage there could have been something special here, but whilst watchable it will struggle to linger.
Color Out of Space (2019)
Dir: Richard Stanley | Cast: Joely Richardson, Nicolas Cage, Q'orianka Kilcher, Tommy Chong | Writers: H.P. Lovecraft (based on the short story by), Richard Stanley (screenplay), Scarlett Amaris