H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Colour Out of Space” is one of those short stories that, had you not known it was published in 1927 or knew anything about the man who wrote it, you might write off as a derivative of a number of modern works. That’s because all of Lovecraft’s oeuvre has been so firmly digested inside the grand infernal colon for the last hundred years, so much so that you can find nuggets of it mashed up in subsequent and unrelated works, much like corn in shit. Its influence can be felt in any number of works — Stephen King’s The Tommyknockers; The Curse, an obscure-ish Wil Wheaton-led horror film; even Alex Garland and Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation, which owes a significant debt to the long-departed Providence writer — but one of the things that makes Richard Stanley’s Color Out of Space so special is that it is, by far, the straightest adaptation of Lovecraft’s story to date, without any of the obfuscation typically required in order to bring it to the screen. Its forthright bullshit-cutting makes it a fascinating document, and highlights how unchangingly compelling the original story is.
Color Out of Space tells the story of the Gardener family, an average-enough quintet who relocated to the countryside outside of Arkham, Massachusetts to get away from the hustle and bustle of city-life. Nathan (Nicolas Cage), the family patriarch, is excited to be raising alpacas and growing his own food, while still taking the time to support his wife Theresa (Joely Richardson), a high-profile stockbroker whose breast cancer has just gone into remission. Their children — witchy Lavinia (Madeline Arthur), stoner Benny (Brendan Meyer) and young Jack (Julian Hillard) — are all finding their own ways to adapt, and they’re each struggling with the change in scenery. But late one night, a glowing meteor crashes into their backyard, and a day later during a thunderstorm, it’s struck by lighting and disappears. It’s shifted into the air, melding and changing everything around them: plants change color, alpacas are fused together, and the Gardner family slowly begins to manifest various forms of madness. Nathan begins to imitate his overbearing dead father, lashing out at the kids, Theresa chops off her forefingers while cooking dinner one night, and Jack begins hallucinating that he has invisible friends, spawned from the meteorite’s color. Shit gets real weird, real fast, and the Gardeners will have to survive an onslaught of otherworldly horrors.
For those expecting the kind of full-bore wildness that comes simply from Cage’s name being attached to the project, you won’t be disappointed: the man goes absolutely bug-nuts in this one, with good reason, of course. It’s somewhat similar to his work in Mom and Dad a few years back, though with a level of subtle characterization to it that escaped that prior film simply because of how fleeting and brief it was. He is, once again, one of the cinema’s greatest modern treasures, and his work here is hilarious and terrifying all at the same time. Stanley wisely roots so much of the surrealism of his film in the actions of the Gardeners themselves, with the Color only enhancing and pulling bits and pieces of their personalities out to the forefront and putting them in conflict with one another. Their color-infected state is a manifestation of each of their fears about themselves, and the depth that each member of the ensemble is able to hone in on is commendable.
The visuals here will be familiar to anybody who’s seen Annihilation, as the gasoline-on-the-pavement assortment of colors of the family’s Arkham home resemble the Glimmer in a number of ways, but it’s Stanley’s tactile touch — and his sheer capacity for grossness on a micro-personal and macro-environmental — that make it fully stand out in a crowded field of Lovecraft-inspired work. The creature effects are wonderfully practical, and the CGI effects work (aside from a few particular shots of an insect created by the Color) is subtle enough that you’ll often forget it’s not just a part of the actual location. And, as such, it should be no surprise as to why a work like Color remains such a nexus of inspiration for authors and filmmakers all over: we have fucked with environmental forces that we do not understand, and we’re being transformed by them in ways that we might not like. We may not look like corpses or talk like our dads, but the evidence is there for it anyways. Stanley’s genus is that he’s able to study this catastrophe and its effect on the psychological make-up of a family while making it as entertaining as it is.
As alluded to above, the other aspect that makes this film so fascinating and essential is that it’s Stanley’s triumphant return to the screen after a nearly three-decade absence. Having pioneered in the cyberpunk genre with Hardware years ago, the South African director was soon fired off of his next project, The Island of Dr. Moreau, because he feuded with the film’s star and alienated its producers with his wild and out-there concepts for the film (this story is better recounted in the film Lost Soul than I can do here, and it’s an essential watch for those curious about Stanley’s legacy and for fans of movies like Hearts of Darkness or Jodorowsky’s Dune). This wild and wacky film, a dream project for its director, is extremely accessible and inviting to new audiences, reminds us just how much great cinema we’ve lost thanks to Stanley’s “exile,” and that fact makes Color Out of Space’s success all the more frustrating because of it. Perhaps he was just too early in the genre film life-cycle to really capitalize on his own remarkable visions, and it is some consolation that mainstream cinema has finally caught up with him.