Color Out of Space review: Essential viewing for horror fans
Martyn Conterio | On 02, Mar 2020
Director: Richard Stanley
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Joely Richardson
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It is a truth universally acknowledged among horror hounds, that H.P. Lovecraft’s weird tales have been generally ill-served by the movies. While having a Cthulhu-sized influence over the genre at large, the Rhode Island native’s eldritch imaginings have often proved too unwieldy to adapt. Always a cult concern, no matter how influential, barely known in his short lifetime (he was dead at 46), unlike Stephen King, his heir apparent, the man’s legacy cannot boast a handful of big screen classics derived from his corpus of work. Directors and screenwriters have generally struggled because of the author’s prose style and narrative structures. While it speaks of their acclaimed uniqueness as texts, the material simply isn’t adaptation-friendly and many have come a cropper in their quest to replicate what made the stories so damn good on the page.
South-African helmer Richard Stanley is another filmmaker to come along and be met with an immediate, major challenge. The Colour Out of Space, Lovecraft’s 1927 yarn about a meteor from beyond the stars crashing onto a farmer’s property, corrupting and transforming the land and turning everyone insane, illustrates his keen ability in merging scene-setting, creeping fear with a crackling sense of our smallness in the universe. Haunting and bleak to the point of nihilism, Lovecraft often leaves his characters as possessors of secret knowledge and experiences, to which the rest of the world is completely oblivious and would dismiss as the babbling of a madman, if they chose to lend an ear.
Stanley’s key obstacle, in particular, was having to visualise a colour not known to our spectrum. In Color Out of Space (2019), as in the original source material, nobody can satisfactorily describe the meteor’s peculiar glow and constantly shifting hues. There is literally no known apt word in the English language. Perversely, too, light in the story/film devours and is a force capable of altering time and hypnotising humans into performing acts of self-harm and self-destruction. The classic battle between the light and the dark, the notion that light wards off the darkness, provides safety, is flipped upside down, spun on its head. Making his first feature-length production in over 20 years, Stanley cleverly settled on malefic-looking magenta and bolstered this with scorching white light, further adding to the alienness of it all.
From start to end, there is the welcome feeling that Stanley gets Lovecraft on a deep level. Add to this Nicolas Cage doing his Big Acting. The star is on fine Cage-Rage form as Nate Gardner, a family man succumbing to madness. However, as in last year’s equally bonkers and trippy Mandy, the actor finds unexpected pathos in the most outré moments and ostensibly comic lines. Whether it’s Nate’s initial excitement at the vegetables he’s grown, then discovering them rotten inside, or him yelling at his kids as his world slowly falls apart, it’s clearly not a case of shouting and acting bug-eyed for a quick paycheck, but the considered representation of a good guy being mentally torn apart and crumbling, instead of rallying to be a hero. There is fine attention to craft involved. Cage isn’t slumming it.
Color Out of Space grips with its mounting dread, sense of the inescapable and body-horror craziness combining to deliver a giddy vision of apocalyptic damnation, the nuclear family going off like a nuclear bomb. Stretching out a 20-odd page story to feature length isn’t an issue at all, either. Stanley’s return to feature-length filmmaking makes for a well-paced 110 minutes, with the director setting things up to follow the stages of an LSD freakout. After all, a bit of time in the first act is needed for the narcotic element to settle into the movie’s bloodstream, to do its thing, to hit its stride and peak.
Another excellent bit of detail is the casting of Elliot Knight as the hydrologist (the character is beefed up and merged with The Colour Out of Space’s Ammi Pierce, who related the story to the hydrologist, who, in turn, relates it to the reader). Lovecraft, a man of his time, was, there is no two ways about it, a racist. Casting a black British actor in a key role, giving him the name Ward Phillips (as in Howard Phillips Lovecraft) and hinting at mixed race attraction with the Gardner daughter, Lavinia (Madeleine Arthur), these things would have deeply disturbed old Howard and can be read as Stanley’s rebuke. Likewise Q’orianka Kilcher, of Native American heritage, appearing briefly as Mayor Tooma. That Stanley made these symbolic gestures as correctives will not be lost on Lovecraft devotees, who greatly dislike their literary hero’s racism. It is honourable, unshowy and decent.
When the ashen dust has settled, Color Out of Space (2019) emerges as the best adaptation of Lovecraftian material to date. The voiceover used to bookend the film, delivered by Knight, falls flat, especially when Stanley veers off into verbose imitation prose, and the architecture of the Gardner property and other locations don’t feel at all New England-like, but for a low-budget, gloriously gooey horror flick based on material that is a tough nut to crack, Color Out of Space is more than just welcome; it’s downright essential viewing for horror fans.
Color Out of Space is available to watch online on Amazon Prime Video as part of a Prime membership or a £5.99 monthly subscription.