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Color Out of Space

COLOR OF OUTER SPACE is last year’s comeback film for Richard Stanley, known for not directing THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU. Working on a lower budget with the cool production company SpectreVision (MANDY, A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT) he was able this time to successfully achieve his weird literary adaptation dreams without ever having to hide out in a rain forest disguised as a dog man.

This one’s based on H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Colour Out of Space,” originally published in a 1927 issue of Amazing Stories, and it opens with a young woman in a cape with a white horse performing an occult ritual. Nice trick – I assumed it was a prologue in the faraway past, but it’s the modern day, and she’s just a weirdo. She’s Lavinia Gardner (Madeleine Arthur, BIG EYES), daughter of Nathan (Nic Cage, known for not starring in SUPERMAN LIVES) and Theresa (Joely Richardson, MAGGIE), who have recently moved from “the big city” (as all normal humans call their home town) to an isolated farm in Arkham, Massachusetts. They’re kind of trying to live Off the Grid, so they get their water from a well, don’t have reliable wi-fi, and are raising alpacas, “the animal of the future” according to Dad.

The story is told mostly through the perspective of young hydrogeologist Ward Phillips (Elliot Knight, Sinbad) – an alumni or student of Miskatonic University, says his t-shirt – who wanders onto the property while doing a water survey to prepare for a dam that’s being built. There’s sort of a flirtation between him and Lavinia, and I’m unclear whether this is supposed to be age appropriate or not. But he happens to be in the area the day after a meteor the color of hip 2010s movie posters, including MANDY – Nathan describes it as being kind of like pink, except not a color he’s ever seen before – lands in the yard and begins an unstoppable progression of weird ass shit.

I should mention that they have a younger son named Jack (Julian Hilliard, the little kid with the glasses in The Haunting of Hill House) and their one neighbor is a lovably burnt out hippie squatter named Ezra (Tommy Chong, TRIPWIRE), who lives in a shack artfully decorated with junk like the brother-in-law guy in Tobe Hooper’s THE MANGLER (note: I’m gonna start referring to THE MANGLER all the time as if it’s a universally understood reference), which I imagine is similar to a shed where Stanley stores his extra crystal balls and tarot cards. So there are several characters for the weird sort-of-like-pink business to happen to. For Jack it means seeing a bizarre mantis/dragonfly creature and deciding it’s his friend. For Ezra it means making reel-to-reel recordings of aliens under the floor. In one of the most normal creepy moments Theresa chops the tips of two fingers off while cutting carrots and doesn’t even notice.

While Nathan takes her to the hospital the kids become very aware of the supernatural goings-on but of course mom and dad don’t believe them when they get home, and don’t seem to notice that they are not acting like themselves.

There’s alot of focusing on triangles – the barette on the back of Lavinia’s head, the attic and the window in the attic – and I believe there was similar imagery in MANDY, HEREDITARY and MIDSOMMAR, but I suspect it’s some authentic occult shit Stanley knows about. Man, those weirdos from the ’80s always looking for satanic symbols on heavy metal albums to protect their good Christian children, I hope they’re still alive and having a field day analyzing all this, subscribing to Shudder, etc. If they’re not too busy with Q Anon.

Due to the source material, some of the horror involves, like, magic beams and shit, which I don’t think is easy to make cinematic. For example I always felt LIFEFORCE (by Tobe Hooper, director of THE MANGLER) lost its steam during the beam-heavy last act (though it played better when I got to see it in 70mm). Stanley performs admirably under these conditions, making some of the beams kind of cool, strengthened by strong foggy atmosphere and a slowly building score by Colin Stetson (HEREDITARY), and not leaning too heavily on them. They transform into some cool psychedelic imagery, but mostly they’re a precursor to some crazy THINGish grossout business, much of it done with animatronics and what not. The animals transmorph, mom and son melt and grow together, shit gets nasty. You could say it starts to smell like Bottin spirit, if you can dig such puns, and I hope you can.

When the world outside of this property comes in, like when the mayor (Q’orianka Kilcher, HOSTILES) visits, it seems a little more cartoony. But it’s kind of funny when Nathan is interviewed by reporters about the meteor and they call it a UFO, so the family makes fun of him.

The main cast is all strong. Cage gets somewhere between a few and several funny parts. He starts out as just a nerdy dad, but the color pulls the mega out of him, and even gets him talking like VAMPIRE’S KISS for a minute. Then he starts to slur and talk to invisible people and scratch at his nasty, leathery arm rash he got from a jellyfish bite in the shower. I bet he was excited about the scene where he tastes his tomatoes and throws a fit about them tasting bad. I don’t think it’s a career high like MANDY, but more like MOM AND DAD, where it’s a pretty good movie that encourages him to utilize his unique skills.

I think Knight’s performance as Ward is key to the movie working. He’s a likable guy in a dorky hat, then a voice of reason, trying to warn people of danger, with little success. His reactions to everyone’s craziness (before he knows this cosmic shit is real) are very credible. And at the end he seems truly transformed, like he’s really been through some shit, but probly without having turned away from science. He wants nothing to do with that other stuff.

I also appreciated Josh C. Waller (director of RAZE and CAMINO) in his small role as the sheriff, because he’s the most rugged, capable-looking person there but seems too taken aback to do anything except shoot (badly) in one part.

I thought of this as kind of an indie horror take on ANNIHILATION, though the truth is that ANNIHILATION movie and/or book must’ve taken inspiration from the source material. If you like seeing a family take that sort of one-way trek out into the swamp of unhinged reality, this is a decent stroll.

This entry was posted on Monday, February 24th, 2020 at 7:11 am and is filed under Horror, Reviews, Science Fiction and Space Shit. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

29 Responses to “Color Out of Space”

  1. This story was also filmed by David Keith as “The Curse” starring Will Wheaton and made like two more unrelated sequels.

    I watched Daniel Isn’t Real and that movie was also by Spectrevision and somehow I’m already tired of this production company. That movie didn’t need to be filmed like was a part of the Mandy-verse.

    I’m also kind tired of these Nicolas Cage mega acting movies but that’s only because I’m getting really snobby about it because now everybody talks about how they’ve always been Cage fans.

  2. I’ve missed the pre-action hero Nicholas Cage (films before mid-90’s) and am glad to have that Cage back, even if his quality control isn’t the best on which films to choose these days. I’m assuming he’s still taking whatever he can to pay back his real estate and tax debt. Now he’s turned into a human meme for today’s generation and I’m OK with that.

    Anyway, Lovecraft is obviously hard to adapt, there’s very few “good” films based on his work. I liked this one just fine and it’s nice to have Richard Stanley back and working again. Check out 2010’s film “Die Farbe” (The Color) if you want to see an almost direct adaption of the material.

  3. I’m excited to catch this one. For all that Lovecraft has been in the pop culture zeitgeist recently, it usually just amounts to putting tentacles on something and then maybe there’s some kind of cult, so something a little stranger is welcome imo.

    This is one of the better Lovecraft stories in my opinion, too (though none of his stuff is what you might call gracefully-written) and I especially like that it doesn’t necessarily fit into the more explicit cosmology associated with his work, and it’s exactly the kind of “strangeness” that I think adaptations or stuff inspired by him *doesn’t* usually have anymore- it’s hard to tell whether the monster is even a monster or if it’s even really alive at all and not just some kind of strange radiation or infection. Is it an alien? Does it have a malevolent intent behind its actions, or is its mere presence somehow malign to human life? Who knows? We basically *can’t* know. Good stuff.

    Also, while we’re talking about it, let me recommend AM1200, a short film I caught at a Lovecraft film festival a few years ago. It’s about a guy fleeing in his car after some embezzlement (a la PSYCHO), skipping through AM radio stations to try and keep awake through the night, when he comes across a station where the DJs appear to be desperately begging someone, anyone for help. So he goes to try and help.

    It’s not really an adaptation of any specific story, but it creates an incredible sense of dread and terror, and it became one of my absolute favorite theater experiences ever that night. The festival was at a tiny independent theater (The Grand Illusion, for any Seattle folk who might know it). It was a late night show and at this theater you can BYOB, so folks were indulging (I myself happened to live right next door at the time, so I trucked a six-pack over for the night), and there were four or five other films on the docket that night. Unfortunately none of them were all that hot, so the crowd was mostly laughing and joking around. When AM1200 started as the last movie of the night, a hush came over that audience like I’ve never seen before. Everyone was on the edge of their seats and the formerly raucous crowd stayed absolutely riveted up to the very end. Just self-evidently strong filmatism, as we like to say around here. It remains my favorite Lovecraft adaptation to this day. Oh, and Ray Wise is in it briefly, if that’s a draw for you. I know it is for me.

  4. I confess, for once I actually though Cage would have been better off dialing it back in this movie. You hire him for his mega-acting, obviously, but he gets outright cartoonish a few times here, and I actually think the rest of the cast are more effective at going to some equally strange and exaggerated emotional places while not seeming like an outright parody. In fairness to him, this is like, the first movie in forever that he’s been in which is good enough that it’s not just inherently going to be improved by seeing Cage go all-in.

    I enjoyed the movie, though; its a rare modern case of slow, atmospheric, dread-soak horror filmmaking which doesn’t feel like A24-core po-faced misery porn at all. Instead, it’s bright and nimble and intentionally quite funny and entertaining, even before it starts to deliver some whammy. Not quite a perfect win, but definitely a solid attempt at something fairly ambitious, and absolutely one of the best Lovecraft adaptations ever (not that it has a lot of competition in that regard).

  5. I’ll agree with Mr. Subtlety. There were points where Cage was going over the top (like when he’s mocking the daughter after he gets home) and I felt a little like “easy, Nic, you don’t have to salvage this thing all by yourself, this is an actual good movie you’re in.”

    But don’t take me too seriously, I thought the Tommy Chong character was played by Donald Sutherland until the end credits.

  6. I liked this a lot but I wish it had gotten across that feeling of “otherness” from the alien that something like Annihilation got across a lot better. Annihilation’s source material is also so clearly influenced by The Colour Out of Space but the author is one of those modern weird lit authors that feels the need to downplay Lovecraft and deny his influence at every turn.

  7. I saw DIE FARBE recently (I guess, it is just called THE COLOR OUT OF SPACE on Netflix and IMDB) and it was decent for a low-budget direct translation of the short story. I have never been a fan of the author, I find him a little dull, but the movie was pretty well acted and it isn’t hard to do 1900s sets and filmatism convincingly enough.

    This Cage version must be a lot wackier from your descriptions. I am a little disappointed with the lack of PORT OF CALL jokes here so far, though.

  8. I thought Nic’s acting really hurt Mom and Dad. He’s acting like a silly cartoon while Selma Blair is acting rings around the him, committing to the character and making it scarier…but she’s still fun.

  9. Evan, I find authors are always big on talking about influences until it comes to the particular work they got their whole idea from and took it wholesale. Like that Annihilation author and Color Out of Space…the other one I think of is James Gunn and Slither. Gunn seemed to act like he never even HEARD of that movie and had to find out about it. Yeah right, the horror nerd who was a kid in the 80s had no idea, hadn’t even seen the trailer on other movies he watched? I hadn’t seen that movie but I knew what it was about. I call bullshit.

    He says he ripped off They Came from Within…reason he credits that movie is because Creeps is closer to the tone he was doing. Within wasn’t at all.

  10. If you think that Annihilation is a wholesale ripoff of The Colour Out of Space, than I think you haven’t read Annihilation.

  11. No one said it’s a wholesale ripoff. But the big central idea or visual. Annihilation has that with the colors.

  12. It’s like how Reservoir Dogs isn’t a rip off of City on Fire, but if you’ve seen that movie it’s really clear where Tarantino built his movie from. And which movie had geek Tarantino who had seen EVERY obscure film ever made and loved Chow Yun Fat and HK flicks…which is the ONE he claimed to have never seen? Hmmm, sure, right.

  13. Hey, one real positive here: I was genuinely surprised to find Richard Stanley to still be such an ambitious and able director. So much of his considerable reputation has been built up around two films that he made 30 years ago combined with the unrealized potential of the years since then. I thought it was perfectly likely that he was always overrated, or that all those decades of languishing would erode his skill or his ambition, or that he’d make something that felt dated and self-referential. I was sort of expecting this to be an embarrassing modern-day-Argento debacle, or at best a John Carpenter’s THE WARD. But no! It’s not a perfect movie, but it’s definitely something made by someone with both ambition and talent, who would be worth taking note of even if he didn’t have a somewhat legendary geek status already.

  14. Not that it’s that big a deal either way, but ANNIHILATION’s central concept of exploring the physics and psychological consequences of an armed incursion into a mysterious restricted zone full of mutants and unexplainable anomalies strikes me as having a lot more in common with Russian apocalypse stories inspired by “Roadside Picnic”, like the movie STALKER or or the video game series S.T.A.L.K.E.R. than the original “Color Out Of Space” story.

  15. Two things: I often refer to Austin, my city of current residence, as ‘the big city’. As in, “That’s life in the big city for ya!”. That may be because I’m from small town Arkansas, or because I’m just a fuckin’ weirdo. Who knows.

    And yes please to more references to THE MANGLER, because I fuckin’ love that movie. Ted Levine and Robert Englund are just killing it and the whole thing is absolutely batshit bonkers from top to bottom. It’s actually been several years since I’ve seen it now that I think about it, I wonder if it’s on Blu yet?

  16. It is! Scream Factory put it out, just like I requested at the end of my review. (They didn’t make new cover art, sadly.)

  17. @dustin – Never said it was a rip-off, said it was an influence, and I actually adore the entire trilogy, but there’s an undeniable similarity between Annihilation and The Colour Out of Space in that the central concept behind both is that an alien particle lands on Earth and becomes mutating/terraforming the land around it.

    @The Kurgan – I’ve always thought of it as a combination of the two with a dash of The Willows thrown in. It’s a great novel and movie working in a long lineage of sci-fi stories involving unknowable alien/interdimensional forces that have marked off a pocket of our world and are influencing it in ways that are beyond our comprehension. I primarily just mentioned Lovecraft because we’re in a Lovecraft movie comment section and because the author has made specific comments about it.

  18. @Evan: I should’ve been more clear. I was responding to Muh, specifically “I find authors are always big on talking about influences until it comes to the particular work they got their whole idea from and took it wholesale. Like that Annihilation author,” and the further implication was that Jeff Vandermeer denies even being familiar with The Colour Out of Space. As far as I can tell, Vandermeer doesn’t deny familiarity with Lovecraft, just direct influence.

    I essentially agree with you though. Even setting aside direct influence, one can’t step into the world of Weird Fiction without also stepping into Lovecraft’s shadow. He’s the common ancestor that all lines lead back to.

  19. Cool beans, Vern! I’ll go looking for it after my next non-rent check. But I forgot to add one additional thing that is actually relevant to this review: I’m super-excited to see Stanley back in play as a director after all these years. I still think HARDWARE is a silly, scuzzy masterpiece and remember greatly enjoying DUST DEVIL as well (even tho much of that memory is down to the two leads, but also the great camera work). Here’s hoping Stanley continues to rise from the ashes, like a Phoenix, but never has to make an X-Men movie. He prolly would knock a Morlocks movie out of the park, tho…

  20. In the Q-&-A I saw after this one, Stanley said he wants this movie to be the first of a trilogy of Lovecraft adaptations, and the next would be The Dunwich Horror.

  21. So the similarity of strange “color” in this From Beyond, right? The HPLSGRSU, if you will.

  22. So the similarity of strange “color” in this ties it to From Beyond, right? The HPLSGRSU, if you will.

  23. Well, this was pretty good, but I gotta admit: I wish it was crazier. They got me in that Bottin spirit with the tentacles and the body-melding but then SPOILERS most of the characters just get erased by pink light with minimal if any splatter and I can’t help but be a bit disappointed. And I agree that some of Cage’s mega-acting in the third act was a bit cringey. It felt self-conscious in a way Cage normally doesn’t.

    But still. Solid effort, good atmosphere, good weirdness when it actually shows up, and Tommy Chong was delightful. My man is in his 80s!

  24. It felt self-conscious in a way Cage normally doesn’t.

    I read an interview with Cage a few months ago where he was like “I’m just there to do what the director wants. If they want weird, that’s what I give them. If that’s still not enough, I give them more”

    So basically Cage says “It’s Stanley’s fault”
    (and really, any bad acting is the director’s fault)

  25. That would explain the self-consciousness. I assumed there were more restrained takes Stanley didn’t use, and those probably felt more natural to Cage. The takes in the movie felt like he was reaching. I figure when you sign on to direct Cage, it is your duty to see how far he’ll go, but you also have to realize that when he goes full Peter Loew, you have to either pull him back or push him through to new heights of hysteria. You can’t stop in the Peter Loew Valley.

  26. I mean, I read a few interviews where Stanley explicitly name-checks VAMPIRE’S KISS, so he obviously got what he wanted. But I think it was a bit of a miscalculation on his part. I think he got so excited by the mega that he pushed it a little, instead of trying to hold Cage back and letting the weird come naturally.

  27. I broke out my old DUST DEVIL special edition and was reminded that Stanley’s first choice for the title character was Cage doing an Elvis riff. But then WILD AT HEART came out and that put the kibosh on that idea. I’m glad they finally got to work together eventually, even if it did take 30 years.

    I forgot how amazing the interview with Stanley on that disc is. This dude is almost too fucking interesting a person. His film career is probably the least interesting thing about him. He drops these little snippets of his bio and you’re like, “Wait, what? Was that before or after you deserted your post as a sharpshooter in the South African army and fled to Namibia, where you were mistaken for a serial killer that had been terrorizing the region and nearly beaten to death by vigilantes?”

  28. A charmingly matter-of-fact gem of COLOR OUT OF SPACE trivia on IMDB sums up Stanley personal appeal pretty well: “Director Richard Stanley and Swedish filmmaker Henrik Möller apparently performed a ritual to the Lovecraftian god Yog-Sothoth while in the Pyrénées to get the film made.”

    And then they probably got drunk on home-made absinthe and invented a new kind of martial art.

  29. One of my favorite trivia bits showcasing a gonzo director is where Herzog was making a movie and everything was going so badly, so to motivate everyone he promised to throw himself into a cactus patch when they wrapped shooting. And he did.

    He’s interviewed later and they mention this incident and he talks about how some of the spines were still embedded in his knees, because they couldn’t get them out.

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