In 1990 South African filmmaker Richard Stanley made his feature film debut with Hardware, a post-apocalyptic tale about a killer cyborg on the rampage. Most critics who bothered to see it at the time dismissed it as a grungy rip-off of The Terminator and other genre favorites but it clearly had style to burn and sci-fi geeks embraced it despite the excessive violence (some of it was edited out in the original theatrical release). Next came Dust Devil (1992), an arty, mystical story of a demonic hitchhiker in pursuit of a runaway married woman in the African desert. It was distributed by Miramax and released in a re-edited version which added a narration and deleted 20 minutes. It was poorly distributed but Stanley’s dynamic visual aesthetic and offbeat narrative flourishes attracted the attention of Hollywood. Then New Line Cinema offered Stanley a dream project, a remake of H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau.
It quickly became a nightmare project. A hurricane destroyed the sets just prior to shooting and Val Kilmer, coming off the mega-success of Batman Forever, undermined and intimidated Stanley and had him fired just days into production. His replacement was John Frankenheimer but even he couldn’t save the film from the damage inflicted by the self-destructive egos of Kilmer and Marlon Brando. The 1996 release was a cinematic train wreck and Stanley, depressed and dejected, appeared to abandon film making forever. Now, 23 years later, he returns from the wilderness with Color Out of Space, an effectively creepy and atmospheric sci-fi/horror thriller that might be one of the best film adaptations yet of H.P. Lovecraft’s famous short story.
There have been other movie versions of The Color Out of Space. Die, Monster, Die (1965, aka Monster of Terror) starring Boris Karloff and Nick Adams is probably the most well-known adaptation. Actor turned director David Keith made a loose remake of it in 1987 entitled The Curse and German filmmaker Huan Vu turned out an arty black and white variation on Lovecraft’s story in 2010. But none of these were completely faithful to Lovecraft’s original tale. Stanley’s Color Out of Space adheres much more closely to the short story in terms of the characters, plot development and paranoid tone, changing only a few minor details here and there and updating the time period to contemporary rural America (even though it was filmed in Portugal).
Like Lovecraft’s short story, the horrific events that unfold are narrated by Ward (Elliot Knight), a land surveyor who has come to the village of Arkham to take samples of the local water tables for testing. After a purple glowing meteorite crashes into the ground on the Gardner family farm, Ward finds himself increasingly drawn into the strange reverberations of this phenomena. The main people affected are Nathan Gardner (Nicolas Cage), his wife Theresa (Joely Richardson), their three children Lavinia (Madeleine Arthur), Benny (Brendan Meyer) and Jack (Julian Hilliard) and Ezra (Tommy Chong), an eccentric squatter who lives on their land. Family tensions that were long simmering under the surface began to reach a boiling point while the farm animals began behaving oddly. Unusual vegetation springs forth on the grounds, bizarre mutations appear like a flying praying mantis and unexpected occurrences like freak lightning and distorted sounds and voices drive everyone toward madness. It doesn’t end well but any H.P. Lovecraft fan could have told you that.
Stanley does a wonderful job of pulling the viewer immediately into the story with opening credits that establish the misty, shadowy forests and bucolic but isolated rural setting. He also creates empathic introductions to the Gardner family with minimal dialogue and subtle but telling interactions between the family members that speak volumes about their relationships with each other. A sense of failure and alienation hangs over everything. Nathan wanted to be a painter when he was young but returned to run his father’s farm after a stressful professional life in the city. His wife, a financial investment broker, is currently undergoing treatment for cancer and seems resigned to her fate. The oldest child Lavinia hates her isolated existence and longs to escape the farm while brother Benny escapes through pot, music and the internet. The youngest child Jack is timid, fearful and possibly borderline autistic. Their descent into the madness that envelopes them is tautly paced, disturbing and finally full blown crazy, which is what audiences these days expect from Nicolas Cage.
Lovecraft purists may take issue with some of the black humor that emerges from the accelerating freakiness and the fact that a few narrative threads seem to get lost in the ensuing chaos. However, Stanley defended his overall approach to the material in an interview with The Austin Chronicle. “Lovecraft, in all of his work, was essentially about trying to evoke the mood of cosmic horror, of cosmosism, of mankind’s terrible position in the universe. Sure, we’ve got tentacles too, but the issue throughout was to get to the existential issues, and the sheer futility of humanity – and to try and open up up a dialogue between that and whatever residual humanity was left in the characters. I’m not quite ready to cave in to Lovecraft’s dark nihilism.”
Some people will be surprised and happy to know that Cage offers a well modulated performance here that builds slowly from a slightly quirky gentleman farmer (he has a wine cellar and makes classic French dishes like cassoulet) to a concerned but highly agitated father figure. When he eventually succumbs to the kind of over the top craziness he displayed in Vampire’s Kiss and Wild at Heart, there’s a good reason for it.
Cage also manages to inject an idiosyncratic sense of humor into ordinary conversion like this scene where he excuses himself from a visitor with, “Well, if you don’t mind, it’s time we milk the alpacas. It’s like milking a goat. You don’t get a lot of milk from an alpaca. It takes patience and technique. You have to be very careful with the boobs.” Sometimes he’s flat out hilarious when he’s screaming at his kids for situations that are clearly out of his control and theirs. “If I could just get a little consideration around here, a little support. It would be fuckin’ appreciated!”
Over the past decade, the Oscar winning actor of Leaving Las Vegas experienced a career slump in the eyes of many critics and fans due to choosing unworthy roles or dubious, purely commercial vehicles that failed like The Wicker Man (2006), Drive Angry (2011), Season of the Witch (2011), Left Behind (2014) and The Humanity Bureau (2017). But the cult success of Panos Cosmatos’ surreal revenge fantasy Mandy in 2018 was a welcome return to form for Cage and Color Out of Space is another step in the right direction.
As for Joely Richardson, she doesn’t get nearly enough screen time for her doomed character in Stanley’s film but she has a memorably gruesome kitchen sequence where she is chopping vegetables for dinner. Also, the three young actors playing the Gardner children are all well cast and credible in their roles. Even Tommy Chong is intriguing in an extended cameo as an aging hippy who lives in a ramshackle shed which looks like a folk art project.
It must be said that the creepy and disturbing occurrences described by Lovecraft in his story are brought to vivid life in Stanley’s adaptation which knows how to effectively mix ominous mood building with shock effects such as the melding of two human bodies into one agonized crawling mass. Even though Color Out of Space was made on a relatively low budget, the art direction (Sergio Costa), special effects (Filipe Pereira) and sound design are all first rate. The cinematography by Steve Annis is equally stunning and capitalizes on a color scheme that transitions from the natural world into one of unnatural, day-glo intensity as purple slowly becomes the dominant strain.
Color Out of Space is an ideal midnight movie but it is also easily accessible to horror and sci-fi genre fans. Here’s hoping the film, which is currently in release at selected theaters, will be successful enough to warrant more directorial efforts from the talented Richard Stanley. He has been missing in action for far too long.
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