Color Out of Space at LFF: an elegant monolith of crazy
Preamble Shite: Yes, I know the correct spelling is ‘Colour’, and you Lovecraft scholars out there will know the Americanisation is doubly erroneous given that Lovecraft himself was American and chose to consciously use the English ‘Colour’, but when the title card of this film comes up, it says ‘Color’, and on the LFF programme and the ticket it says ‘Color’, so we’ll say ‘Color’ too, OK?
There’s so much I want to say about Color Out of Space, and I know how to say so little of it in the context of a reasonable-length review. Cult director Richard Stanley – cast from the Hollywood fold in the 90’s (watch Lost Souls for the wild details) – directing a straight adaptation of one of H.P. Lovecraft’s most enigmatic stories, starring Nicolas Cage? What a world we live in.
Dragging Lovecraft’s Colour into the present, Cage stars as Nathan Gardner – the patriarch of a New England family thrown into disarray when a meteor lands in their backyard. Witnessing the carnage from an outside perspective is hydrologist Ward (Elliott Knight), who’s in town to survey for a proposed dam.
In an act that can’t really be interpreted as anything other than intentional subversion, Stanley makes his main protagonists Ward (a black man), and Nathan’s daughter, Lavinia (Madeleine Arthur). Lovecraft was legendarily a misogynist and a racist, and the choice is a neat way to challenge that legacy without making the film into a popular politics mess.
Lovecraft was also a very cold, formalistic writer – Colour Out of Space presents the total destruction of a family with ice-cool precision. This, naturally, wouldn’t translate well for screen. If you remove Lovecraft’s objectivity then you have to craft the subjective experience of the Gardner family. What would it be like living in that house, as everyone’s mind disintegrates? The answer, apparently, would look a bit like an acid trip. Everyone’s talking to each other, but not really conversing – the Gardeners are each immersed in their own hallucinated reality, and discussions begin to fragment, littered with non-sequiturs.
It’s into this environment that Cage’s German Expressionist, Vampire’s Kiss-esque antics are launched, and it’s hard to imagine a more perfect situation to have him let rip. Because Nathan’s mind is melting, what he says and the way he says it is constantly in flux, and often nonsensical. It’s entertaining and hilarious to watch Cage go nuts, but also kind of terrifying to imagine this man’s mind completely shattering onscreen.
Let’s reverse a bit. Cage is an alpaca farmer (half the jokes in the script revolve around the absurdity of Nicolas Cage being an alpaca farmer) living on a reasonably large plot of land with his cancer-stricken wife Theresa (Joely Richardson), and their three children Lavinia, Benny (Brendan Mayer) and Jack (Julian Hilliard). That meteor we talked about earlier is the vessel for a strange, indescribable colour which leaks into the atmosphere and gradually poisons everything from the wildlife to the air to the Gardner’s minds.
Lovecraft’s story was less of a Lovecraftian horror and more of a cosmic horror – a tale of the terrifying infinity that lies beyond our perception in the universe. As a result, its automatically almost impossible to commit to film – how do you film a colour that doesn’t exist? Stanley’s response has been to just make the colour kind of hot pink – which initially scans as pretty lazy until you realise that there’s no way to represent a new colour, so we’ll just have to make do with one we already have.
What the film lacks in cosmic horror (though there are spine-tingling moments which manage to convey something of the scale of the unknown), it makes up for by making the story about ten times more Lovecraftian. This means the use of several squishy prosthetic practical effects that recall the best work of David Cronenberg. Some of the images on screen are genuinely traumatising and disgusting, and Stanley pulls no punches in making us face his grisly creations for extended periods of time. The eventual fate of the Alpacas can only be described as spectacularly deranged.
Inserted into this chilling, creepy tale of destruction (mirroring the cancer Theresa suffers), is a potent stream of black humour that adds a welcome sense of humanity into what is an overwhelmingly bleak piece of work. Overall, the tonal balance is struck exceptionally well – although at one or two moments the true horror of the situation can be diluted by an absurdly hilarious line in the script.
The only real problem with Color Out of Space is its reliance on some seriously shoddy CGI. There’s a lot of VFX work in this film, and most of it is fine – even in its final scenes, where it becomes basically solely VFX, it looks great – but some of it is unbearably tacky. The worst part is that the scenes which made me wince could easily have been removed or done a different way. For example, the first offender is a sequence where a CGI bubble hatches a pink, CGI praying mantis creature. It looks like shit, and adds nothing to the film, so just remove it.
The second is an (admittedly effective) jumpscare where a mutated, painfully CGI cat appears in front of a car. This scene could have just been removed, or a prosthetic cat could have been used (the scene was originally shot with a prosthetic cat then was digitally augmented for reasons I cannot fathom). The third and fourth are sequences where the colour ‘goes after’ the characters – we see horribly rendered, tacky tendrils moving towards the protagonists. Although these scenes are more vital to the plot than the others we just discussed, they would’ve looked much better had Stanley just flooded the set with mist then turned on a giant purple spotlight as if it was enveloping his cast. Would’ve been cheaper too.
CGI aside, this is actually a very handsome looking film with plenty of pristine, beautiful framing and an intoxicatingly crisp layer of grain to the images. Despite its (presumably) low budget, it looks like a prestige, expensive piece of work – lush, psychedelic and refined. Colin Stetson’s fantastic saxophone freakout of a score enhances the mind-altering effect, and even if it can be a little generic at times, when it goes for broke it really goes for broke.
Color Out of Space is a welcome return for Richard Stanley and a wonderful H.P. Lovecraft adaptation. Filled with all sorts of idiosyncrasies – witches, alpaca farming, a mysterious Dr. Jacoby-like stoner living in the woods, and a strange, Freudian slice of body horror – this is a script that’s absolutely fearless in taking liberties with a well-established story. Creepy, weird, funny and psychedelic, it’s a beautiful looking, elegant monolith of crazy that’s sure to join the cult canon in years to come.