H.P. Lovecraft, Richard Stanley and Nicolas Cage, together at last — what could go wrong? It’s like a weirdo match made in heaven (hell?). Color Out of Space, an adaptation of the celebrated fantasy writer’s The Colour Out of Space, is the latest attempt to capture Lovecraft’s unspeakable horrors onscreen. To Stanley’s immense credit, it succeeds.
Cage is Nathan Gardner, a family man running a farm out in the sticks with his two sons, daughter and cancer-survivor wife (played with quiet fortitude by Joely Richardson). One night, the house is rocked by earthquake-like vibrations and its halls are flooded with eerie, fluorescent purple light. The following morning, the Gardners discover a massive, shimmering purple rock sitting in a crater right in their front yard (apparently it stinks too, but Nathan is the only one who can smell anything, describing the odor as “like someone lit a dog on fire”).
Emotions run high as each member of the family struggles with how the arrival of the space rock has affected them personally, from lashing out at each other for no real reason to hallucinating and hearing voices. It’s up to Nathan to try to corral everybody and retain a sense of normalcy in the face of untold terror and unexplainable weirdness (to say any more would spoil the film’s many dark delights, but rest assured Stanley doesn’t hold back in capturing Lovecraft’s energy).
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First and foremost, it’s a thrill to see Richard Stanley’s name on screen considering the beleaguered British filmmaker has spent much of his career trying to prove he’s capable of making a decent movie. In the terrific 2014 documentary Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau, his passion and unique vision are laid bare, but Stanley — for the most part — has found support from both within the wider community and by talking openly about his spiritual adviser, Skippy.
Now, finally given the opportunity to show off what he can really do, and with Lovecraft at his disposal and Cage leading the charge, Stanley delivers a modern oddity unlike anything else released in the past few years. The Gardners’ isolated rural home is a beautiful setting, a great find for the production, especially as most of the action takes place there. Stanley creates a world in which everything feels simultaneously normal and off kilter, emphasizing the peculiar predicament at the heart of his story.
Cage is always weirder when he’s trying to play normal. Early on, bizarre choices like the line delivery of “time for you to do the dishes” establish what delightful mode he’s in. Thankfully, there’s no Cage rage to be found here, save for an isolated freak-out in a car that, to the actor’s great credit, is underplayed (at least, by comparison to other roles). Watching him milk an alpaca is quite the experience, but Cage’s well-documented over-commitment fits the escalating madness perfectly.
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Elsewhere, the casting of Tommy Chong proves a stroke of genius, particularly as his mystical, conspiracy theorist character is the only one who utters the word “aliens.” Richardson is tasked with carrying the film’s most gruesome and drawn-out sequence, one which even seasoned horror fans will find difficult to stomach, and does so without vanity. There’s some proper gross-out body horror to enjoy elsewhere, too, most of which is practical by the looks of it, including some gnarly, scaly arms reminiscent of an overgrown reptile.
The VFX are great too, with Stanley understandably cutting around the dodgier moments so the full effect is felt without smudgy CGI letting them down. Cinematographer Steve Annis floods the surrounding landscape (and, by extension, the screen) with gorgeous psychedelic shades of purple, so that when the action moves briefly indoors, to a queasy-green-colored government building, it’s a jarring juxtaposition. There’s something magically enticing about the shades evoked by the family’s otherworldly visitors, with Nathan struggling to even categorize what kind of colors he’s witnessed.
The purple extends to his moody teen daughter Lavinia’s hair, whose curls are streaked in take-notice violet. She’s the first character who appears, conducting teen Goth spells flanked by spooky trees and a fairy-tale-like white horse. Far from being the typical clichéd alt kid, however, Lavinia’s character is layered, considered and evocative. Madeleine Arthur makes a real impression as the possibly disturbed kid, whether she’s basking in the contaminated rain or carving symbols into her face and hands. She’s a standout, ably holding her own opposite Cage and Richardson.
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More than anything else, Color Out of Space is proof, if any were needed, that Stanley knows what he’s doing and that he should be given opportunities more often. Naturally, the Lovecraftian material and wonderfully wild Cage performance suit his artistic tendencies but, even so, the filmmaker displays a masterful control of his craft. A pretentious, Lovecraft-style voiceover is only utilized twice, suggesting the temptation to go full-bore artiste was resisted.
Color Out of Space is one of the weirdest, most disgusting, thought-provoking and provocative releases of the year, and we’re only a month in. Only Richard Stanley could pull that off.
Joey Keogh (@JoeyLDG) is a writer from Dublin, Ireland with an unhealthy appetite for horror movies and Judge Judy. In stark contrast with every other Irish person ever, she’s straight edge. Hello to Jason Isaacs.