Released: 7 September 2019
Director: Richard Stanley
Distributor: RLJE Films
Budget: $6 to 12 million
Stars: Nicolas Cage, Joely Richardson, Madeleine Arthur, Brendan Meyer, Julian Hilliard, and Elliot Knight
Nathan Gardner (Cage) and his family have moved out to his late father’s farm following his wife Theresa’s (Richardson) mastectomy. Their simple life of raising alpacas is interrupted when a strange alien meteorite lands in their garden and a strange, unquantifiable and seemingly intelligent and malevolent living colour begins to infect and infest the local wildlife, the animals, and the Gardner family in increasingly strange and horrific ways.
Being a big fan of horror, fantasy, and Stephen King’s, it’s perhaps almost inevitable that, at some point in my admittedly-limited scope of reading, I would have heard of the works of H. P. Lovecraft. Born in 1890, Howard Phillips Lovecraft is perhaps one of horror/fantasy fiction’s most surreal and complex writers; known for conjuring nightmarish imagery and madness-inducing concepts and creatures, Lovecraft created an interconnected set of works that delved into the deepest, darkest fears of the human psyche and posited the idea that humanity is a mere speak in the grand scheme of the cosmos. In 1927, Lovecraft penned “The Colour Out of Space”, a story which he hoped would buck the trend for traditional, humanoid depictions of alien life forms. Interestingly, despite the immense mainstream success of his more notable stories, like “The Call of Cthulhu” (Lovecraft, 1926), Lovecraft considered “The Colour Out of Space” to be his favourite work and the story saw a number of adaptations over the years before director Richard Stanley began putting together this modern-day adaptation. Though planned as the first in a trilogy of films based on Lovecraft’s works, the film’s limited release and near-minuscule box office may scarper those plans despite it receiving generally positive reviews.
If there’s one thing that might put the general audience off of viewing Color Out of Space (beyond the Americanised title), it’s the inclusion of Nicolas Cage in the lead role. Far from the blockbuster action hero he was in the nineties, Cage has somewhat reinvented himself in recent years, taking on more experimental and outlandish roles in productions with a fraction of the budget and release he is known for. Indeed, his reputation in Hollywood has become almost farcical as he brings a manic, unpredictable energy to each role he plays so you’re never really quite sure of what to expect when he shows up in a film.
It’s fitting, then, that Cage is cast in a film based on a Lovecraftian tale; Lovecraft was notorious for conjuring up unspeakable entities that would turn the minds of us insignificant humans to a fine paste so it’s actually surprisingly remarkable foresight on the filmmakers’ part to cast the infamously kooky Cage in the lead role of Nathan Gardener. At the beginning of the film, Gardener is your typical everyman; a doting and devoted husband and father, he’s just trying to eek out a living on his father’s old farm and to return his family to some sort of normalcy after his wife’s battle with cancer. Cage brings a quiet, subdued energy to this portion of the role; you can tell he still deeply loves and cares for his wife and kids and is struggling to keep things together after all they’ve been through but he is. Nevertheless, a relatable and vulnerable character whom you buy as just a regular Dad trying to do what’s best.
Things immediately take a turn into the bizarre and the surreal when the mysterious meteorite crashes into their garden; though Nathan isn’t the first to truly feel the effects of the alien Colour, he is the first to react to it, smelling a pungent stench that no others can before slowly being transformed and twisted by the influence of the titular Colour. Before long, he’s spouting all kinds of weird nonsense, exploding into unpredictable and even violent outbursts, and clearly becoming possessed by this unquantifiable alien influence to the point where he almost becomes a kind of avatar for the Colour and the closest thing the film has to a tangible antagonist.
Of course, it’s not just the Nic Cage show; Joely Richardson plays his wife, Theresa, a relatively normal, everyday woman who is just trying to get back on track with her work, family, and sense of self confidence after her battle with cancer. She is, unfortunately, the first of the family to really feel the influence of the Colour, slipping into a zombie-like stupor and accidentally slicing off two of her fingers. As the Colour’s influence grows, her conversations and interactions with Nathan and the kids become increasingly disjointed and erratic but, through it all, her primary concern is for the welfare of her children (which, as I’ll discuss in a bit, turns out to be her downfall).
As for the Gardener’s kids, Color Out of Space features some pretty decent casting; Lavinia (Arthur) is the couple’s only daughter, a Wiccan who is just on the cusp of growing old and rebellious enough to resent her family but is still devoted enough to truly care for her younger brother, Jack (Hilliard) and have a pretty believable friendly rivalry with her older brother, Benny (Meyer). Benny is depicted as a bit of an absent-minded stoner and the young muscle of the family as he’s constantly being roped into helping his father with the farm’s course and his outrageous alpacas but, despite annoyance and apathy being etched onto his face, he never once complains or throws a tantrum over this; as with all of the Gardener’s, family unity remains at the heart of these characters, however rocky that ground might have become before the film begins.
And then there’s Jack, a cute and naïve sort of kid who has a natural curiosity and a fitting child-like whimsy about him. While his older siblings comment on the Colour’s influence but don’t truly succumb to it (with the eventual exception of Lavinia), Jack is the first one to really acknowledge the Colour’s alien presence, seemingly hearing and seeing it and attempting to communicate with it. Sadly, his affection for the Colour (which he views as a kind of imaginary friend) leads him to nothing but a heartbreakingly gruesome fate thanks the Colour’s apparent malevolence (or, perhaps, naivety).
One of the things that often proves so difficult for filmmakers when it comes to adapting the works of Lovecraft is just how obscure and indescribable his many horrific creations are; perhaps, of all of Lovecraft’s monsters, the Colour is the most “unfilmable” since the written word is far better at positing a living, alien Colour that is beyond human comprehension. Film is, obviously, an inherently visual medium so a colour must be shown onscreen and I feel that the filmmaker’s realised the Colour in perhaps the best way they possibly could.
Rather than a traditional alien beast, the Colour is just that; a twisted, distorted sentient spectrum of light that is at once beautiful and horrific, blinding and awe-inspiring, resembling a flash of pure light one moment and then a vortex of extraterrestrial intent the next. For the most part, the Colour is realised in an unsettling hue of purple, magenta, and pink surrounded by a clear distortion of physical reality; when it emerges from the Gardener’s well, it almost resembles a tentacled monstrosity but it is wisely never really given a true, quantifiable physical form.
Instead, the Colour acts through the things it influences, whether that is water, plants, or animals. It affects and distorts time and space, making moments drag out or flash past in an instant, causing characters to experience aggressive mood swings and events to seemingly happen at random and with no explanation. At first, the Colour’s influence is subtle, induced trance-like states, sending the Gardener’s animals into a frenzy, and making Lavinia sick when she drinks the tainted water but, all too soon, its influence begins to take on a more malicious note.
When the Colour directly interacts with other creatures, it distorts and mutates them in gruesome ways; the Gardener’s alpacas end up fused together into a squealing, nightmarish beast like something from the imagination of David Cronenberg or John Carpenter. Described as “just a colour…but it burns”, it’s as tough the Colour were attempting to figure out the life forms it has found itself living with and, since it is unable to recognise them, transforms them and the surrounding area into forms it is more accustomed to. This is directly speculated upon by another of the Colour’s victims, Ezra (Tommy Chong), who is left a hollowed out dusk that decays into fragments of sizzling colour when he is discovered.
Yet it is Theresa and Jack who arguably suffer the most due to the Colour’s influence; in trying to shield Jack from the Colour, Theresa and her young son become enveloped by its light and the result is a mutilated, agonisingly disgusting amalgamation of the two that, thankfully, is masterfully never lingered on for more than a few seconds at a time. While Nathan affords his beloved alpacas a mercifully swift death, the Colour’s influence drives him mad with distraction, allowing the Jack/Theresa creature to mutate into a ghastly spider-like….thing that attacks Lavinia in a monstrous fury before finally being put out of its misery.
In the end, after the Colour has claimed her entire family, Lavinia falls back on her Wiccan ways, drawing solace from her copy of the Necronomicon and attempting to cast a series of spells and prayers to shield herself and her family, this leads to her self-mutilating herself in a vain attempt to ward off the Colour but she too becomes possessed by its influence, affording us a glimpse of the nightmarishly indescribable world that the Colour originated from before it blasts its way back to the space between waking worlds, taking the Gardener’s, their farm, and most of the surrounding area with it and leaving behind a sole survivor, Ward Phillips (Knight), a visiting Hydrologist who tries to help the family and ends up traumatised by the horrific events he bares witness to.
I’ve read my way through my fair share of Lovecraft’s tales and, of them, “The Colour Out of Space” was indeed one of the stronger stories. Though Lovecraft’s writing can be, at times, impenetrable and obtuse, “The Colour Out of Space” told a relatively simple tale of a normal, everyday family coming onto contact with a force of nature far beyond that of human comprehension and I have to say that Color Out of Space does a commendable job of not only bringing Lovecraft’s story to life but also expanding upon it with influence form his other works.
With stellar, believable performances from top to bottom and some truly incredible special effects work (both on the Colour itself and the monstrosities it creates), Color Out of Space is quite the psychological thrill-ride with plenty of gory and gruesome moments to satiate more impatient audience members. It’s one of those films that truly leaves you questioning what is beyond our world, offering little in the way of explanations for the events that unfold, and dropping normal, everyday, relatable characters into an extraordinary and terrifying situation that has a suitably bleak and thought-provoking conclusion.
What did you think to Color Out of Space? Did you appreciate the film’s subtle, nuance, mounting dread and atmosphere or was it, perhaps, too surreal and slow for you? Have you read the original short story, or any Lovecraft for that matter? What did you think to how the film realised the Colour and do you think it could have been done better or differently? Which Lovecraft story is your favourite and why? What other Lovecraft works would you like to see get a big-screen adaptation? Whatever your thoughts, feel free to leave a comment below.