Color Out of Space is the newest movie by Richard Stanley, a storyteller who burst on the scene in the early 90’s as the up and coming director of the sci fi/horror-tinged cult films Hardware and Dust Devil. He was poised to break into the mainstream with a remake of The Island of Dr. Moreau.
Famously, that production was taken from him in a series of entertainingly unbelievable events, well-documented in the excellent documentary Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau. That experience seemed to break Stanley, as a director, especially the extreme difficulty he had with the leads on that film (Val Kilmer and Marlon Brando). So, it would seem ill-advised for Stanley to attempt his directing comeback with a notoriously unhinged actor like Nicolas Cage in a notably difficult-to-adapt property like H.P. Lovecraft’s Color Out of Space. So, is this another beautiful disaster?
At its heart, Color Out of Space is a b-movie. The initial third of the movie has nearly every B-movie trope, and it’s seemingly poised to be a conventional, yet entertaining genre offering. We are introduced to your standard movie family (The Gardners) living in a rural home, finally getting away from the big city. We have the moody daughter Lavinia (Madeleine Arthur), who practices Wicca. There is the annoying stoner brother, Benny (Brendan Meyer). And finally, there is the quietly spooky littlest brother Jack (Julian Hilliard). Matriarch Theresa (Joely Richardson) and hubby Nathan (Nicolas Cage) are trying to rekindle their romance after successfully battling breast cancer.
Everything seems to be looking up for the Gardners, but their fortunes take a turn for the worse when an alien meteorite lands in their front yard. The cast of main characters is rounded out by an intrepid young scientist, Ward (Elliot Knight), and the aging, hippy loner living off the grid nearby, Ezra (Tommy Chong).
A meteorite landing in the yard is about as standard as B-movie plots can get. From Creepshow to It Came From Outer Space to The Blob, mysterious, glowing meteorites have long been the source of trouble for movie characters. But this is H.P. Lovecraft, so cosmic strangeness is bound to occur. Stanley does a very wise turn with this standard plot device. He doesn’t make the threat a big mystery, as it’s something everyone gradually discovers.
Here, he treats the situation more like the original Poltergeist, an average family faced with an unusual occurrence that is undeniable and difficult to deal with. The meteorite is from space. The meteorite is causing bad things to happen. This approach allows the viewer to focus on the methodical unravelling of normalcy and reality within the family dynamic.
This unravelling is really where this movie shines. In the first third, everything is pretty conventional. New flowers start to bloom near the meteorite crater. The electronic devices contain strange interference and static (there’s the Poltergeist comparison again). Little Jack sits staring at the well, talking to his “friends.” Crazy old coot Ethan is hearing “them” in the ground below his cabin.
There’s even the trope-y scene where a character is cutting carrots and, well, you can probably guess how that goes. But this is where the predictable stuff ends. From this point on, reality becomes more and more tenuous. Each character seems to veer into their own cosmic time loops. I won’t go into the paths they travel, because discovering them is half the fun.
Then, there’s a turn. There is an event in the final third of this movie, involving two of the major characters, and that is where this movie goes from better-than-average to something special. The sights and sounds in the aftermath of this event are truly unnerving. The movie becomes unhinged, as each character following his or her thread of insanity in ways that are quite fun for this genre.
This brings us to the inevitable questions about any Cage movie role – which Cage do we get? Well, it’s not quite the inspired madness that he brought to Mandy, but Cage does have a couple impressive freak-outs, even veering into one of his patented unidentified voices. He is famous for pretending to channel a cartoon character or mystical shaman or, well, who knows – it’s Cage! The best Cage moment surfaces early in the film, as he demonstrates how to properly milk alpacas. It’s both creepy and hilarious and will surely be remembered as one of his great moments of weirdness.
Finally, how does this compare to other Lovecraft movies? Unlike Stephen King, Lovecraft has been difficult to adapt, with the most universally loved adaptation probably being Stuart Gordon’s 1985 comedy gorefest Re-Animator. However, Gordon’s second Lovecraft adaptation From Beyond acts as a better companion piece to this film. Both From Beyond and Color Out of Space are illuminated by glowing shades of pink and violet, and deal with a small groups of people struggling with interdimensional madness and mayhem.
Ultimately, Color Out of Space is a psychotic journey where one family tries to stay together in the middle of chaos and madness. It only falters when it tries to add external subplots or during an ill-advised voice-over framing device. But the vast majority of this movie is aimed squarely at the family dynamic in all its vibrant, dizzying, and violent glory.
Fans of mainstream, jump-scare horror might leave the theater scratching their heads, but those who enjoy unique sci fi/horror visions will leave highly satisfied.
Rating: 4 out of 5
Color Out of Space hits theaters January 24.