Color Out of Space (2019)
Written by Richard Stanley & Scarlett Amaris
Directed by Richard Stanley
Since the 1960s, there have been attempts to adapt the work of H.P. Lovecraft for the big screen. I think it’s non-controversial to say these attempts have been lackluster. I know there are passionate fans of Stuart Gordon’s work (Re-Animator, From Beyond), and I have only seen the former film, but I didn’t feel like I was watching a Lovecraftian story. I have liked 2007’s Cthulhu, but it definitely didn’t capture the feel of a Lovecraft tale. We get to 2019 and the first film by Richard Stanley in twenty-three years since he was fired from directing The Island of Dr. Moreau. He decided to take on the behemoth of Lovecraft and delivers the most faithful film to date while still adding his own flourishes.
Nathan Gardener (Nicolas Cage) has moved his family to a rural farm outside of Arkham, Maine. His wife, Theresa (Joely Richardson), has just recovered from breast cancer, and he wants her to have a peaceful place to recover. His three children have varying degrees of dislike about their new home. The youngest is relatively passive, the middle child has befriended a pot-smoking hippie squatter (Tommy Chong), and Lavinia (Madeline Arthur, the eldest is practicing witchcraft and invoking angels to rescue her from this place. Meanwhile, the city of Arkham plans to build a dam and provide water for the Eastern seaboard, and this involves sending Ward Phillips, a hydrologist out to the property to check the condition of the water.
Everything changes one night as an indescribable cloud of color descends from the cosmos bringing a glowing meteor to the Gardener farm. The object sinks into the Earth and then begins to affect the livestock and wildlife in the area, transforming them in unsettling ways. It also seems to have an effect on the psyches of the people on the land. Nathan insists he smells something foul and rotten while no one else does. The littlest Gardener carries on conversations on the front lawn with an invisible presence. Lavinia seems the most cogent that things are going wrong, but at every turn, this alien power stands in her way to escape. Like all Lovecraft stories, this one isn’t going to give us a happy ending.
This is my favorite adaptation of the author’s work for its faithfulness to the atmosphere and tone, yet also because it adds modern touches that compensate for Lovecraft’s virulent racism. Ward, who shares the lead role with Lavinia, is played by a black man. It’s never a point of mention in the plot, but it is important because it counters the writer’s history of white supremacist ideology that he tried to sneak into his work. We also have Peruvian-American actress Q’orianka Kilcher as the mayor of Arkham. Another nice touch of diversity to remove this horror tale from the prejudice of its author.
Richard Stanley doesn’t lose the sheer existential and body horror elements of the original work, though. Color Out of Space is an intense experience that doesn’t treat the audience with kid gloves. It does take its time building up to the grand explosion of horror in the finale. There are zero jump scares here. Every moment you feel terrified is earned by the script. The first act is about establishing characters and letting the audience know who they are and why we should care about what happens to them. The horror that befalls the family is profoundly personal and turns them against each other. I think this is the best adaptation thus far from a Lovecraft story.
Nicolas Cage’s performance will stand out because he goes bizarro in the middle of the picture. This is before the real madness of the alien presence kicks in and appears to just be Cage possibly doing a Trump impersonation? It fits though because everything is off-kilter and veering into mindbending horror. He’s definitely not the lead here, and I think seeing Cage as a supporting character actor as he ages would be fantastic. Richard Stanley says this is planned as the first in a trilogy adapting Lovecraft’s work, and I am fully on board for the next entry. If you are a fan of this type of cosmic horror, then you are in for a massive treat in Color Out of Space.