The ways movies can capture the one-of-a-kind bizarre textures of H.P. Lovecraft’s work are limited. Known first as a great author and second as an enthusiastic Hitler stan, Lovecraft imagined his personal fears—particularly of “the masses”—into wholly unimaginable entities, his work so tethered to his pants-wetting neuroses that adapting it for a visual medium feels like a masochist’s chore. That makes Richard Stanley perfect for translating Lovecraft’s short story “The Colour Out of Space” into a feature-length film: The last time he tried making a horror movie it was 1994, and the feature was The Island of Dr. Moreau.
Turning Lovecraft’s words into coherent cinema is a comparative walk in the park, and in Color Out of Space, Stanley gaily strolls ahead with a palette sporting every shade of purple, adding splashes of phlox here and smears of thistle there before coating the screen entirely in heliotrope hues by the end. “Color” is the key word of the movie’s title and the most important tool in Stanley’s work belt: The longer the horror Lovecraft describes on the page endures and infects the world around it, the more vivid Stanley’s imagery becomes. The second most important tool, perhaps expectedly, is Nicolas Cage, starting off the 2020s on the right foot with another Cage-ian horror performance after his stellar work in 2018’s Mandy. If there’s an actor better-suited than Cage for conveying the experience of losing one’s sanity under Lovecraftian duress, the industry hasn’t found them yet.
Cage plays Nathan Gardner, amiable patriarch of the Gardner family, who lives with his wife Theresa (Joely Richardson), daughter Lavinia (Madeleine Arthur), and sons Benny (Brendan Meyer) and Jack (Julian Hilliard) on the family estate where Nathan grew up, in the boonies of Arkham, Massachusetts. Don’t let his last name fool you: Nathan isn’t the farmer type, though he gamely tries his hand at growing crops of heirloom tomatoes and peaches, and he’s raising a herd of alpacas, too. (They’re the animal of the future!) You can’t fault the guy for not trying. Still, he’s out of his depth, and even more so when a meteorite the size of a pumpkin makes landfall in his backyard and begins to mutate, well, everything. The change is innocuous at first. It’s even beautiful. (Again: purples.) But as time passes the mutations slowly take on sinister shades, and the Gardner family falls under siege from the land they mean to live off of.
Stanley’s playing with someone else’s toys, of course, but in a sandbox of his very own design. John Carpenter’s The Thing plays a role here, as do the works of David Cronenberg, Stuart Gordon and even Barry Levinson, for those who saw his 2012 found footage flick The Bay, and each of these names are contained by the weird framework set by Lovecraft’s text. But as easily as Stanley’s influences are sniffed out by discerning noses, he operates on a dreamy wavelength that’s all his own. Everything that appears on screen has tactile appeal, even as the phantasmagoria sours into nightmares, as if Stanley assembled the film’s pieces by hand. Color Out of Space presents a lived-in world and takes great pleasure twisting that world into hideous, but beautifully decorated, knots.
The best pleasure of all is Cage, who, like Stanley, occupies an existential plane visited by no one else. Lovecraft’s words give Color Out of Space a foundation; Cage gives it character. He might exist in a vacuum, but he doesn’t act in one: The rest of the cast falls in the orbit of his unhinged eccentricity, much as the meteorite’s presence warps all nature around it. Cage, by being Cage—by breaking into twitchy mimicry of Nathan’s own awful father, by joyfully plucking fruits off of vines as if his fields aren’t decaying before his very eyes—makes everyone around him better, or if not better, then stranger, which is probably more appropriate for the film’s late ’80s to early ’90s tone.
It’s been 24 years since the Dr. Moreau debacle, and Stanley has brought along period trappings from the era in which he last made a narrative feature. Color Out of Space feels shaggy at the edges but so rich within them that the flaws of the DIY aesthetic matter less than the merits of Stanley’s perspective. We can wonder what might’ve been if The Island of Dr. Moreau had gone off without a hitch, but with Color Out of Space, it’s best to wonder what’s next instead.
Director: Richard Stanley
Writer: Richard Stanley, Scarlett Amaris
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Madeleine Arthur, Elliot Knight, Joely Richardson, Brendan Meyer, Julian Hilliard, Tommy Chong, Q’orianka Kilcher
Release Date: January 24, 2020
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.