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Color Out of Space

by on January 21, 2020
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H. P. Lovecraft’s classic horror stories have proven time and time again to be difficult subjects for Hollywood remakes. That’s not to say there aren’t good film adaptations out there; a number of indie short films based on Lovecraft’s work have resonated with HPL fans and scholars alike. But for whatever reason, the larger, more established Hollywood studios have mostly avoided the prospect of betting their chips on a moderate-to-big-budget adaptation of his work.

As a result, HPL’s presence on the screen has almost completely resided in the B-movie realm. Indie directors and schlock artists have taken stabs at adapting, explicitly or more indirectly, “Shadow Over Innsmouth” and “The Call of Cthulu,” among others. Even “The Colour Out of Space” has micro-budget German adaptation.

As such, it’s fitting that the first mildly high-profile HPL adaptation in decades, Color Out of Space, comes from long-absent B-horror director Richard Stanley, whose last directing credit for a feature film was the infamous 1996 H. G. Wells adaptation, The Island of Dr. Moreau, from which he was fired as director only four days into production. Only the best for our boy HPL.

Also tagging along this time is the always-interesting Nicolas Cage, who—oddly enough—might be the most well-known actor to ever star in a direct adaptation of any of HPL’s work.

The film is based on Lovecraft’s “The Colour Out of Space,” one of his celebrated short stories. Stanley opts for a contemporary setting, though he maintains the rural New England location.

Nathan Gardner (Cage) and his family have recently moved to a large farmhouse in the woods near Arkham, Massachusetts. Arkham is fictional, but HPL diehards will recognize it as a recurring location in HPL’s work. After a strangely colored meteorite crashes in their front yard, the animals, plants, and even Gardner’s family (and himself) begin to behave strangely. Chaos and paranoia ensue as the Gardner family and other locals attempt to resolve—or escape—this new hell on earth.

The sheer weirdness of HPL’s storytelling is certainly here, thanks to Stanley’s schlock sensibilities, and Cage’s expressionistic absurdity. Cinematographer Steve Annis deserves credit for some gorgeously eerie images throughout, though the overall look of the film could be described by quite a range of words, from “stunning” to “student.” Chilling wide shots and beautiful exterior night views give way to jarring and abrasive shallow-focus close-ups you’d sooner expect to see in a music video. And the patchy editing doesn’t typically help this transition.

Cage does his thing, as he was apparently instructed by Stanley to emulate his Vampire’s Kiss performance (it’s Stanley’s personal favorite). It works in moments, like when Nathan is truly internalizing the hopeless ridiculousness of his situation, but it’s the more “normal” scenes where his acting struggles to find its footing. At times, Nathan is an endearingly goofy dad, and at others he’s an uncanny-valley approximation of human responses to things.

The rest of the cast turn in sufficient work; Joely Richardson isn’t given much to do as Nathan’s wife Theresa, but she’s got a couple chilling moments. Madeleine Arthur is probably given the most to chew on as Nathan’s daughter Lavinia, a teenage witchcraft enthusiast in her standard rebel phase.

The horror itself never really transcends mild perturbation, though Stanley’s effects and production design teams do come up with some fairly nasty lo-fi representations of the abominations that result from the meteorite crash, which are only vaguely described in HPL’s story. Likewise, the simple choice to digitally imbue various elements of the woodland environment with a violet-ish hue (the color of the meteorite) works surprisingly well.

But the finale is where the film’s most budget and designs begin to crack under Stanley’s ambitions; the terrors become a CGI mess of bright laser lights and cheap distortion filters. I understand the difficulties of creating a convincing and scary interpretation of a threat that is mostly left up to the imagination in the source material, especially when that threat is essentially just light and color. That being said, a strong, recent example of how to handle light as a source of confusion and fear would be the finale of Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse.

Unfortunately, the creepy atmospherics and a healthy mix of practical and digital effects can’t really hold up a film with bland writing and boring characters. The Gardner family is mostly constructed of lazy tropes: aloof father, depressed mother, snarky rebel daughter, aimless stoner son, and a dangerously curious and innocent youngest child. And these caricatures address one another in only the most obvious ways. This typical writing only makes Cage’s absurd outbursts feel even more awkward and out of place, rather than disturbing or properly worrisome.

It might be the best HPL adaptation in a long time, and maybe the only somewhat decent feature-length one ever—I don’t know, I haven’t seen Re-Animator. But sadly, Color Out of Space is another mixed bag of lovely atmosphere and B-movie camp that misses about as often as it hits.

 

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