In a triumphant return to cinema, director Richard Stanley mixes Cosmic and Folk horror to deliver his magnificent mutant of H.P. Lovecraft’s Color Out of Space
“Each color lives by its mysterious life.” – Wassily Kandinsky
“All colours will agree in the dark. ” – Francis Bacon
In the weird fiction of H.P. Lovecraft, “cosmic horror” doesn’t originate from diabolical evil or from divine judgment. It derives from the cold realization that there is only you and the void of the Universe. The Universe is neither good nor evil, it just simply is.
And it doesn’t even know you exist.
The existential terror at the center of the best Lovecraft stories is the discovery that we are powerless against the infinite and unknowable Universe and that we are at the mercy of indifferent cosmic fate. Like being caught in a natural disaster, all we can do is hold on tight and pray we live to tell the tale.
The terrestrial and the extraterrestrial are two sides of the same cosmic coin in director Richard Stanley’s Color Out of Space (2019), a masterful adaptation of one of H.P. Lovecraft’s most revered short stories, The Colour Out of Space.
The end result is a visually arresting, frequently creepy, and emotionally unsettling meditation on entropy that suggests that the end of life may be horrible, but it can also be strangely beautiful. Color Out of Space is that rare horror film that leaves you exhilarated and buzzing afterward because the story is told with the utmost integrity. As bleak as it may seem, I believe Richard Stanley has given us his version of a happy ending.
Lovecraft’s original story is elegance in its simplicity: a meteorite lands on the property of a family farm and a strange, indescribable glowing color begins to spread out from the alien rock to envelop the land. Wherever this color spreads, the animal and plant life begin to mutate into horrible, unspeakable things.
The film maintains the same basic premise. Nicolas Cage stars as Nathan Gardner, the patriarch of the family. He’s inherited the farm from his late father and he and his family are trying to keep the farm going.
Transformation and the illusion of control are running themes in the piece: the family tries to adapt to remote country life, and Nathan is trying to change the farm model (he’s invested in alpacas). His wife, Theresa (Joely Richardson), has cancer which has already taken her breasts. Their eldest son, Benny (Brendan Meyer), has started smoking pot with a hippie squatter named Ezra (Tommy Chong) who lives in a shack on the property. Their daughter, Lavinia (Madeleine Arthur), has taken to Alexandrian Wicca, a nature-based religion as a last-ditch plea to save her mother.
In the opening moments of the movie, it becomes apparent that Color was the perfect material for the idiosyncratic talents of Richard Stanley. The struggle of man with nature was a prominent theme in his previous films (Hardware, Dust Devil), and Color opens with narration directly from the source material about the deep woods of West Arkham, where no ax has ever cut and no settlement has ever survived.
With those few lines of narration and stunning visuals of large, intimidating trees swaying silently in the wind deep inside an ancient forest, Stanley introduces nature itself as unknowable and as indifferent to humans as the deepest parts of space. This additional focus on nature brings the influence of author Algernon Blackwood’s version of folk horror (The Willows) to the cosmic horror of outer space.
Stanley’s reverence for the weird fiction of Lovecraft is apparent in the script he co-wrote with Scarlett Amaris. One of the benchmarks of cosmic horror is how the narrator can almost explain away most of the bizarre incidents within the story, but then science and logic eventually fail him.
Stanley and Amaris’ introduction of the meteorite into the story is masterful. When the meteorite hits ground late at night, some of the family are asleep, some are online, and some are staring directly out the window. It doesn’t matter; they are all affected. We see characters get bathed in this color and go through what scientifically would be called photosensitive epilepsy. When the color subsides, the trances are broken and they have no memory of what we witnessed.
Stanley’s script introduces logic and science with the character of Ward (Elliot Knight), a hydrologist tasked with surveying the land for a proposed hydroelectric dam. Ward examines the meteor and tests the groundwater for contamination. There is mounting evidence that Nathan and his family might be suffering from hallucinations caused by poisoned water (akin to the ergot poisoning that may have sparked the Salem Witch Trials).
Just when it seems that everything can be explained away…strange flowers start to sprout from the soil and the trees. Weird sounds emanate from the old well on the property. The meteorite disappears.
And then…things get a little weird.
What happens next is something best viewed in a theater to take in the gorgeous 2.35:1 framing and the bold color of this film. Stanley’s films tend to use specific color palettes: Hardware was red, Dust Devil was gold and Color uses a shifting mixture of ultraviolet and infra-red (much like Stuart Gordon’s own Lovecraft adaptation, From Beyond). When you see Color in a theater, you feel the images slowly overpower you.
Another cause for praise is the editing of this film, done by Brett W. Bachman (who also cut the cult hit Mandy). The movie hurtles along at a crisp pace but also takes the time to let us absorb the building dread. The editing also helps create a visual version of a literary trick of Lovecraft, which was to only peripherally describe the horrific. The smart editing uses ample restraint to deny us a clear image until the suspense and dread ratchet up considerably. There are at least two moments that reach the level of waking nightmare due to the skilled editing of the scenes.
What makes so much of this film work is the uniformly strong performances by the cast. One of the really unsettling things in this film is how effortlessly characters move from being lucid to deep in a hallucination in the blink of an eye. The idea that if the chemicals in your brain are lying to you there’d be no way for you to know added to the mounting dread.
The actors also brought depth to the pathos and there was a level of honesty to the work of Cage and Richardson as a couple living through the mutations that cancer can bring to a body and a soul.
But, most of all, this is Richard Stanley’s triumph. The direction is nimble and assured. Even though this is an adaptation of an existing story, it feels very much like a personal film. There is no doubt that this is a horror film and Stanley certainly delivers the scares, but there is also this sense of awe and reverence for the unknowable power of nature and the Universe.
This is a horror film that has no villain. This isn’t the Weapon Out of Space or the Fire Out of Space or even the Sound Out of Space.
Instead, as Lovecraft wrote and Stanley quotes:
“It was just a colour out of space—a frightful messenger from unformed realms of infinity beyond all Nature as we know it; from realms whose mere existence stuns the brain and numbs us with the black extra-cosmic gulfs it throws open before our frenzied eyes. “
Color Out of Space is certainly one of the best adaptations of H.P. Lovecraft’s work ever put to film.
Welcome back, Richard Stanley.