Review by LL Soares
First off, I want to say, “Welcome back, director Richard Stanley!” Not that he really went anywhere, but he hasn’t made a full-length feature film since 1992’s DUST DEVIL! Sure, there was that ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU movie in 1996, starring Marlon Brando, that Stanley just started directing when the studio replaced him with John Frankenheimer, but that doesn’t count (check out the whole story of this disaster of a movie in the documentary LOST SOUL: THE DOOMED JOURNEY OF RICHARD STANLEY’S ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU, 2014). It must have been a painful experience, because Stanley has only directed short films (including the “Mother of Toads” segment in 2011’s anthology film, THE THEATRE BIZARRE), videos for cool bands like Fields of Nephilim and Marillion, and documentaries including THE OTHERWORLD (2013) and THE WHITE DARKNESS (2002). But he hadn’t directed another feature until now.
I first became aware of Stanley in the 1990s with a little film called HARDWARE (1990), a cool sci-fi horror movie where a guy finds a weird helmet that turns out to be the head of a killer robot that suddenly gets reactivated… it’s a simple but effective plot and I remember liking it a lot. After that, he made the praised DUST DEVIL (1992), and looked to be an up-and-coming new director before he got sidetracked by the DR. MOREAU bullshit.
Second, this one’s for the Lovecraft fans. COLOR OUT OF SPACE is Stanley’s adaptation of the story by H.P. Lovecraft. Did you know there have been more than 200 (mostly short) films made based on Lovecraft? Many of you know about Guillermo Del Toro’s passion project – to adapt Lovecraft’s novella AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS – which still hasn’t come to fruition. And of course there are Stuart Gordon’s classic Lovecraft films, RE-ANIMATOR (1985) and the underrated FROM BEYOND (1986). COLOR OUT OF SPACE, based on Lovecraft’s story “Colour Out of Space,” (with the British spelling of “Colour”), has been filmed at least four times previously, including a short film from 2017 by Patrick Muller, a German production from 2010 directed by Huan Vu, and an Italian production from 2008, directed by Ivan Zuccon. The most famous previous version, however, was a film called DIE, MONSTER, DIE! (1965, also known as MONSTER OF TERROR), directed by Daniel Haller and starring the great Boris Karloff, along with Nick Adams.
A lot of people were excited to hear that, not only was Richard Stanley coming back, but he was making a Lovecraft film. To put a cherry on top of the sundae, it was announced that the star would be…Nicolas Cage.
And so we come to the third important cog of this particular machine. Hey, I know Cage is a polarizing figure. He was a big star at one point, making blockbuster action movies like THE ROCK (1996), CON AIR (1997) and FACE/OFF (1997), and of course, NATIONAL TREASURE (2004). He even made some great movies around that time, including ADAPTATION. (2002) and the underrated MATCHSTICK MEN (2003). Then his career seemed to implode, but not due to lack of work. He was in tons of movies, it just seemed like a lot of them were make-em-quick-for-the-money duds. But I never lost my faith in him. For every bad movie, he’d make three interesting ones. Before his action hero ascension, he made lots of good movies, including BIRDY (1984), RAISING ARIZONA (1987), David Lynch’s WILD AT HEART (1980), and LEAVING LAS VEGAS (1995), the movie he won an Oscar for. And not all of the films he’s made since his career went all bizarre are awful, some of them are downright terrific like BAD LIEUTENANT: PORT OF CALL NEW ORLEANS (2009), DRIVE ANGRY (2011), MOM AND DAD (2017) and 2018’s MANDY, which was so good, people started taking him a bit seriously again.
Sure, Cage has a reputation for playing bigger-than-life wackos, but that doesn’t mean he’s not a joy to watch, and when he gets a good script, he can turn in a memorable performance. I’m convinced he always could.
So what happens when you take these three elements – Richard Stanley, Lovecraft, and Nic Cage – and put them all together?
COLOR OUT OF SPACE!
The Gardner family has moved out to a farm in the middle of nowhere, intent on a new start after a traumatic event. Theresa Gardner (Joely Richardson of the series NIP/TUCK, 2003-2010, and VAMPIRE ACADEMY, 2014) is healing up after a battle with cancer. Her husband, Nathan (Nicolas Cage) is intent on farming, and raises alpacas. They fight a lot over the Wi-Fi, which is constantly going out in this isolated area, and Theresa needs the internet to communicate with her clients, who she advises financially. Teenage daughter Lavinia (Madeleine Arthur, also in BIG EYES, 2014) performs Wiccan rituals in the woods to help her mother. Teenage son Benny (Brendan Meyer, THE GUEST, 2014, and THE OA, 2016-2019) hangs out a lot with an old hippie hermit named Ezra (Tommy Chong, also in UP IN SMOKE, 1978, and THAT ‘70s SHOW, 1999-2006) who lives nearby in a shack. Youngest son Jack (Julian Hilliard, also in the TV series THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE, 2018) spends most of his time with the family dog.
A young hydrologist named Ward Phillips (Elliot Knight, also on the series AMERICAN GOTHIC, 2016, and ONCE UPON A TIME, in 2015) comes upon Lavinia during one of her rituals, and explains that he is there to inspect the water table, since the state is planning to build a dam nearby.
One night, a meteorite crashes to earth in the middle of their yard. It emits a strange color (a psychedelic pink hue) and begins to transform everything it comes into contact with. The meteor mutates the land and creatures around it. Strange flowers spring up around the family’s well, and the alpacas, as well as the Gardner family members themselves, begin to experience weird changes.
The changes begin slowly, first changing the groundwater, which Ward suggests they don’t drink, to eventually turning animals and people into misshapen mutants. There are some nice body horror moments in the movie, including two people who are fused into one, agonized mass. And everyone in the Gardner family begins to slide toward insanity.
Things just get weirder and weirder as we approach the denouement.
Stanley does a good job with the story (aside from directing, he co-wrote the screenplay with Scarlett Amaris). Especially impressive is the look and feel of the strange glowing “color” that the meteor emits. Since it’s impossible to show us an alien color that we’ve never seen before, the use of eerie, overwhelming pink light in the mutation scenes works quite well. The creepy soundtrack by Colin Stetson is also very effective, as is the work of cinematographer Steve Annis, who gives us a strong visual sense of what’s going on.
Richard Stanley and the themes of Lovecraft work very well together. Nicolas Cage alternates between giving an effective performance, and going over the top at times. It actually doesn’t affect the mood at all, since everything is going in the direction of complete madness anyway.
However, while I liked this movie, I couldn’t help but feel a bit disappointed. COLOR OUT OF SPACE ends up being less than the sum of its parts. It wasn’t the masterpiece I was hoping for. There are times when the movie feels off, or things don’t go in a particular direction as strongly as they could have. It’s like a wild animal that tries to break out of its cage – and makes a valient effort — but utlimately, doesn’t.
But it’s good enough so that, if you’re a fan of Richard Stanley, Lovecraft, or Nicolas Cage, or any combination thereof, then I suggest you check this one out. It’s not the best Lovecraft adaptation you’ll ever see, but it’s far from the worst, too. And it’s supposed to be the first film in a Lovecraft trilogy that Stanley is working on. Let’s hope it’s all uphill from here.
© Copyright 2020 by LL Soares