by Andrew Wyatt on Jan 28, 2020

When a horror enthusiast declares that that have been no good H.P. Lovecraft adaptations, what they usually mean is that there have been no good “straight” adaptations of the early-20th-century American writer’s work. The best film based on Lovecraft-penned source material remains Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator (1985), a feature the completely reconfigures one of the author’s short stories as a campy, transgressive horror-comedy. Although successful on its own terms, Gordon’s film doesn’t even attempt to evoke the species of terror that is synonymous with Lovecraft’s name: the mind-splintering “cosmic horror” of a vast, cold, and hostile universe inhabited by primordial entities that barely register our species’ existence.

Most cinematic attempts to directly adapt a specific Lovecraft novel or short story have whiffed at conveying this sensibility. Gordon returned to the well several times with diminishing results in From Beyond (1986), Castle Freak (1995), and Dagon (2001). Other efforts have included the late-model B-picture The Dunwich Horror (1970), the clunky anthology film Necronomicon (1993), and the earnest low-budget indie Cthulhu (2008). Indeed, the conventional wisdom among horror fans is that the most quintessentially Lovecraftian films tend to be those with no direct relationship to the author’s writings. The 21st century has seen a mini-boom in such spiritual cousins: The Mist (2007), Upstream Color (2013), The Void (2016), The Endless (2017), and Annihilation (2018) all come to mind as films that “get” Lovecraft in a manner that is not evident in more explicit adaptations of his work. That said, John Carpenter’s still-underrated In the Mouth of Madness (1994) remains the most on-the-nose cinematic realization of the writer’s recurrent themes, even if that film’s tone can be somewhat campy.

Writer-director Richard Stanley’s Color Out of Space – based on Lovecraft’s oft-adapted 1927 short story of the same name, minus a “The” – is something of a hybrid, blending the midnight-movie nuttiness of Gordon’s 1980s features with the yawning cosmic horror that murmurs beneath tonier films like Annihilation. Initially, Stanley’s film seems to promise something more in the latter vein, as a man intones lines plucked directly from Lovecraft’s story over eerie shots of a primeval, mist-choked forest. The speaker, the viewer soon learns, is a young hydrologist named Ward (Elliot Knight), who’s performing a study in an oddly underpopulated corner of rural New England before the area is flooded by an upcoming hydroelectric project. (Knight is a black British actor, and casting him as the archetypal straitlaced, well-scrubbed Lovecraft protagonist feels like Color Out of Space’s slantwise way of repudiating the author’s notoriously vicious racism.)

Ward is the outsider in this film, and therefore the audience’s point of identification. However, Color Out of Space is more concerned with the area’s most notable residents, the Gardners: husband Nathan (Nicolas Cage), wife Theresa (Joely Richardson), older daughter Lavinia (Madeleine Arthur), older son Benny (Brendan Meyer), and younger son Jack (Julian Hilliard). There’s some backstory involving Nathan’s hapless money-making schemes – the latest involves raising alpacas – and Theresa’s effort to sustain her stockbroker career while recovering from breast cancer, but rich, coherent characterization isn’t exactly Color Out of Space’s strong suit. There’s also the fact that any movie headlined by Nicolas Cage must contend with the actor’s indefatigable determination to transform every role into a showcase for his sometimes-mesmerizing, often-embarrassing eccentricities. Director Panos Cosmatos successful wove Cage’s alien energy into the fabric of his heavy-metal acid trip Mandy (2018), but Stanley doesn't pull off a similar feat here, in part because Color Out of Space allows its attention to be pulled every which way by subplots involving the other Gardners and Ward. Regardless, Stanley is clearly much more interested in the glowing fuchsia meteorite that lands in the Gardners’ front yard one night, and in all the mutagenic, brain-dissolving madness it unleashes.

This smoldering space-rock generates a blip of interest from the nearby township’s mayor (Q’orianka Kilcher), the local sheriff (Josh C. Waller), and a TV reporter (Melssa Nearman), but two days later, the meteorite mysteriously vanishes. Unfortunately, the extraterrestrial object’s influence seems to have literally seeped into the ground, contaminating the Gardners’ drinking water and triggering bizarre changes in the local flora and fauna. In short order, everyone in the family starts to behave irritably and erratically. Meanwhile, Ward’s tests of the local groundwater produce inexplicable results, and he’s plagued by baffling phenomena ranging from electrical surges in his field equipment to strange, iridescent shimmers in the air. He urgently advises Lavinia not to drink her family’s well water anymore, but she already senses that something is seriously awry, as does the grizzled hippie hermit (Tommy Chong) squatting on the family’s property.

However, the damage is already done: Once the meteorite lands and starts to work its sci-fi voodoo on the Gardner farm, Color Out of Space essentially becomes a lurching, fever-dream march toward certain doom. Much like Daniel Haller’s 1965 adaptation of “Color” – an American International Pictures curio starring Boris Karloff, with the fantastic title Die, Monster, Die! – Stanley’s film eventually abandons plot for pure incident. In this case, it’s at least somewhat justified, as the aimlessness of the film’s events mimics the feeling of a nightmare, where time and space can become devilishly mutable. Characters vanish inexplicably, only to return just as abruptly, while night heaves into day and then back into night with little regard for rational chronology. Lest the viewer attribute this to workaday sloppiness on the part of the filmmakers, Benny lampshades the fact that he keeps losing track of time, as though the magenta haze that has settled over the area had a narcotic or psychotropic effect.

Some of Color Out of Space’s more vexing problems lie in its ill-advised resolve to give Ward and each member of the Gardner family a healthy chunk of screen time, which has the effect of subdividing and thereby diminishing the film’s focus. The screenplay positions Ward as the traditional B-movie hero, but depending on the scene, Lavinia or Nathan can sometimes feel like the “real” protagonist of the film. There are no arcs or conflicts of any significance, just a litany of horrifying fates that befall the characters. Much is made of Lavinia’s Wiccan faith, and of her supplications to more malevolent entities in a moment of fearful desperation, but these aspects of the screenplay never truly amount to anything.

Cage’s performance will perhaps be the biggest disappointment for genre fans hoping for the next Mandy: He’s reliably unhinged and entertaining, but the film never figures out how to effectively use the actor’s inimitable presence or how to successful integrate him into its Lovecraftian weirdness. On the other hand, Cage’s over-cranked lunacy is the only thing saving the film’s at times terrible dialogue, which he chews with gusto. Arthur and Richardson, meanwhile, seem like they can barely suppress an embarrassed snort as they utter one absurd groaner after another. The film’s attempts at black humor lead to tonal whiplash – particularly after two members of the family suffer a disturbingly grotesque fate.

Stanley, notably, has been in movie jail for more than two decades after being fired from the debacle that was The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996), a production so notoriously troubled that it spawned its own what-the-hell-happened documentary, Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau (2014). While the director’s screenplay for Color Out of Space, co-written with Scarlett Amaris, abounds in silliness and miscalculation, there’s still plenty to admire about the feature that emerged from its pages. Visually speaking, the film is a treat, starting with the splendid widescreen cinematography by Steve Annis, who is best known for lensing music videos for artists ranging from Florence + the Machine to Mick Jagger. The film was shot in Portugal, and although Annis can’t always obscure the chintzier elements of the production design, he photographs the woodlands in a manner that’s less about convincing the viewer that this is Massachusetts than in conjuring a haunting, primordial atmosphere.

The film’s real star, however, is undeniably its mind-melting abstract visuals. Stanley tends to cut away quickly from most of the creature effects – including an overt homage to The Thing (1982) involving a gooey, shrieking mass of melted alpacas – but he’s indulgent about slathering on the formless ripples and clouds of neon color that indicate the alien force’s presence. The ineffable, otherworldly hue that Lovecraft describes as emanating from the Gardners’ well is here visualized as more prosaic shades of luminous pink and purple. However, the gonzo way that Stanley’s film applies these colors is so unabashedly psychedelic, it seems probable that the director is intentionally inviting acid-movie cult status for his feature. The other clue is the cacophonous, synth-heavy score from avant-garde saxophonist and composer Colin Stetson, who previously crafted the profoundly unsettling music for Hereditary (2018). Stetson’s overwhelming compositions, the oozing astral colors, and the general waking-nightmare listlessness of the film’s action create a tripartite feedback loop, heightening the film’s hallucinatory vibe. By the time a lavender light tornado emerges from the Gardner well, it’s obvious that Color’s ideal audience is not a sober one.

There is a more conventional sci-fi horror film about infection and mutation lurking in Color Out of Space, observable in the way that Nathan’s flesh and mind are both slowly consumed by the meteorite’s alien energy. One can discern shades of George Romero’s 1982 anthology Creepshow, specifically the segment “The Lonesome Death of Jody Verill,” which was based on a Stephen King story that was itself influenced by Lovecraft’s “Color.” However, the existential terror of assimilation has been conveyed much more effectively in other features (among them, Annihilation). Moreover, Stanley’s film is simply too witless and clumsy to emerge as any kind of underrated genre classic years from now. Color Out of Space is perhaps best approached as a non-rational experience, the cheesy, drive-in movie cousin to Cosmatos’ chilly Cronenbergian mindfuck Beyond the Black Rainbow (2010). Color might be subpar as a horror film, but it’s tuned in to the inhuman frequencies of Lovecraft’s eldritch terrors in a way that has eluded more serious-minded adaptations.

Rating: C+