“Color Out of Space” is director Richard Stanley’s first feature film since his attempt at adapting “The Island of Dr. Moreau” back in 1996. Stanley was fired from that cursed production and replaced with John Frankenheimer. That firing would put a dark cloud over Richard Stanley’s career, reputation, and self-image, presumably, for quite some time.
Now here he is, twenty-four years later, with his adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Colour Out of Space.” And what a return it is! It has been a while since I have seen a filmmaker let loose with such a bold abandon that he pins us to our seats even when we want to turn away from the vicious visuals and sheer terror.
Nicolas Cage lives with his family on a remote farm in the fictional town of Arkham, Massachusetts. His wife (Joely Richardson, reminding us how great an actress she can be) is battling cancer and trying to keep her business going. Their teen daughter Lavinia (a fantastic Madeleine Arthur) is a practicing Wiccan and her teen brother, Benny (Brendan Meyer) smokes a lot of weed and helps tend to the alpacas their father purchased and dreams of raising. The youngest son, Jack (Julian Hillard) is left to find his way through his busy family’s daily life, pretty much on his own.
After a few scenes setting up their somewhat blissful existence after “escaping the big city,” a meteorite (we think) crashes onto their property. The rock emits a strange purple light and very dangerous energy that begins to slowly overtake the family.
Into this strange occurrence comes hydrologist Ward (Elliot Knight), who believes the water is contaminated. Before it all happens, he strikes up a mutual friendship/crush with Lavinia and becomes witness to the strange goings-on with her family.
As the world around the family’s house keeps transforming (with its terraforming land and striking colors), Stanley keeps his film visually faithful to the way Lovecraft describes it in his story. The director is precise in the way he slowly orchestrates the growing madness that is seeping its way into the minds and flesh of Cage’s family.
Stanley doesn’t use a slow build, but he isn’t hurried in his direction. His steady grasp on the material allows the audience to become fully immersed in the family’s plight, truly feeling for the characters and the terrors they will endure. He uses a moment of chaos (the meteor crashing) as the catalyst for the evolving catastrophe.
It is masterful the way Stanley presents these horrors. There is absolutely no escape. It won’t let them go and it is everywhere! It is in the trees, the mysterious shapes at the periphery of their vision, the garbled television signals, the sky, the air–nowhere is safe and Stanley wisely never lets us breathe a sigh of relief.
Production Designer Katie Baron and art director Sergio Costa saturate the screen with some truly breathtaking visuals while cinematographer Steve Annis helps to create an atmosphere of complete dread that blankets the film from the first shot to the last.
Composer Colin Stetson’s score is the ambient icing on the cake and works in unison with the award-worthy sound design. The composer’s use of redirected loops and synthesized growls and rumblings make his score its own character, as it becomes terrifying as anything we are seeing.
One of the strongest aspects of the production is in its blend of practical and digital effects. Dan Martin creates some brilliantly grotesque makeup while Joaquín Gutiérrez adds just the right touch of digital companionship.
Amongst the bleak tone there is a darkly comedic underbelly, at times. Stanley and his co-writer Scarlett Amaris don’t allow for moments of levity, rather a few scenes that are just bizarre (Cage milking his Alpacas while immediately drinking their milk and his slipping into his dead father’s strange and abusive cadence are two of the best examples of this). This isn’t comedy but twisted quirks that complement and are born from the film’s dark aura.
The film works best when it focuses on just how much the human mind can endure before one goes insane. It is here where the actors get to dig deep and transform their performances into something quite wonderful.
Lest we forget, Nicolas Cage is a great character actor. Yes, he has made a career of going much too over the top. In fact, over the last decade or so, the actor sought out roles where he could let his performances fly into the stratosphere. Sometimes it works. Most of the time it doesn’t. I would argue that this is his genius. Good or bad, Cage knows he’s out there and perhaps chooses roles in lesser films where he can ignore critics or audiences and simply let his freak flag fly.
In this film (as in 2018’s brilliant “MANDY”) Cage’s histrionics speak to what is happening to the character. His mind and life are being attacked and warped by an unknown force. To watch him struggle with his sanity in this film is to see an actor really bringing forth a believable character by using everything he has. Cage uses every inch of his body and face to bring out a man who is fighting against an overpowering doom. This is Nicolas Cage at his madcap best.
Joely Richardson is an actress with great talent but American films rarely use her properly. Stanley gives her one of her best roles and the actress makes it a winner. Before the madness began, her character was already losing a bit of herself. She is fighting cancer and had a double mastectomy. Her self-image had been shattered, her sexual desire almost gone, and her career was hanging by a thread. Richardson never over- or under-plays these traits and uses her tone and face to express (and suppress) so many emotions fighting at once for her soul. Hers is the best performance in “Color out of space.”
Julian Hilliard and Brenden Meyer as the younger and older sons, respectively, do solid enough work, but it is Madeline Arthur as Lavinia, who shines. She is a teenager who doesn’t like being isolated from society but finds solace in her Wiccan rituals. As the terrors begin to happen, Lavinia believes her magic can maybe fight this unknown darkness, but, as we learn from reading Lovecraft and living in reality, the unappeasable universe is unaware of the horrors in our lives, and our beliefs cannot save us.
The way Arthur goes from restless daughter to victim to strong “heroine” to fearing she may succumb to her surrounding doom shows an actress who can navigate a heavy role and flawlessly execute her character’s many changes.
Elliot Knight is strong as the surveyor/hydrologist (created from multiple characters in Lovecraft’s short story) who cannot fathom what he is witnessing. His character becomes our voice of reason amongst the ambiant insanity.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Tommy Chong’s small but pivotal role as a reclusive off the grid hippie (imagine that!) who always knew there was something out there that would come for us. His role isn’t comical, and Chong is quite good.
Stanley and Amaris’s screenplay gives their film a contemporary relevance as they reference climate change and the misunderstanding of nature that blends well with the contaminated water angle and the moments where it seems nature itself begins to turn on the family.
But this is not a nature-strikes-back horror film. This is a film about a distortion (both inwardly and outwardly) of one’s sense of reality from an unknown cosmic force.
“The Color Out of Space” is a great intertwining of H.P. Lovecraft’s mind-fuck storytelling with Richard Stanley’s uniquely bizarre filmmaking style. If the finale begins to reach for a philosophical level that is just out of the film’s reach, it doesn’t hurt all that came before. “The Color out of space” is an eerie, effective and extremely well-done film.
This film is in limited release and will hit Blu Ray on February 25th.