H. P. Lovecraft, writer of weird and horror fiction, creator of Cthulu mythos and widely revered/reviled literary figure. Richard Stanley, director of “Incidents in an Expanding Universe,” “Hardware,” “Brave” and, originally, “The Island of Dr. Moreau” before powerful and irresistible forces wrested that particular beast from his grasp. Nicolas Cage, Oscar-winning actor, prolific performer, butt of many a joke. These three cultural icons come together in Color Out Of Space, an utterly batshit cinematic experience that takes its premise seriously in a way that is deliriously entertaining.
Beginning with an ominous, but not overdone, voiceover from Ward (Elliot Knight, “Billionaire Ransom”), Stanley’s camera glides through forest cloaked in mist. A sense of mystery and trepidation is easily conjured, but without any overt threat or sense of disruption. Into this wilderness comes the figure of Ward, a hydrologist investigating the area for a future reservoir. The intruder quickly encounters something different, as Lavinia Gardner (Madeleine Arthur, “Big Eyes”) performs a ritual drawn from the Necromicon, an occult grimoire that appears in many a Lovecraft tale. From here, the film follows Lavinia back to the homestead of her family. The Gardners in the woods (pun possibly intentional, who knows?) are a stereotypical nuclear family, and over the course of the film try to deal with forces far beyond their understanding. Nonetheless, the ideology of the all-American family persists, propelled largely by blinkered and often destructive masculinity.
At the center of the dynamic between social expectations and inexplicable reality is the patriarch Nathan (Cage, “Running with the Devil”), and his insistence on certain standards of behavior. His wife Theresa (Joely Richardson, “The Turning”), daughter Lavinia, older son Benny (Brendan Meyer, “All These Small Moments”) and young son Jack (Julian Hilliard, “Greener Grass”) are all affected by his insistence, that they initially meet with tired resignation. The family are an interesting blend of old and new. Nathan is something of a farmer by default, living on his father’s ranch despite his apparent earlier refusal to do so. Yet the farming is eccentric, consisting of four alpacas (no, really) that he milks and shears, as well as raising tomatoes and other vegetables. Stanley suggests, but does not clarify, that Nathan is a bad farmer, committed to the idea of being an all-American man who makes his living with his own two hands. However, Nathan seems equally committed to berating his son for not doing all the work. Theresa is more likely the main breadwinner, as she works in stock trading. Her work, however, is marginalized, her computer shut away in the attic and her consultations conducted over Skype. The sequences in the attic isolate Theresa, both through dim lighting and sharp angles in the set design, and the space proves an important site of isolation later in the film. In addition, Theresa’s repeated frustration over an intermittent internet connection indicates her struggle with their isolated location. Benny is somewhat underdeveloped beyond being a stoner and therefore a disappointment, while Jack’s wide-eyed innocence provides an unfiltered wonder on the increasingly strange events of the narrative.
The empathetic center of Color Out Of Space, partially by default but also design, is Lavinia. The ritual of her introduction indicates her rebelliousness but also her compassion. As the film progresses, Lavinia’s distress provides the emotional core of the movie, as the isolated family unit encounter two distinct outsiders. The first outsider is Ward, representing modernity and science, but tellingly he is not a figure of authority. Ward certainly investigates the water table and conducts experiments, but he finds nothing conclusive. His attempts at explanations are unconvincing and the film knows it, allowing the viewer to speculate further. Pleasingly, Ward is far from patronizing or arrogant, rather he represents the attempt to understand. He therefore serves as a figure through which the viewer can project themselves into the scenario. Faced with something very strange, we would likely try to figure out an explanation, relying on our established knowledge and science. But when the object of inquiry is beyond our experience and understanding, what then?
This inexplicability comes from the other outsider encountered by the Gardner family, a mysterious cosmic object. Lovecraft’s work is often described as “cosmic horror,” humanity but an insignificant speck in the universe where greater forces can easily overwhelm us. The cosmic object out of space may be a meteorite, an egg, a capsule, but it is never clear. Nor, indeed, is what follows its arrival, both in narrative and visual terms. The viewer is unclear what is happening, and the visual field changes in unexpected ways. Great bursts of color with no clear source spill across the frame, tendrils of energy snake across the screen and envelop objects. As the film progresses, the distortion effect increases, time and space no longer presented in a straightforward fashion. At times, these distortions lead to outright horror, parts of the film echoing “John Carpenter’s The Thing” as well as Alex Garland’s “Annihilation.” Other cinematic echoes include “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” as well as “Evolution,” Color Out Of Space splicing these elements into a haunting, eerie and often terrifying smorgasbord of psychological and body horror.
This reviewer had the pleasure of attending the film followed by a Q&A with the director at the wonderful Prince Charles Cinema in London. During the Q&A, Stanley described horror cinema as being his salvation and the root of his liberal values. Stanley’s beliefs may seem an odd juxtaposition with Lovecraft’s conservative views on race and gender, especially since the director described his adaptation as slavishly faithful aside from updating Lovecraft’s tale “The Colour Out Of Space.” But that very updating is indicative of the malleability of Lovecraft’s work, and the ability of audiences to create a variety of readings. Audience responses to Color Out Of Space were strange, as despite not having a comedic tone there were instances of laughter, others of pure shock, and some of total wonder. Come the conclusion, the viewer may be unsure what to think, beyond the feeling that they have witnessed something very strange indeed.