REVIEW: Color Out of Space [2020]

Rating: 6 out of 10.
  • Rating: NR | Runtime: 111 minutes
    Release Date: January 24th, 2020 (USA)
    Studio: RLJE Films
    Director(s): Richard Stanley
    Writer(s): Richard Stanley and Scarlett Amaris / H.P. Lovecraft (short story)

A dreamy dream together is reality.

**Potential spoilers**

Arkham’s citizens colloquially describe the Gardner family’s farm as “blasted heath” at the start of H.P. Lovecraft‘s short story The Colour Out of Space. Their reasoning stems from the deathly gray dust covering the area as though a fire had wiped everything but a stone well away. That they’re mentioning it at all is the result of Lovecraft’s nameless narrator’s appearance as a surveyor discerning whether or not a water reservoir should be installed atop what’s grown into a legend those who remember do their best to forget. Old man Pierce is the only person willing to explain what occurred—a first-hand account based on impossible sights and surreal conjecture. Lovecraft’s stranger might quit out of fear, but someone else will surely finish the job regardless.

The author’s decision to tell his tale by proxy lends a real sense of dread and the unknown because we can never be sure about what occurred. The narrator only knows what Pierce tells him and Pierce himself only knows the bits and pieces he saw of the Gardners’ horrific demise. So maybe an explanation exists if someone willing to believe the crazy word of these country folk were able to come and discover it. Or maybe it all happened exactly like Pierce said with a cosmic entity made of color and gas sucking the life from every living thing with which it came into contact. This duality’s mystery therefore helps to convey the inherent terror our collective memories create around cursed places. Our imaginations fill the blanks.

Director Richard Stanley, however, removes this aspect from his cinematic adaptation. His and co-writer Scarlett AmarisColor Out of Space replaces that original external focus with an internal view by moving things from the past (Lovecraft’s narrator visits Arkham fifty years after what occurred) to the present. Hydrologist Ward Phillips (Elliot Knight) is still looking to survey for a reservoir, but nothing “strange” has yet unfolded. The Gardners (Nicolas Cage‘s Nathan and Joely Richardson‘s Theresa) are happily just moved in after the latter’s health scare and their children (Madeleine Arthur‘s Lavinia, Brendan Meyer‘s Benny, and Julian Hilliard‘s Jack) are continuing to adjust to life amongst alpacas. It’s only after Ward’s arrival that a meteorite crashes onto their front yard. So he’s there to observe the ensuing insanity.

For better or worse, this also means we’re present too. Rather than be spooked by tales of invisible forces, luminescent auras, and swaying trees against a windless night sky, we’re thrown in the mix to experience everything up-close ourselves. The mystique is therefore gone and the foreboding nature of our own nightmarish visions makes way for Stanley’s instead. While that’s his prerogative since this is his film, it inevitably forces the story onto a path of generic scares predicated on a need to show more than tell. Nothing is being filtered through perspectives out of our control anymore. If little Jack sees something tangible in the well, so do we. If the entity that should simply be a non-corporeal mist of color takes physical form, we bear witness.

Something is lost in this transition. I don’t think that fact can be denied. Suddenly it’s all just another haunted house film—albeit with science fiction and potentially alien forces at play instead of supernatural ghosts and demons. Rather than a descent into evil, the Gardners are placed onto a path towards madness. This allows for Cage to be his usual manic self as a psychic break coaxes out his father’s domineeringly aggressive persona alongside his own. It also lets violence and rage permeate the family’s otherwise quiet (if unorthodox) existence as time, space, and reality is fractured within the borders of their expansive land. Soon their minds make it feel as though they’re trapped without escape. And without anything concrete to fight, they eventually must fight themselves.

Here’s the thing, though. While a far cry from the atmosphere conjured in Lovecraft’s Amazing Stories entry, Stanley’s Color Out of Space is effective at what it does. Yes he’s traded esoteric uncertainty for visual thrills to prevent us from having to do any heavy lifting (the fun part in my mind), but he does it well enough to appreciate the craft and aesthetic on its own terms. It’s obviously best when Stanley leaves as much to the imagination as possible (those moments when he lets his antagonist be a literal “color out of space”)—making us wonder why he didn’t do so from start to finish—but there are some cool additions worth their inclusion thanks to his interpretation of disintegrating organic material as nuclear radiation.

When things go wild, they do so with unbridled energy and grotesque horror. We ultimately forget Ward exists until his climactic return because we’re rightfully enthralled by the memorable chaos endured by the Gardners—a lot of which comes straight from the short story with an intriguing extension that further rips the fabric of our universe apart. Cage might be having too much fun considering the rest is so darkly somber outside of his performance choices (and a brief role from Tommy Chong), but things do end up evening out to lend his frenzy a melancholic center. And while making Livinia a Wiccan is a pretty on the nose and under-cooked choice, I do get it: Boston and witches. I only wish Stanley avoided such low hanging fruit.

[1] (L-R) Joely Richardson as Theresa Gardner and Nicolas Cage as Nathan Gardner in the sci-fi / horror film, “COLOR OUT OF SPACE,” an RLJE Films release. Photo courtesy of Gustavo Figueiredo.
[2] Madeleine Arthur as Lavinia Gardner in the sci-fi / horror film, “COLOR OUT OF SPACE,” an RLJE Films release. Photo courtesy of Gustavo Figueiredo.
[3] (L-R) Brendan Meyer as Benny Gardner and Elliot Knight as Ward Phillips in the sci-fi / horror film, “COLOR OUT OF SPACE,” an RLJE Films release. Photo courtesy of Gustavo Figueiredo.

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