Taken at face value it’s difficult to describe Richard Stanley’s adaptation of Lovecraft’s The Colour Out Of Space as a good film. The cast grind their way through a frankly abysmal screenplay and, although both Joely Richardson and Madeleine Arthur manage to tease out excellent performances, Nicolas Cage appears to cosplay Nicolas Cage.
Julian Hilliard – the unconvincing child actor that every horror film family seems legally bound to tolerate – is as irritating as he was in The Haunting of Hill House. Lingering camera shots draw the audience’s attention to plot-points – glasses of water, weird hazes in the air and occult reference texts – with all the subtlety of Stanley himself strolling into shot and winking directly at the camera. Even the often-beautiful CGI elements that depict the eponymous Color and the changes it wreaks on reality are undermined by the strangely cheap-looking physical set; the farm’s well, a key element of the story, looks like it was picked up from a garden centre the afternoon shooting started.
And yet, despite all this, I loved it.
Why I loved it is harder to explain.
The simple version is that I loved how overpoweringly 80s it is. Roll up The Thing, From Beyond, The Tommyknockers, Prince of Darkness and Xtro into a phantasmal sphere – a sphere laced with the sharp-angled sigils and neon illumination of the Simon Necronomicon – and you pretty much have the beginnings of Color Out Of Space. The film absolutely reeks of every VHS tape I convinced my mum to rent from our village shop’s meagre collection of sci-fi horror. Yet, unsubtle as Stanley may be, the film never smirks its way into Stranger Things-esque pastiche or knowing nostalgia. Any nods that do exist are purely Lovecraft-related: references to Dunwich and Kingsport, the TV company’s Elder Sign logo, a glimpse of Algernon Blackwood’s The Willows. Color Out Of Space is also, crucially, explicitly not set in the 80s – the few cultural references to bands like Babylon Whores or Arktau Eos make that impossible – but rather evoke an ill-defined yet near-recent past. This is interesting in itself as, when returning to the source material, a reader of Lovecraft’s story will find the following lines: “It was not a matter of old legendry at all, but something within the lifetime of those who spoke. It had happened in the ‘eighties, and a family had disappeared or was killed”.
Lovecraft, of course, means the 1880s but, for a story first published in 1927, it is a time long enough ago to be only partially forgotten, only partially remembered.
Which brings us to the deeper reason why I loved Color Out Of Space: what it takes from Lovecraft and what it leaves behind.
The film opens with a voice-over, an unseen narrator (who we will later learn to be the hydrologist Ward Phillips, played by Elliot Knight) reading the opening lines of Lovecraft’s original story. From this we are introduced to the family of Nathan Gardner (Cage), his name slightly changed from Lovecraft’s more archaic use of the Biblical name “Nahum”, and the farmstead on which they live. Lovecraft’s original story deals heavily with concerns that are repeated again and again in his written work; the perils of taint, corruption and the unwilling abjection of one’s own being. This taint begins, in both narratives, when what appears to be a lump of rock crashes into the Gardners’ land from space and quickly dissolves into the earth.
Yet Stanley’s adaptation diverges from the original in a number of interesting ways.
This is seen most obviously in the replacement of one of the Gardners’ three sons by a daughter – the bored and rebellious Lavinia, a name Lovecraft fans will recognise from The Dunwich Horror – and a perspective shift that concentrates more heavily on the family’s experiences rather than that of Lovecraft’s narrator. Yet there are more subtle changes. Both Lovecraft and Stanley show how the Color’s presence infects the Gardner farm through the appearance of distorted, foul-tasting fruit and vegetables but Lovecraft eventually describes how the “verdure was going grey, and was developing a highly singular quality of brittleness”. This leeching of colour and form continues, slowly creeping to the Gardners’ livestock and then to the Gardners themselves, until the whole area becomes a lifeless, static “blasted heath” of ash and grey dust. Stanley, on the other hand, floods the screen with lurid, writhing colour. Space, time and the creatures that exist within them are revealed not as brittle but rather vulnerable to a vile malleability.
In this way, Color Out Of Space acts as a country-cousin to Alex Garland’s Annihilation, another divisive adaptation of well-loved source material. Both films look at the human response, or failure of response, to devastating environmental corruption and both foreshadow this corruption through depictions of cancer; Theresa Gardner (Richardson) is recovering from mastectomy surgery whereas Annihilation’s Lena is a cellular biologist studying apoptosis, the mechanism which prevents cells from over-proliferating into tumours. Both films also look at what happens when the repugnance of horror shifts into the rapture of terror – Stanley has a new character, the hippy burn-out Ezra, explain how “we all know it’s coming but we can’t get away”, an echo of Nahum Gardner’s original “can’t get away…draws ye…ye know summ’at’s comin’, but t’ain’t no use”. Although it’s a stretch to say that what happens to the Gardners is uplifting, there is a sense of transformation in Color Out Of Space that opposes Lovecraft’s presentation of sheer desolation. Where Lovecraft’s narrator – who, like Ward Phillips, is there to survey for a new reservoir – witnesses the slow, entropic collapse of the hill country west of Arkham, Stanley’s film becomes ever more delirious and frenzied, ramping up into a self-annihilating vortex of alien confusion.
Color Out Of Space, like Annihilation, also relies heavily on sound-design to support its more overtly visual elements. Colin Stetson’s haunting soundtrack sweeps from easily-identified piano melodies through to genuinely unpleasant skeins of noise that skitter and twist, spiralling out of his modified saxophone like the Color’s groping tentacles.
Color Out Of Space is a flawed film, perhaps irrevocably so for some viewers. Its humour often feels forced – the Gardners’ choice of alpacas as livestock, for example, comes across as the production crew having brainstormed “most ridiculous animals” – and some of the admittedly disturbing set-pieces borrow maybe too heavily from other, better films. Nicolas Cage is relatively restrained for a major portion of the film but ramps up through the gears pretty rapidly in the final act so if his wild-eyed, blood-spattered performance in Mandy left you cold then you may well feel the same here.
Yet despite all this Richard Stanley manages to cut to the heart of Lovecraft’s original intent and describe not simply a colour that comes out from space but one that is from literally outside of space, beyond what we understand space to be. The final scenes of the film, where reality begins to smear like oil on glass, perfectly depict one of the simplest but most chilling phrases in Lovecraft’s original work: “There was something wrong with the sunlight”.
In fact, flawed as it is, Color Out Of Space is one of the best cinematic adaptations of Lovecraft’s own, deeply flawed writing.