Color Out of Space
(SPOILERS) Richard Stanley returns to features after 27 years (without a finished one) and gives us a Lovecraftian horror, his first of three planned adaptations. Responses have been generous, but I quickly found Color Out of Space teetering on the brink of the tedium that comes with escalating horror chaos devoid of suspense or turns of plot. We know what is happening here – madness unbound, physical, mental, psychic – and we’ve seen Cage’s brand of unbound lunacy more than enough times already. Add to that a picture heavily indebted to John Carpenter’s The Thing by way of gross-out familial descent into hell, and there’s something oddly pedestrian about the whole affair, despite it being clear that, in his time out, Stanley has lost none of his flair as a director.
That said, Color Out of Space is a reminder that, for all his acclaim as an unjustly-shat-on auteur, Stanley is essentially a shlock merchant. It’s writ large in Hardware, and it’s there in Dust Devil’s less-polished aspects. Stanley wants to gross you out, just in less overtly geeky way than a James Gunn or a Robert Rodriguez. Because he also wants to indulge his passion for occultism and any other obsessive compulsion he can weave into the mix.
You can see that in the trajectory of daughter Lavinia (Madeleine Arthur), introduced performing a ritual both to fix her mother’s cancer (Theresa, played by Joely Richardson, has undergone a double mastectomy) and get out of her boring rural idyll. The triangle is front and centre – or behind; it’s on Lavinia’s hair clasp, it’s the shape of the attic window Theresa uses for her work space – here. Traditionally, it’s a symbol of the higher path, per the apex. But there’s doubt over Lavinia’s purity of motive. She can be a bit of a brat, and while she states that she never performs curses, brother Benny (Brendan Meyer) is less certain, suggesting the arrival of the meteor is a “result of your little ritual”. Plus, she likes burgers: “I know it’s mechanically retrieved, but it tastes like heaven”.
The suggestion that Lavinia may in some way be responsible for the resultant disintegration of her family – literally and psychologically – reaches its thematic conclusion when she gives up trying to escape and informs hydrologist Ward (Elliot Knight) that she belongs there. Stanley, as a self-confessed dabbler in such arts, incantations and indeed curses, is likely well aware of the consequences of such actions, just as he is doubtless drawing on the loss of his mother in the depiction of Theresa. Of course, there’s far more in the mix, with Nathan (Cage) going expectedly looney tunes – “Dad took too much acid back in the hippy days”, substances doubtless being another Stanley touchstone – and the very unpleasant fusing of Theresa and youngest son Jack (Julian Hilliard). And that’s without the alpaca homage to The Thing.
The thing is, though, none of this is especially affecting. It’s frequently gross and grotesque, and there’s the occasional genuine shock value moment – Theresa cutting her fingers off – but Stanley makes the mistake of thinking one can simply pile on tumult and torment and expect to sustain narrative tension. Any engagement with the picture leaks away with the increasingly CG-infused light show accompanying the escalation of excess.
All this carnage wreaked on body and soul – although, we must be careful of the latter, given Lovecraft’s professed atheism – is fully in keeping with the author’s ethos and his’s 1927 short story. Which may explain the positive notices. That, or welcoming Stanley in from the wilderness. Rejecting the world within, Lovecraft’s terror comes from without, the stars, making him one of science-fiction literature’s forefathers. Albeit, irretrievably bound up with the horror/occult genre.
Lovecraft’s destructive force arrives from space and is inimical to human existence; this is a nihilistic, materialist vision of isolated and impinged-upon fragile corporeality, one that straddles Stanley insertions, such as allopathic definitions of disease, atomic terror (“It’s probably a nuclear strike”), escape through self-medication (the “imaginatively” cast Tommy Chong’s Ezra) and the microscopic, invasive force (“They came on the rock… It’s in the static. It’s in the moisture. Up is down. Fast is slow. What’s in here is out there, and what’s out there is in here now. Comprendo?”)
This basic concept has been used elsewhere, of course. Die, Monster, Die! (1965) was a direct adaptation. The recent Annihilation (2018) riffed on Lovecraft – as well as Tarkovsky – to underwhelming effect. And Creepshow (1982) found Stephen King undergoing a similar transformation, albeit more chlorophyllic in The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrrill, an adaptation of his short story Weeds. Itself heavily influenced by Color Out of Space. And then there’s Evolution (2001), probably the most maligned of the lot, but probably the most watchable, in which David Duchovny has to deal with the effects of a meteorite landing in Arizona. All conform, by and large, to standard meteor theory.
The best parts of Color Out of Space are probably Arthur and Meyer’s performances, since you’re actually interested in what happens to them up to a certain point (namely, when the former begins etching symbols on herself with a Stanley knife, and the latter decides to rescue their dog from the well, the one it isn’t in). Knight is a complete non-presence, unfortunate since he’s the hand-holding character (as the survivor/narrator).
Cage… I like Cage in the right material, but my response here was similar to Mandy. The whole of Color Out of Space is too much, which means Cage being too much, trying for Clark Griswald on ketamine, exacerbates the problem. I’m pleased for Stanley that he’s working again, but I’m not sure he should be spending his resumed career exclusively making Lovecraft movies (he wants to do The Dunwich Horror next). Either way, best of luck to him, if we all survive the real Lovecraftian apocalypse.