Marrying old-school tension with fresh and fun technology, Color Out of Space is a blast.
Marrying old-school tension with fresh and fun technology, Richard Stanley’s Color Out of Space is a blast. While the gothic-manor-in-the-deep-woods setting will be familiar, what takes place there is anything but, which is saying something considering that the film is based on a nearly 100-year-old short story that has been adapted for the screen a number of times already.
Based on H.P. Lovecraft’s 1927 horror story of essentially the same name, Color Out of Space follows the Gardner family, who have recently moved to a farm in the ancient woods outside Lovecraft’s fictional hamlet of Arkham, Massachusetts. The family is wealthy thanks to the finance job of matriarch Theresa, who continues to work with her big-city clients via the internet. This gives her husband, Nathan (Nicolas Cage), the freedom to drink bourbon and raise a herd of alpacas in the barn, while their teenage daughter, Lavinia (Madeleine Arthur), rides horses and performs Wiccan rituals in the forest. Sons Benny (Brendan Meyer) and little Jack (Julian Hilliard) spend their time stargazing and playing with the family dog, Sam.
Things take a startling turn when a meteorite crashes into the Gardner’s front yard in a flash of magenta light. The meteorite begins to exert a supernatural influence upon the Gardners, affecting each member of the family differently. Nathan’s sense of smell becomes hypersensitive, while Theresa falls into trances. Lavinia loses time while Jack begins to see imaginary friends out by the well. And Benny can’t seem to keep track of the alpacas.
The tension throughout the first half of the film, as it becomes clear that the meteorite is not changing the Gardners for the better, is very well-executed. Despite having not made a narrative feature film since being famously fired from The Island of Dr. Moreau in 1996, Stanley’s skills are obviously still intact. The plot never stagnates, but we’re given room to breathe in between the increasingly out-there otherworldly events.
These supernatural occurrences look fantastic. Though obviously shot on a restricted budget, Stanley makes up for that by using his resources in interesting ways. The emphasis for the special effects is on distortion and on bright, eye-burning shades of pink and purple. This psychedelic approach works perfectly with the subject matter and keeps the viewer on edge, as the bursts of light and color are occasionally almost too much for the eyes.
While the film hits its marks visually and narratively, there are a number of issues that hold Color Out of Space back from greatness. The most obvious issue is Cage’s odd performance, which makes the suspension of disbelief nearly impossible as we’re constantly brought back to Cage acting like a parody of himself. When Nathan is meant to be going through horrible mood swings, Cage appears to be attempting a poor Donald Trump impression and it is very distracting.
And while the tension is one of the film’s strengths, Stanley too often builds this tension in cheap ways, specifically with regards to killing animals. Going after the family dog or cat is an easy and gimmicky way of triggering audience emotion, and Stanley consistently doubles down on it in off-putting fashion.
Finally, there is the question of whether or not we needed another strict Lovecraft adaptation. Lovecraft was racist and xenophobic, and celebrating him, particularly at this point of time, triggers ambivalent feelings at best. Why not rather approach cosmic themes or ancient monsters through an original story or by looking for more obscure inspirations? Even if we’re separating the art from the artist, Lovecraft has inspired so many films in the past it would have been better to see something fresh and more reflective of modern times.
Still, Color Out of Space is well worth your time, particularly for fans of creature features, cosmic horror and slow-burn tension. It’s not a jump-in-your-seat kind of fright flick, but it is genuinely unsettling for a large portion of its runtime before becoming a (still-satisfying) psychedelic gore-fest.