(This article was originally published on Ginger Nuts of Horror in March 2020)
Me; Ooh. It’s refreshing to see an understated performance by Nicolas Cage this time.
*20 minutes later*
Me: Oh, there we are. Normality resumed.
Note: It physically hurts to type ‘color’ and upsets me to see so many red lines in Microsoft Word, so I’ll be referring to the film as “Colour out of space” throughout. Pedants be damned.
The first time I came across director Richard Stanley, it was more through his notoriety than by watching one of his films. In 1990, he wrote and directed Hardware, a British science fiction horror about a reactivated war robot wreaking havoc in an apartment block. It was a bold debut, with a gritty punk/gothic aesthetic thanks to its cameos from Carl McCoy (from those talcum-powder dusted Goth cowboys Fields of the Nephilim), Iggy Pop and Lemmy.
I learned of it due to the fact I was an avid read of British comic 2000AD at the time, and it’s publishers – Fleetway – were suing the film-makers. Turned out that Hardware bore more than a passing resemblance to a short story called SHOK! that featured in the 1981 Judge Dredd Annual. Much as how Harlan Ellison didn’t hesitate to sue James Cameron for unashamedly stealing the idea for Terminator from his Outer Limits script for Soldier, 2000AD didn’t dither in doing the same with Stanley.
Eventually, much like with Harlan, it got sorted. The hurt parties got their credits (and maybe a little bit of cash, too) and all was well. Hardware went on to achieve a cult following, as did his next movie, Dust Devil.
And then Stanley began work on The Island of Dr Moreau, the adaptation of the 1896 H.G. Wells novel. It was a somewhat troubled production, and Richard Stanley was fired from the job within a few days of principal photography. The entire production history is a catalogue of disasters; Bruce Willis was forced to drop out due to his divorcing Demi Moore, actor Rob Morrow quit, and Marlon Brando refused to learn his lines.
And, other than the odd music video, documentary, short film, and a segment (The Mother of Toads) in the horror anthology The Theatre Bizarre, Stanley went very quiet - until it was announced that he was working on adapting H.P. Lovecraft’s Colour out of Space, in which he takes the helm of both director and writer.
For those unfamiliar with the source material by HP Lovecraft, The Colour out of Space is a short story from 1927. In it, our unnamed narrator (a surveyor) endeavours to uncover the secrets behind a shunned area of Arkham known as “the blasted heath”. Piecing together the facts with the aid of a local, he discovers what happened when a meteorite crashed into a farmer’s lands in June of 1882, and what unfolded in the months to come.
The movie – produced by Elijah Wood’s SpectreVision - unsurprisingly, as with most successful Lovecraft adaptations - takes the setting to the modern day, where we meet Nathan Gardner (Cage), his wife Theresa (Joely Richardson) and their three children, Lavinia (Madeline Arthur), Benny (Brendan Mayer) and youngest Jack. Nathan has inherited his dead father’s farm and feels like he’s living in the old man’s shadow – he’s a daddy with daddy issues. He farms Alpacas because, despite being a family man in this, he’s still quirky, goddamnit.
The surveyor character still exists, after a fashion. He’s Ward Phillips, a hydrologist come to investigate the water in the valley, and it’s through him we meet Nathan and his family.
Nathan’s wife Theresa works with stocks and shares as long as the satellite dish grants her internet access, and is recovering from cancer. Lavinia is a goth with purple hair (who owns the same printing of the Necronomicon that I do) and Benny is a stoner. Jack, the youngest, is played by Julian Hillard – who, after appearing in Penny Dreadful and The Haunting of Hill House must surely be used to dealing with this shit by now.
We’ve no sooner met them when a meteor lands slap bang in the middle of their garden.
Nothing good ever comes from falling meteorites in movies. They either carry a virulent infection that’ll turn you into a walking pile of moss (Creepshow; The lonesome death of Jordy Verrill), a ravenous amorphous acidic jelly that can only be defaulted by a youthful Steve McQueen (The Blob) or a swarm of malevolent alien parasites (Slither).
Colour out of Space is no exception.
The meteor brings something with it - much like the Shimmer in Garland’s Annihilation, it changes everything around it – plants, creatures – even time and reality itself. Its effect appears as a colour, a hue that begins to bleed into everything. In the story, the titular colour of space is unknown to our spectrum, something truly alien and unseen by mortal eyes. Realising the obvious difficulties and complexities involved with inventing a brand new colour, Stanley has instead opted for a bright and distinctive Gaviscon™ pink.
Kudos to Stanley who – in his absence from horror – has lost none of his knack for visual flair. Some of the shots in Colour out of Space are outright beautiful. Purple and lurid pink skies shift and warp like a skin of oil on a body of water, and heat-haze clouds of lilac and amethyst light shimmer and dart through the trees.
Odd plants begin to fill the garden, and the farm starts producing a bounty of crops – but the harvest is bloated, misshapen and inedible. The effect begins to seep not just into the land, but the consciousness of the Gardners, the colours allure both distracting and confusing.
As hinted at the start of this review, it was pleasing to see a relatively reserved performance from Cage this time round – at least at first. However, as the effect of the Colour takes hold, his sanity begins to fray. His performance is by no means as manic or as intense as his role in Mandy, (to take a recent example) but Stanley allows him to get on with what Nicolas Cage does best.
You don’t hire Nicolas Cage if you want ‘restrained’.
Stanley does an excellent job at building up the impending sense of unease and dread before the film hurtles kicking and screaming into fully-fledged body horror – including one particular set of scenes involving Theresa and Jack which will remain embedded in my psyche for some time to come.
There are heavy elements of The Thing here, especially a later scene pertaining to the Alpaca herd. Ultimately though, the film is a little too keen to show you in too great a detail what was better left implied. When Stanley is restrained to just glimpses and the sounds of horror – some of which are truly disturbing - the film works a lot better than when you’re presented with some slightly-better-than-adequate puppet or CGI work. The film is far better when it’s hinting at horror, and far less effective when it’s being a monster movie.
Lovecraft is notoriously difficult to adapt to the cinema, with themes of existentialism and cosmic dread not translating particularly well to the screen. Considering much of his writing is about things that are indescribable and beyond mortal ken and comprehension, this often translates into little more than a CGI multi-tentacled beastie. There are exceptions to the rule; Reanimator works because it’s a lot less ambitious than other works by Lovecraft, and From Beyond works – for all its daftness - thanks to some excellent practical effects work. And Barbara Crampton in a basque.
Loose adaptations – or stories which could be said to be more inspired by Lovecraft’s themes than direct translations – seem to fare way better. The Thing beautifully captures the elements of paranoia and cosmic horror, as do Event Horizon, In The Mouth of Madness and The Endless. Even Prometheus, for all its many flaws, is essentially At the Mountains of Madness.
That said though, Colour out of Space stands strong, as is one of the better direct Lovecraft adaptations. When Richard Stanley restrains himself, it’s very strong. It’s not without its flaws, but it’s a satisfying watch – and it’s always good to see a film daring to stand alone and not set itself up for an obvious franchise flood of sequels.
It was Time Out magazine that broke the story about the connection between Stanley’s Hardware and 2000AD’s SHOK! and you can read how at https://londonhollywood.wordpress.com/2013/12/17/shia-labeoufs-plagiarism-scandal-and-how-history-repeats-itself/
There’s an excellent documentary about the troubled production of The Island of Dr. Moreau, and the Wikipedia article about it can be found at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lost_Soul:_The_Doomed_Journey_of_Richard_Stanley%27s_Island_of_Dr._Moreau
The story Colour out of Space can be found in the H.P. Lovecraft archive at http://www.hplovecraft.com/writings/texts/fiction/cs.aspx