I have a small connection with Richard Stanley which makes viewing Color Out of Space feel like a strangely touching moment. Stanley’s new film, based on the short story by H.P. Lovecraft, is his first feature film to be produced since his firing from the infamously troubled remake of The Island of Dr. Moreau, a film that was eventually released on August 23, 1996, which also just so happens to be the very day that I was born. With The Island of Dr. Moreau being the only film that was released that day, it feels a bit too on the nose that a poorly-crafted, genuinely ridiculous B-movie would be the film that represents my birth. This oddly makes watching a new film by Richard Stanley feel like a full-circle moment.
Color Out of Space, on the other hand, feels more like a project that has been given the time and energy to feel out what exactly it wants to be. With the advent of the internet age and the new empire that is independent film production, this feels the time when Stanley is really going to get his chance to shine as a filmmaker, free of the constraints that studio filmmaking, once the only way to feasibly produce visually ambitious films, placed upon him. Working with a company like Elijah Wood’s SpectreVision, which encourages genre filmmakers of all ilk to let their freak flag fly, feels almost like too perfect of a match-up for Stanley’s return to feature filmmaking.
And with time, care, and legitimate vision, Color Out of Space is a beauty of an extraterrestrial sort. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen before, and, despite my own familiarity with Lovecraft’s short story, it still held me on the edge of my seat by effectively emulsifying its style and substance into one fluid being.
In the small town of Arkham, Massachusetts, on a large lakeside estate, the Gardner family lives a quirky, if somewhat uneventful life. Their internet is slow, their teenage children (Madeleine Arthur and Brendan Mayer) are distant, and family patriarch, Nathan (Nicolas Cage), can’t make a good joke to save his life, and not for lack of trying. His wife, Theresa (Joely Richardson), is cancer-stricken, but is still dedicated to being a present wife, mother, and stockbroker, despite their internet strife causing her professional strain. One night, the Gardner estate is descended upon by a glowing pastel-hued asteroid that emanates almost entrancingly radioactive energy. Soon after, the Gardner family begin to experience surreal and disturbing terrors in and around their property, blending both their physical and psychological fears into manifestations of horror.
It’s hard to assign the typical “It’s *insert movie title* meets *insert another movie title*” critic trope to make for a flashy pull quote because Color Out of Space is simply unlike anything else I’ve ever seen before in a horror film. It has such contrasting tones which should butt heads with each other, but oddly blend together in a seamless and almost unnoticeable manner. On one side, Color Out of Space is a hammy, over-the-top B-movie that gives Cage limitless room to be as wild and batshit crazy as he wants to be, but on the other hand, this is also an incredibly engaging film on both an emotional and psychological level that connects you to the characters and their struggles in a way that is completely unexpected for a film that is so stylized and self-referential. You can’t really call this film an ‘80s Throwback, though it may seem to be just that. Even when it does use a lot of the stylings of some of the better films of the era, it also creates and carves out new ways to frighten the audience without having to use excessive jump scares or tension tropes that only leave viewers feeling cheated and manipulated. If there’s one thing you can’t call Color Out of Space, it’s lazy.
Nicolas Cage, having learned his brand and how to capitalize on it, did a fabulous job in picking this project as one that could showcase his talents as an actor (who I believe is *genuinely* insane). It’s an odd decision to turn a suburban father archetype into a performance that I can only describe as “Christian Bale doing Alec Baldwin doing Donald Trump,” but instead of hampering the film’s quality, it gives the film a unique edge that works (whether this was deliberate or not is still beyond me, though). This is Cage’s show, and despite the super overplayed hand, it fits really wonderfully with Stanley’s style as a filmmaker. This isn’t a calm, quiet horror film à la The Witch, but a rambunctious, colorful, unsettling horror story that never takes a moment to breathe after its first act. It might feel a bit too uncanny for its own good during the film’s setup, but it turns into something oddly endearing and genuinely frightening come the film’s climax. It’s a compliment to the surreal vibe that the film already exudes, and one that blurs the line between reality and fantasy in quite an effective, but also highly enjoyable, way.
For a film with only a $12 million budget and no studio support, it is a marvel to look at. Even from the get, the film evokes a dreamlike feeling of haziness and uncanniness that can’t be shaken. Something is just a bit off in how the characters interact with each other, and how the world seems to function around them. There’s almost a case to be made that the film’s titular color that came from out of space didn’t really do much at all and that the characters have lived in a gradually worsening nightmare the entire time. Yet, it’s when the supernatural shit hits the extraterrestrial fan that things get really gorgeous. This is not a film that wants you to revel in ambiguity and what the audience doesn’t see but forces you to view the film’s monsters, both literal and figurative, in their full glory.
In a personal view, I believe that if you aren’t talking Lovecraftian horror, I don’t wanna talk, and I *really* want to talk to Stanley after seeing this. While the film itself lacks subtlety by striving to be a balls-to-the-wall experience of sight and sound, there’s a delicate subtlety in Stanley’s ability to accurately craft Lovecraftian creatures into the genuinely horrific beings they are. Video games of the past like Silent Hill and novels like Phantoms by Dean Koontz really carve out the sub-terrestrial, genuinely feasible creatures of Lovecraft’s own hell in such an unsettling fashion that they create a feeling that is as much unsettlingly disturbing as it is genuinely terrifying. It’s the secret pinchers and cavities of these monstrosities that we’ve come to fear from creatures living at the bottom of our own ocean or close-ups of common household creatures such as termites that hit home for us as viewers and subsequently grounds the film. It understands the source material, even if it completely reinvents the story it tells on the page. This shows that an adaption doesn’t have to be word-for-word for it to be successful, but comes more so from an artist’s understanding of another artist’s work beyond just the physical level that makes something like Color Out of Space so successful as a horror film.
Of course, in a film as ambitious as this, not everything works perfectly, even if it comes close with a great majority. The film could’ve improved from taking itself a bit more seriously in its first act, if only to provide a more effective misdirect when things go south down the line. There are also characters that I wish got more screen time and depth, especially when the terror kicks into full gear. Q’orianka Kilcher’s feisty young mayor with big political plans is a wasted arc of a very underrated actress that could’ve worked itself into the story quite well had it desired to. There’s also a sub-plot involving a squatter living on the Gardner’s land played by Tommy Chong that feels criminally underexplained, if only because it could’ve given the film an even bigger foundation of general kookiness to eventually chase with a genuinely unnerving payoff that just doesn’t happen.
There’s a rowdy midnight movie ready to be unleashed upon stoned 20-somethings at Alamo Drafthouses all across America a few times a year for the next 30 years in Color Out of Space, but beyond the neon pastel façade of Nicolas Cage ham is a film that bears a closer look at all of the educated and unique decisions that Stanley makes as a filmmaker to completely upend the conventions of a very enjoyable type of horror film that has fallen to the wayside for quieter, more directly relatable horror. What Stanley does with the film is that he finds the depth of the latter category of trendy indie horror and combines it with his own style of just being the absolute most. It’s a film that shows that it can be fun and over-the-top without having to sacrifice character development and emotional connection in the process.
In theaters, on VOD, and digital January 24th, 2020.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.