If you’ve ever dabbled in the morbid or macabre, then chances are you’ve come across the works of H.P. Lovecraft. His tales of the strange, the weird, the supernatural, and the horrific have lingered in the cultural zeitgeist with the most notable contribution being that of Cthulhu, a cosmic entity slumbering in the deep sea. The creature, like many others in Lovecraft’s stories, center on a thing of great power with little-to-no interest in humanity. One could posit from this that the horrors within his tales don’t come just from the terrible violence contained within or even from the inclusion of the occult, but from the notion that there is something grander, something more dangerous than man out in the universe, and it is entirely indifferent to our survival. How does one live, then, with that knowledge? How can man grapple with the notion of its own fragility in an apathetic universe? This thought permeates throughout director Richard Stanley’s (The Otherworld) adaptation of Lovecraft’s 1927 short story The Colour Out of Space, a film that is as wildly intense and unsettling as it is beautiful and confusing.
If you’re interested in a spoiler-free Color Out of Space experience, jump over to EoM contributor Hunter Heilman’s theatrical review.
Nathan Gardner (Nicolas Cage), his wife Theresa (Joely Richardson), and their three kids Lavinia (Madeleine Arthur), Benny (Brendan Meyer), and Jack (Julian Hilliard) live a peaceful life off the beaten path in the New England countryside. Nathan runs the house and garden at his childhood homestead, while Lavinia and Benny help tend to the alpaca livestock, and Theresa runs a stockbroker business out of their attic. Theirs is your average nuclear family until a mysterious meteor giving off a strange iridescent pink color crashes on their front lawn, changing them psychologically and physically forever.
As far as adaptations go, Color Out of Space is fairly impressive. Stanley and co-writer Scarlett Amaris (The Otherworld) take Lovecraft’s more suggestive in nature tale and makes it entirely explicit. As in the original short, there is a surveyor in the form of Elliot Knight’s Ward, a hydrologist in the adaptation come to study the water table around the Gardner’s home, who functions as the reader’s proxy in the short. Here, though, Ward is less significant to the tale than the Gardners themselves, as everything that happens to the family occurs independently from any of Ward’s actions and we watch it all first-hand, rather than as depicted from secondary sources in the short. There is also a purported “crazy person” as in the original tale, but this time it’s Tommy Chong’s ex-electrician Ezra, who’s far more in-tune with nature and man’s influence on it than most presume. The use of Ward and Ezra allow the existential dread present around the Gardner home to expand its perimeter, even if no direct danger appears. In a Lovecraft tale, danger is omnipresent no matter your spatial relationship to the epicenter and Stanley and Amaris leverage Ward and Ezra as the pivot point to the real terror of Color: an apathetic unstoppable force barreling into humanity. What does it matter how far Ward or Ezra get, what does it matter how much they know, if nothing can prevent the expansion? Even without observing the terrible fate awaiting the Gardners, there is something truly chilling in the notion of inevitability.
As for the Gardners themselves, Stanley and Amaris go to great pains in filling in the gaps as they translate Lovecraft’s short as much of the story is told second-hand. Rather than hearing about the aftermath on the farm, the audience watches the disintegration of the once loving family. What once was becomes prey to something beyond themselves and they are without any means of preventing it, slowing it, or stopping it. Forget the notion of a silent slasher (Halloween) or unrelenting machine (Terminator), the force in Color seems intent on populating Earth and, in so doing, terraforming every living thing into something familiar to it. What may frustrate some, though it may fall in line with Lovecraft’s style, is that the living force infecting the Gardner home isn’t explored or explained in any way beyond what was just expressed. Instead, the audience is shown, via the Gardners’ individual reactions to it, just how ferocious and cold the entity is. Each member of the family is tweaked or twisted just enough to be off based on what they were each doing prior to the meteoric impact. For Nathan, this means a terrible devotion to his wife as they were becoming amorous for the first time in six months. Conversely, young Jack was sitting in the hallway, scared first by the thunder and lightning heralding the impact and, second, absolutely terrified as he took in the full aura of the force as it crashed. This translates into several disquieting moments as the film builds toward its inevitable, anarchic, and frenzied ending.
There’s one moment in the film that pulls together everything you need to know about whether you can handle Color Out of Space. As the family watches television, Theresa is in the kitchen taking a turn at making dinner. What should be an innocent moment of familial bonding turns sick as composer Colin Stetson’s quiet, drifting score suddenly turns toxic, a rhythmic ticking going along with each chop of Theresa’s blade on the cutting board, the camera showing us her slightly disengaged attention. She moves further down the carrots, the violin strings picking up, the ticking growing faster, the camera shifting between her hands and her face, the music growing in distortion, as the audience knows what’s to come. And it does. And it equally happens as you expect and as you don’t. There are several moments of bodily transfiguration in Color including self-harm and mutation, but none are as stressful upon the audience as this singular moment. It’s played beautifully by Richardson, directed wonderfully by Stanley, edited superbly by Brett W. Bachman, with Stetson’s score aiming things to a level of anxiety beyond anyone’s comfort. If you think this is deeply unsettling, just wait.
This isn’t to suggest that the film is perfect or, on the whole, terrifying. Though several of the characters do comment on a shift in temporal consistency, there’re a few moments where the story shifts from dead of night to daytime and back merely by changing locations. It doesn’t seem clear if that’s to imply that the Gardner estate doesn’t experience time the same as the rest of the world or that it’s just incidental. Either way, the lack of definition for cause stands out. Similarly, while the performances from the cast are particularly engaging, the one that stands out the most comes from Cage. After 2018’s divinely phantasmagorical Mandy, in which Cage headlines, there’s a reasonable believe that he would bring something similarly dark and dreadful to Nathan as the character goes more insane. Instead, the performance is perfectly matched for Nathan’s normal fatherly persona, but, when it switches to madness, becomes more silly and lacking any kind of deep pathos. He’s a devoted family man whose version of insanity is less Jack Torrance’s all-work-and-no-play and more Alec Baldwin as President Trump. It’s strange and off-putting and not in a way that fits the interstellar terror on screen.
However you feel about Stanley’s adaptation, there’s no denying it’s an incredible spectacle. For this home release review, RLJE Films supplied a standard DVD which was displayed on a 2013 Panasonic Plasma and the up-converting revealed no distortions or color bleeding. So much of capturing the feel of Color is in nailing the pinkish-purples present in the foliage, the shimmering praying mantis-like creature that hatches from the meteor, and the specter-like tendrils of light emanating from a variety of unknown sources which the DVD presents perfectly. One of the issues with streaming is a problem with compression, leading to an aura-effect around any sequence staged in the dark and a character with a flashlight, so be mindful of this if you consider streaming options as none of this was visible at any point in the presentation. If the visuals are the thing bringing you in, either for a revisit or for the first time, then don’t feel like you have to pick up the 4K UHD/Blu-ray Combo Pack. That said, if you have the tech and desire, Color Out of Space is bound to dazzle in a format higher than standard 480p, up-converted or not.
Photo-sensitivity warning: Several sequences in the film feature flashing lightings in a variety of patterns. If any of these are triggers for you, be advised.
Now, if you’ve come this far, it’s because you want to deepen your knowledge of what to expect with the home release. Gratefully, RLJE Films put in some work here so that the little bit include feels significant. For fans of the production design and aesthetic, there is a photo gallery of over 20 pictures to look at. For those looking for more out of the actually scenes in Color beyond the aesthetic, there are nearly 13 minutes of footage containing deleted, extending, and alternate takes. For the most part, you can tell why these were cut but they are interesting nonetheless. For instance, there’s an alternate sequence where Ward visits Mayor Tooma (Q’orianka Kilcher) to warn her about a potential contamination to the water table. In the theatrical release, the audience can hear her yelling off-screen before he enters the meeting whereas that same dialogue is delivered directly to Ward with less volume and more menace. While it does give the audience more to understand the motives of the mayor, it does little to service the pacing. The real reason fans of Color are going to seek out the home release, though, comes in the form of the 20-minute mini-documentary “Hot Pink Horror: The Making of Color Out of Space.” Here, second unit director Jonas Govaerts interviews Stanley, principle cast, and the producers about the making of the film. Wonderfully structured, “Hot Pink Horror” takes the audience through why this story was selected, how Stanley became director, how Cage became involved, why they shot the film in Sintra, Portugal, and much more. Even though 20 minutes doesn’t seem like much, Govaerts packs such a great deal of details on production, both creative and technical, that it’s almost a bit like a mini film school. If you really dug Color Out of Space, this is the piece to dive into and enjoy.
Available on 4K UHD/Blu-ray Combo Pack, DVD, and digital February 25th, 2020.
Color Out of Space Special Features:
- Hot Pink Horror: The Making of Color Out of Space (20:11)
- Deleted Scenes (12:56)
- Photo Gallery
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.