By Alexandra Heller-Nicholas.
To say that the US premiere of cult filmmaker Richard Stanley’s much-awaited return to feature filmmaking was one of the most buzz-laden events at this year’s Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas, is an understatement. On one hand this was driven by the enigma of Stanley alone, director of 1990’s Hardware, one of the classics of dystopian science fiction cinema featuring cameos from music legends Iggy Pop, Lemmy and Carl McCoy (singer of iconic goth band Fields of the Nephilim, for whom Stanley had directed a number of music videos).
While 1992’s horror movie Dust Devil and the 1994 musical Brave didn’t exactly hit the same sweet spot of his beloved feature debut, it certainly solidified what was undeniably an emerging filmmaker on the rise, a prediction that all but crumbled with his catastrophic involvement of the 1996 screen adaptation of H.G. Wells’s Island of Doctor Moreau with Val Kilmer and Marlon Brando. Less a “making of” than a “breaking of,” the story of Stanley’s removal from the project (replaced by John Frankenheimer, who was far from at his career peak at the time) has become the stuff of legend, consolidated by David Gregory’s extraordinary and at times often surreal 2014 documentary Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau.
With three documentaries – The Secret Glory (2001), The White Darkness (2002) and The Otherworld (2013) – some short films, screenwriting work and anthology segments keeping him busy over the past couple of decades, Color Out of Space sees Stanley return once again (and far more successfully) to a screen adaptation of a science fiction/horror masterwork, this time H.P. Lovecraft’s 1927 short story of the same name. While this alone would be enough to surely tempt cult film aficionados, the combined casting of Nicolas Cage and the production company SpectreVision, who so successfully collaborated last year on Panos Cosmatos’s surprise genre hit Mandy, rendered Color Out of Space almost a no-brainer in terms of being a guaranteed draw card for genre audiences with a taste for the dark and twisted.
Bookended by direct quotes spoken in voiceover from Lovecraft’s original story, while successfully modernizing the almost 90-year-old tale to a contemporary setting, Stanley and co-writer Scarlett Amaris’s screenplay cannily updates the tale while remaining in fundamental ways steadfastly loyal to its source. Like the original short story, the film’s action is sparked by a meteor of a glowing, indefinable color smashing to Earth and landing on the isolated property of a family home in New England. Seeking an escape from city life, the family of five – mom and dad Theresa (Joely Richardson) and Nathan (Nicolas Cage) and their three children, angst-ridden goth Lavinia (Madeline Arthur), stoner NASA freak Benny (Brendan Meyer) and sweet if somewhat cliched dinosaur-obsessed youngster Jack (Julian Hilliard) – have made the dramatic change in their lifestyle to live in Nathan’s now-deceased father’s home after Theresa has endured treatment for breast cancer. Not all of the family have embraced their new life; Theresa struggles with the wi-fi which makes it difficult to maintain her career in high-flying finance, and Lavinia – our protagonist – is downright pissed. Nathan, however, hits his stride almost immediately, immersing himself in caring for his beloved (expensive) llamas and caring for his garden.
Although vanishing almost instantly, the meteor has an immediate impact on the property’s water; Jack is the first to realise there’s something tantalizing now living in the well, and the water has a strange effect firstly on the flora as strange plants begin to grow and take over the property, and more gruesome deformaties impact animals and, eventually, humans. Water table specialist Ward Phillips (Elliot Knight) from Miskatonic University (where else?!) is coincidentally on the ground to help unravel the mystery, but as the family begins to face an increasingly complex rainbows of horrors – punctuated by Cage’s now signature over-the-top cinematic meltdowns – the world of science that Phillips represents may not be enough to fully grasp the reality in time to save the family.
Stanley is by no means the first filmmaker to tackle a short story by the notoriously difficult-to-adapt Lovecraft; indeed, the more successful Lovecraft adaptations are less direct book-to-screen translations than they are much more loosely inspired by the broader sensibility of his Cthulhu Mythos, such as films like Andrzej Żuławski’s 1981 Isabelle Adjani-fronted Possession (the only film to win a major award at Cannes and be listed as a Video Nasty), Federico Greco’s 2005 found-footage horror film Il mistero di Lovecraft – Road to L., and Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead’s exquisite 2014 horror-romance Spring. Stanley’s Color Out of Space was predated by a number of alternate, more explicit attempts to bring this particular Lovecraft story to the screen, in movies such as Daniel Haller’s Die, Monster Die! from 1965 with Boris Karloff, David Keith’s The Curse from 1987, frequent Lovecraft adapter Ivan Zuccon’s Colour from the Dark from 2008 starring b-grade scream queen Debbie Rochon, and Huan Vu’s impressively effective microbudget reimagining, the German film Die Farbe.
Although the budgets and quality of these precursors vary, whether consciously or not these films almost all contain a notably political dimension, regardless of how loyally they stick to the original source material. Die, Monster Die!, for example, plays fast and loose with Lovecraft’s story, yet it is notably in many ways typical of the “nuclear fear” Cold War horror film that tackles the potential mysteries of atomic energy; released only three years after the Cuban Missile Crisis, as joyfully silly as this particular reimagining may be, it is still hard to detach it from its historical context and the anxieties swirling around the popular imagination at the time. Likewise, while The Curse weaves a perhaps not wholly convincing critique of fundamentalist Christianity into its telling of Lovecraft’s story, questions of water pollution and its impact on the broader community are not subtle; that the film ends with a televised news story about the water contamination followed by a report marking the one-year anniversary of the Challenger disaster is a deliberate real world reference that seeks (perhaps a little clumsily) to draw a line between what’s “out there” and what’s happening “down here.”
Stanley’s Color Out of Space likewise echoes this connection, albeit in a far more subtle way, as a news story tells of climate change fears so relevant to the broader political discourse of its particular historical moment. While Cage’s trademark hysterics are guaranteed to either charm or annoy, Color Out of Space is much more than a star vehicle; it speaks to contemporary anxieties about the environment in a psychedelic vision truly Stanley’s own.
Color Out of Space is now in limited release.
Alexandra Heller-Nicholas is a film critic from Melbourne, Australia, who has written five books on cult, horror and exploitation film including Rape-Revenge Films: A Critical Study (McFarland, 2011), Found Footage Horror Films: Fear and the Appearance of Reality (McFarland, 2015), and the single-film focused monographs Suspiria (Auteur, 2016), Ms. 45 (Columbia University Press, 2017) and The Hitcher (Arrow Books, 2018). She is the co-editor, with Dean Brandum, of ReFocus: the Films of Elaine May (Edinburgh University Press, 2019).