January 28, 2020

Madness, Monsters and A Meteor: A Review of Color Out of Space

This past weekend I went to see Color Out of Space, the new film based on H.P. Lovecraft's 1927 story of the same name. The film begins with narration from Ward Phillips (Elliott Knight), a hydrologist from the big city who's been sent to rural Massachusetts on an assignment. His dialogue is lifted directly from Lovecraft's story:

West of Arkham the hills rise wild, and there are valleys with deep woods that no axe has ever cut. There are dark narrow glens where the trees slope fantastically, and where thin brooklets trickle without ever having caught the glint of sunlight... When I went into the hills and vales to survey for the new reservoir they told me the place was evil. They told me this in Arkham, and because that is a very old town full of witch legends I thought the evil must be something which grandams had whispered to children through centuries... (H.P. Lovecraft, "The Colour Out of Space," 1927).

The film follows the outlines of Lovecraft's tale relatively closely. While surveying for a new reservoir Phillips meets the Gardners, a local family whose lives are impacted when a strange meteor lands on their property. The original story is set in the 1880s, but the the film updates the setting to the present, and rather than hardscrabble Yankee farmers the Gardners are now urban transplants trying to re-start their lives on an inherited farm.

Their efforts aren't working out too well. Father Nathan Gardner (Nichola Cage) spends his time drinking, learning to farm via audio recordings, and raising alpacas for reasons he doesn't seem clear about.  His wife, Theresa (Joely Richardson), is recovering from breast cancer and trying to continue her career as a stockbroker on their isolated farm with a terrible internet connection. And is it really a good idea for her to be living an hour away from the nearest hospital? Oldest son Benny (Brendan Meyer) spends his time getting stoned and looking at NASA's website, while daughter Lavinia (Madeleine Arthur) practices Wicca in the woods, imploring the spirits to help her get away from the boredom of the farm. Only youngest son Jack (Julian Hilliard) seems adjusted to the situation.

Life on the farm seems stifling and a little dysfunctional, but things only get weirder once the glowing meteor lands in the yard. Some of the changes are almost imperceptible - the parents fight more than usual, stoner Benny gets even more distracted, the Gardners' phone and internet reception degrades. The family barely even notices when strange plants start growing in the yard, neon pink mist fills the surrounding woods, and the progression of time itself becomes disrupted. Is radiation from the meteor affecting everyone's sanity, or is there really a monster in the alpaca barn? The answer is both.

"The Colour Out of Space" is one of Lovecraft's classic tales of cosmic horror where human protagonists learn the hard way that they're living in an uncaring universe. It's a horrific science fiction story, not a tale of the supernatural. Still, the film's director Richard Stanley is a practicing occultist and occult imagery appears throughout the film, mostly in rituals that Lavinia performs. She invokes archangels using the Lesser Banishing Ritual of the Pentagram, reads the Simon Necronomicon, and carves the odal rune on her forehead. The rune symbolizes inheritance and land, and is germane to her family's situation. It also looks like she carves the words "solve" and "coagula" into her hands. These words may be familiar to you from Eliphas Levi's illustration of Baphomet, and they mean "dissolve" and "coagulate." Many things dissolve and coagulate in Color Out of Space, often in a gruesome manner.

Speaking of coagulation, Nathan says "Families stick together" several times during the movie. When I recently re-read the story I was struck by how the Gardners don't leave their farm, even as things get worse and worse. The family in the movie behaves the same way. Like frogs in slowly boiling water, they don't realize they're in danger until it's much too late. It's hard to know you're in a strange situation when it's what you've grown accustomed to.

Director Stanley and Amaris Scarlett, who co-wrote the script with him, incorporate nods to Lovecraft's work throughout the film (a Miskatonic University t-shirt, a symbol on a TV news van, character names) and it's clear they appreciate their source material. They're not afraid to modernize the story where appropriate, not just by adding well-written female characters but also by casting people of color: Elliot Knight as Ward, Tommy Chong as a blissed out hippie unbothered by all the weirdness, and Q'orianka Kilcher as the town's ambitious mayor.


If I have one complaint, it's a minor one. Color Out of Space was filmed in Portugal, and it just doesn't look like New England. The trees are wrong, the Gardner's house clearly is not an old Massachusetts farmhouse, and the town hall is obviously European. Lovecraft's story is an homage to the New England landscape and an elegy for the Yankee farmers whose way of life was fading away and it would have been nice to see those incorporated into the film. But like I said, that's a minor complaint.

This is definitely a classic B movie, and I mean that in a good way. There are rubbery monsters, men with shotguns shooting things, copious amounts of gore and slime, and Nichola Cage chewing the scenery. It's not an arthouse horror film like Midsommar, The Witch or Mandy. On the other hand, there is also beautiful psychedelic imagery, a script with multiple levels of meaning, and good acting (including some by Nicholas Cage) so it's more like a B+ movie. It's also one of the best Lovecraft adaptations I've seen in a long time.

Surprisingly, it's also emotionally moving. I found myself teary-eyed by the end and got a little choked up as the film ended with this narration, pulled directly again from Lovecraft's story:

It was just a colour out of space—a frightful messenger from unformed realms of infinity beyond all Nature as we know it; from realms whose mere existence stuns the brain and numbs us with the black extra-cosmic gulfs it throws open before our frenzied eyes.


Sean Daughtry said...

What a beautifully written, yet succinct review, Peter! I'm intrigued now and want to see the movie. Of course, just for fun, I'll be comparing it a little bit to the old, campy 1965 version (titled DIE, MONSTER DIE) that stars Boris Karloff.

Peter Muise said...

Thanks Sean! I will be curious to hear what you think. I think DIE, MONSTER DIE has fewer alpacas in it!

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