A glowing purple meteorite makes life, uh, difficult and gross for an isolated farm family after it crashes in their yard in the new film Color Out of Space. Because the family’s patriarch is played by human-TNT hybrid Nicolas Cage and the director is Richard Stanley—who hasn’t made a narrative feature since 1996’s The Island of Doctor Moreau went so ass-over-teakettle that a whole documentary is devoted to its disaster-ness—you might not expect Color to be an exercise in subtlety. It is not a movie encumbered by “good taste” and does not feel like it was ever brought up in a boardroom full of suits who wanted to make sure it would “play for all demographics” in “all markets.”
Yet Color‘s first half, before everything succumbs to glorious madness while Nic Cage does what we pay him to do, is a surprisingly effective look at a family trying to keep things together.
This new film is based on the short story “The Colour Out of Space” by H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937), whose short stories often feature rural families becoming isolated, inbred, degenerate, or cannibals. Oh, or turning into fish-people. In Stanley’s film, the family’s isolation is more emotional than physical. Mom (Joely Richardson) is a workaholic recovering from a mastectomy. The daughter (Madeleine Arthur) dabbles in the occult. The teenage son (Brendan Meyer) smokes doobies behind the barn. And the younger son (Julian Hilliard) eventually makes friends with a disembodied voice coming out of the well. See, America, this is what happens when your town doesn’t have a nearby Blockbuster.
Meanwhile, Dad (Cage) insists that everything is going to be fine, just fine. More than 30 years have passed since Moonstruck and Raising Arizona so, at this point, Cage is a known quantity. You know you’re going to get a variation of his pathetic-yet-relatable persona, this time as a guy who thinks he can will his family into contentment with enough forced smiles. And then the meteorite gets in their water, Dad bizarrely overshares with a local TV reporter, and the family’s unresolved issues become something more gruesome…
Like so many first-rate B-horror movies, the supernatural seems to have a vague, can’t-quite-put-your-finger-on-it thematic connection to its characters’ existing issues. Is the supernatural a manifestation of the family’s troubled id? Are the cosmos punishing Mom and Dad for their unresolved animosity? Would this have happened if Dad was actually good at farming? The relationship between the family’s problems and the horror that gradually unfolds isn’t 1:1, but it wouldn’t happen to a healthy family either.
I know that, when it comes to what, precisely, is besetting the family, I’m being cagey. (Get it? Cage-y? I deserve a raise.) But do you really need any more plot summary than that? Director Stanley is roughly a contemporary of horror legend John Carpenter (Halloween, The Thing), and like Carpenter, his direction is clean and uncluttered, which is what material this batty calls for. He favors wide shots, a moderate pace, and mounting dread over quick cutting and jump scares. (Oh yeet, Color composer Colin Stetson worked on Hereditary!!!)
About the showiest thing Stanley does is to not give us a clear look at some of the ew, nasty elements, which is itself a visualization of Lovecraft’s frequent reluctance to have his characters directly interact with the supernatural. Locations like Arkham and Miskatonic University—which are to Lovecraft what Yoknapatawpha is to Faulkner—are mentioned offhandedly and not in an inorganic, fanservice-y kind of way.
Between the twin manias of Cage and the paranormal, the supporting players know that the best they can do is anchor the viewer with straightforward performances that aren’t any more complicated than they need to be. Our audience surrogate is a hydrologist (Elliot Knight playing “Ward Phillips,” i.e., “Howard Phillips Lovecraft”) surveying the groundwater. He only has about 1.5 expressions because that’s all he needs; he even looks a little bit like Duane Jones, who similarly played the voice of reason in Night of the Living Dead, another B-movie that favors unfussy performances.
Color Out of Space passes off its Portuguese locations for the New England that Lovecraft loved/terrorized, but more importantly, the farm and its surroundings feel real. Compare Color to, say, The Conjuring or The Haunting of Hill House or Doctor Sleep: every location in those productions has a “digital jiggle,” i.e., every shadow or beam of sunlight looks “punched up,” every face has a vague, unnatural sheen, and every horizon has the “too-perfect” look of a digital touch-up that removed powerlines. We can tolerate that in The Irishman, but not so much in a horror movie that requires us to start out believing what we see.
As for when Color really calls on its special effects—well, who cares how realistic they are? We’re seeing the world through the eyes of people who’ve been guzzling tainted drinking water.
Although Color Out of Space opens this weekend in the United States, Stanley says the company behind the movie has already green-lit him to helm two more Lovecraft adaptations. He’ll start with The Dunwich Horror, in which a weirdo kid and his mom keep something even less human than he is locked in the barn. Good stuff.
Listing image by SpectreVision