Tripwire Reviews Richard Stanley’s Color Out Of Space

Tripwire Reviews Richard Stanley’s Color Out Of Space

Lacking Horror

Tripwire’s contributing writer James DC takes a look at Richard Stanley’s Color Out Of Space, in UK cinemas now and coming to Blu Ray soon…

Color Out Of Space
Director: Richard Stanley
Stars: Nicholas Cage, Miranda Richardson, Madeleine Arthur
Out in cinemas now
Note: the following review contains plot spoilers

The cult film director Richard Stanley has reappeared, after many years of seeming limbo, to fashion an adaptation of one of H.P. Lovecraft’s most enduring horror/science fiction stories, The Colour Out of Space. Some will remember Stanley’s two most successful films, 1990’s Hardware and 1992’s Dust Devil. Hardware is about a rogue, murderous robot in a post-apocalyptic world, and the horror-western hybrid Dust Devil is about a supernatural drifter in Namibia. Both are worthy, entertaining pieces, with moments of real invention and craft, made all the more remarkable for their low budgets. However, both films and a later production, 1996’s The Island of Dr. Moreau (based on the H.G. Wells classic) were mired in, variously, financial, legal, editing, casting or ‘authorship’ wrangles. The less said about the travesty that is …Moreau, the better (though Stanley alone cannot be held accountable for the quagmire of difficulties which were caused by studio interference, troublesome actors and a second director brought in to rush through the production, amongst much else). 

In effect – after initial creative stumbling blocks, followed by decades in the wilderness doing small-scale stuff – this is Stanley’s big return to the genre movie, with his biggest budget to date and (relatively) big name stars like Nicholas Cage and Miranda Richardson, on board – not forgetting his individual take on a seminal, much loved genre author. This is the first major H.P. Lovecraft screen adaptation in almost 10 years, and the fifth of the 1927 short story The Colour Out of Space, so much will be expected from Lovecraft aficionados, as the fare over the last 50-odd years has been fairly mixed, and often downright pathetic,.

Essentially, the plot entails a contemporary family, who live on a farm in ‘Arkham’, Massachusetts, discovering a malevolent alien force, of some kind, has been let loose when a meteor crashes onto their land. This weird cosmic force is made up of unearthly colours and ethereal energy fields, gradually affecting the wildlife and farm animals, then various members of the family; specifically Nathan Gardner (Nicholas Cage), who goes insane, and his wife and son, Theresa (Joely Richardson) and Jack (Julian Hilliard), who are transmuted into a conjoined and debased mutant form. Another son, and a daughter, come to wicked ends also, along with a local, eccentric hermit who had received portents of such an alien ‘attack’. All the while, peripheral events transpire and interweave, such as a hydrologist surveying the area in advance of a proposed construction of a dam, the Wicca inspired musings of the daughter, and the marital problems and illnesses of the main couple. In the ensuing cataclysm, no one is left any the wiser as to why and how this happened, and exactly what caused such devastation. 

There are a few inventive, memorable scenes and moments, here and there, mostly in the third act of the movie. Unfortunately, however much I wanted to like this film, and to praise Stanley’s bloody-mindedness to get a new genre-based project off the ground, in the face of an increasingly mundane, cliche and commercialised sector, there are a number of inherent problems which ultimately cast a dissatisfying shadow over proceedings. 

First off, the first 45-odd minutes is….well, just plain uninteresting (a harsher term would be boring). All of the characters, apart from Cage’s Nathan, who throws in another of his hilariously deranged performances, are simplistic, one-dimensional and underwritten, and thus will garner little empathy from the audience. I just didn’t feel any connection or sympathy for these people, who spend an overly long first act just piddling around, tediously going through the motions of irrelevant subplot set-ups and diversions, which end up having little or no consequence by the climax (perhaps they just didn’t have enough original ideas to inject into the script?). Sure, all good films show ‘real’ life happening, apart and away from, yet tangentially linked to, the major plot machinations; it gives the setting a context and feeling of authenticity, the ordinariness of real life, later to be juxtaposed and contrasted with happenstance and incredible events. This ‘setting-up of mundanity’ is even more of a truism when it comes to horror fiction or horror cinema. But this film unnecessarily labours the point, with nothing much to say, until we feel more and more emotionally detached. As the film runs on, and proceedings get darker and progressively weirder, we still have to endure some of these tiresome plot strands getting in the way, until they are, thankfully (mainly) jettisoned by the last third of the running time. In many ways, it’s a question of ‘tone’, but I’ll get to that in full, in a moment. 

Then we have the actual ‘horror’, of the ostensible science fiction/fantasy elements: apart from the brilliantly disturbing scenes when the mother and son are fused into some grotesque, otherworldly deformity, all the while crying out in pain and suffering, the rest is nothing special, basically. Seen it all before, usually done better, and a lot scarier – certainly in the classics of the genre. Perhaps the problem is a wider one of trying to physically and symbolically envisage other-dimensional, amorphous monstrosities, in the style of ‘cosmic horror’, rather than the fault of a single director, but this iteration generally fails to do the Lovecraftian mythology full justice. There are sequences of psychedelic lights, insidious energy forms, strange flying insects, weird transmutable beings, but most of it isn’t startling or unnerving enough; they often feel like a hundred other whizz-bang, video game type effects (which is true, unfortunately, of most over-CGI’d horror and science fiction/fantasy films, nowadays). There is scant creepy, atmospheric build-up to catastrophic and disorientating events – or at least the attempt at such simply doesn’t work. What we really need with a Lovecraft adaptation, and which has never been successfully achieved, is the kind of uneasy, dislocated feeling that, say, David Lynch mercilessly pinpointed in the uncannily hallucinatory Eraserhead (1977), or which Roman Polanski successfully sculpted in his eerie, alienated masterpiece Repulsion (1965), or whom Andrej Zulawski revealed in his neurotically deranged magnum opus, Possession (1981). All of these films were way more ‘Lovecraftian’, in spirit, essaying the author’s peculiar type of ‘existential dread’, than what we have here – and those directors weren’t even adapting from the source material. Perhaps I shouldn’t compare modern era directors to the groundbreaking, visionary talent of the canonical old-school directors, when necessity really was the mother of invention, and all the better for it. But I do despair when I see contemporary filmmakers, with seemingly illimitable world-building tools at their fingertips, fail to reach the heights of even the averagely skilled directors of the analogue era. 

Perhaps the shortcomings of the horror and SF elements should be mitigated by what is the worst, overall problem: the tone of the film often misses its mark, and this obviously affects, and taints, everything. Especially in the early scenes, the tone shifts too jarringly between lighthearted banter and jokes, anodyne familial dramatics and (supposedly) ominous signs of future menace. Later, Nathan suddenly becomes seriously unhinged, without an ostensible cause or much of a build-up to his mental collapse; it could be the immediate affect of the malevolent alien – or whatever it is – but who knows, as it isn’t really made apparent. Despite the requisite Lovecraftian vagaries, the logistics of the alien evil’s manifestation on this earthly plane and it’s destructive affect on the humans are still quite confusing for a film adaptation, and more care should have been taken with this aspect of the story. Moreover, once Nathan starts the eye-rolling freakery, we are left wondering why it is only he who is losing his mind and not any of the others (in the original, it is the wife who loses her lid). At this point, it suspiciously feel like the script has been tailored to give Cage a chance to ‘do his thing’. Granted, the scenes where he comes out with laugh-out-loud non sequiturs and madcap dialogue are actually some of the best bits in the film, but in saying this, it just points up how much of a misfire most of the rest is – this is meant to be a bloodcurdling horror-fantasy, not a parody with comedic elements. To top it off, the big climax is over-baked and over-stuffed, and thus unsatisfying, especially when three quarters of the story had quietly bobbed along, without much happening, beforehand; it makes the melodramatic, fireworks-explosion conclusion feel squashed and unseemly. By this finale, we feel like we’ve seen a mishmash of family drama, comedy, and sort-of-horror, but not much stays with you, once you leave the cinema. (Funnily enough, at the end, in the cinema auditorium, when I asked a couple of Millennial viewers what they thought of it, they were clearly effusive. But then, when I asked if they had seen numerous, similarly themed (nay better) horror and SF films of the past, they were nonplussed. Make of that what you will!)
In many respects, Colour Out of Space feels like a twin sister to that other over-hyped and mismanaged SF-horror, Mandy (2018), also starring Nicholas Cage in the lead role. There are numerous similarities, from the zany, meandering plot, to the trippy special effects, the failed attempts at unsettling terror, the ill-fitting tone, to the blatant homages to other, superior films of old and, of course, the contractual loony performance by Cage. I instantly felt the affinities between the two as I viewed Colour Out of Space, but only found out afterwards that Elija Wood’s company SpectreVision had produced both films. It seems that they have found their ‘style’ and are sticking with it, in film after film. 

Having said all of this, it is doubly disappointing that there are, in fact, a few emotionally weighted, fine sequences in the film; the highlight being the aforementioned scenes when the mother and son, Theresa and Jack, are mysteriously biologically fused together in a perverted, twisted, slime covered abomination, with their faces at opposite ends, mewling in melancholic howls and groans of trapped misery (this whole sequence is redolent of Brian Yuzna and Stuart Gordon’s cult Lovecraftian body horror films of the 1980’s, such as Re-Animator, From Beyond, and Society). Nathan has already started to lose his sanity by now, but he manages to ensconce them in the attic until he decides what to do with them. Strangely, though, he doesn’t seem to be that traumatised or upset by the awful, unspeakable sight of his now malformed wife and child, even cracking witticisms about the situation; but then he is meant to be mad by now, so that lets him off, to a point. Nevertheless, the scene would have been much more impactful if he were to have been ‘normal’ and sane when they were cruelly transformed, better to display the emotional, reality-shattering stress he would no doubt undergo. But somehow, the scene just about works, and you only wish the rest of the film had been as moving and well crafted. 

All in all, Stanley should be commended for even attempting to adapt one of Lovecraft’s more inchoate and ‘unfilmable’ stories (this is meant to be the first part of a Lovecraft trilogy), and he scores points for the sheer effort of the endeavour, along with that wonderfully disturbing body horror scene, plus Cage’s fun, bug-eyed turn. However, it’s a real shame that he couldn’t have got more of a handle on the general tone, essence and feel of the story; ultimately, the worst negative is that you never once feel properly frightened. Slightly unsettled once or twice, yes, but never chilled to the core, as you should always be when it comes to one of horror’s most macabre and redoubtable masters, H.P. Lovecraft. 

Here’s the trailer for the film

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Color Out Of Space by Richard Stanley
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