This adaptation of the 1927 H.P. Lovecraft short story stars Nicolas Cage as Nathan Gardner, who lives in a secluded area of New England with his wife Theresa (Joely Richardson), daughter Lavinia (Madeleine Arthur), and sons Benny and Jack (Brendan Meyer and Julian Hilliard). All Gardner wants to do is raise alpacas and enjoy some fine bourbon, but when a meteorite crashes onto his land one night, his plans go down the drain.
Josh: Two Lovecraftian movies in a row? Not only that, but two in a row that are actually thoroughly entertaining? Truly, this is an unparalleled delight!
Arley: It was a fun horror movie. Mood-horror, not slasher or monster fight horror. It’s interesting to review Color Out of Space so recently after Underwater and compare how they handled similar material. The first thing I thought when I saw the first scene was, “Oh my god, there’s actually a Black guy!” Lovecraft: terrified. I think it’s noteworthy that in the movie it’s arguable who the protagonist is, but in the short story, it’s the surveyor. At least, the surveyor is the narrator, there’s perhaps no real protagonist. Here, the Black character is the narrator, and survivor, of these events.
Josh: Yes, pretty early on into the movie I made a note saying, “So far, surprising diversity,” with Elliot Knight playing Ward the hydrologist, Tommy Chong as Ezra the squatter, and Q’orianka Kilcher as the mayor. Even though Ezra and the mayor are fairly minor characters, they still provide material that’s pivotal to the plot. Then the rest of my note said, “Let’s see who dies.”
Arley: Even within the main white family, the wife is the breadwinner while the husband fucks up dinner, so you have this inverted view of traditional family dynamics.
In the course of filming a story that is 93 years old, there will as a matter of course be updates to the source material, but writer Scarlett Amaris and director Richard Stanley (who also did the screenplay) hew pretty closely to Lovecraft’s original text. They made some structural changes in order to make it a first-hand account of events, rather than recounted after the fact, and Gardner gets some extra family members to provide a broader base of horror opportunities.
Lovecraft’s entire M.O., famously, is that the horrors in his story are too incomprehensible to even be described, and so in “The Colour Out of Space” he only hints at the thing in the attic, or the things down the well. Fortunately for us, though, Stanley takes the opposite approach and puts everything up on the screen, to good visual effect.
Arley: The opening shots and narration were great! The forest, the filtered light. The narration starts directly quoting from the original short story and then deviates from it a little. I liked that tone and how it set the mood.
Josh: It was really atmospheric and looked better than I expected. I got a sense of the trees almost as a malicious entity on their own, a hunger of the pines.
Arley: Gave me confidence that it would be a quality movie. I relaxed and stopped anticipating problems.
The film contains direct nods to the greater Lovecraft universe; Ward wears a Miskatonic University t-shirt throughout, and one character has an obligatory copy of the Necronomicon (even though in the Mythos it’s an incredibly rare—and dangerous—book and likely wouldn’t be found in a teenager’s bedroom). There are Easter Egg references to other horror classics here as well: Benny is seen reading Algernon Blackwood; a scene with everyone gathered around the meteorite echoes the ’50s The War of the Worlds (H.G. Wells’ original story, including invasion-by-meteorite, was first published when Lovecraft was eight. Richard Stanley is perhaps most notoriously known for being fired from an adaptation of The Island of Dr. Moreau); and, most obviously, several body-horror moments that bring to mind the best of (the 1982) The Thing, which, for all its Campellian influence, was the first in John Carpenter’s Lovecraft trilogy (followed by Prince of Darkness and 1994’s In the Mouth of Madness).
Arley: Lavinia was partially a nod to an off-screen character from 1965’s Die, Monster, Die!, based on the same Lovecraft short story, where Nahum Gardner’s brother uses black magic to summon the meteorite. In this Color Out of Space, Lavinia’s brother half-jokes, “Did you manage to curse us all?” They don’t say directly in this movie that she summoned the meteorite so she’s kind of a compromise between that movie and the short story.
Josh: She and her brother were splitting the difference between science and magic. Lavinia was out in the woods doing spells, has a pentagram tattoo, wearing a cloak riding off on a white horse like it’s a fantasy movie, while Benny has space posters all over his bedroom.
Arley: She also commented that he listens to NASA recordings with Ezra. While smoking pot, of course. The shot of him tracking the meteor on an astronomy website was giving me hardcore Prince of Darkness vibes. It was also a really cool idea when Benny said that the area around the meteorite was acting like a black hole, with time and spatial distortions. They gave us a lot of possible explanations for the weirdness that the viewer could choose from.
Josh: I was trying to find out what the “No flesh shall be spared” painted over his computer was from. Turns out it’s a line from Richard Stanley’s earlier film, Hardware, which has a robot called a M.A.R.K. 13, and Mark 13:20 in the Bible says, “No flesh should be saved.”
Color Out of Space is a science fiction alien invasion story rather than one about a demonic presence or an evil god. Much of Lovecraft’s fear of the unknown comes directly from his obsession with (and paranoia of) what were, during his time, new scientific wonders. Advances in astronomy at the beginning of the 20th century (such as the discovery of Pluto) are at the core of the Cthulhu Mythos, in which the Elder Gods are actually vast ancient aliens—either inter-dimensional beings or visitors from other planets.
“The Colour Out of Space” was written right around the time that the dangers of radioactivity were first being acknowledged. Although Nicola Tesla burned his hands with X-rays in 1896, it wasn’t until 1927 that Hermann Joseph Muller published research showing harmful effects of radiation exposure. Lovecraft seems to be struggling to describe a phenomenon that he didn’t have the words for—describing a color beyond the normal spectrum that infects the mind, taints food and water sources, and stimulates the growth of strange plant life before ultimately reducing everything to gray, crumbling husks. In the film, Ward, confronted with a mass of horribly mutilated forest animals, says, “These look like radiation burns.”
Josh: Having a character talk to Nic Cage about Kryptonite is hilarious to me. Because of what he named his son in real life. You’ve seen a lot more of these Lovecraft adaptations than I have—I really only have the Re-Animator movies (which I loved) to compare this to. I was wondering if this movie was going to fall entirely into that same ’80s horror B-film territory but, for the most part, it didn’t look cheap. The only thing that really stood out was the CGI cat. That did not look good, at all.
Arley: Really? I saw it in a theater and nothing looked bad to me.
Josh: Yeah, that was the only really glaring part for me, but it didn’t ruin the movie because a lot of the other effects were great. I saw it on a smaller screen, which was probably a detriment because the visual effects at the end were amazing. And I realize there was a limited budget (rumored to be $6 million) so they were doing a great job with that. There’s a weird dichotomy of quality and cheapness in this film, balancing between campy horror and really good filmmaking. Sidenote: that cat’s name was “G-Spot” which, if we’re keeping score, is not the worst name given to a cat in an H.P. Lovecraft story. (See: “The Rats in the Walls”. Or, actually, don’t.)
Arley: The use of effects was done really well. Especially the color-touched critters which come out of the well, and the mutation shots. That all looked really good. They use a trite horror trope when the wife is cutting up carrots but, even though it’s expected, the moment is still wonderfully cringe-inducing when it comes. I also liked the use of sound over the phone when they were trying to call each other. Again, Prince of Darkness vibes. I said in our Underwater review that the same kind of effect there was kind of trite, but in this it was creepy. And it made more sense in this context, actually served a purpose in the story.
Josh: I was also getting a really strong Annihilation vibe from that mantis and the color palette of this film.
Arley: Well, I’ve said many times before that Annihilation is a Lovecraftian book, more so than the movie, and a superb depiction of a truly alien presence.
Josh: Compare this movie’s budget with Annihilation‘s ($40-55 million), and you can really appreciate what they did with what they had.
Color Out of Space, like its source, relies on a limited cast in isolation to really drive the paranoid storyline. As the color takes over every aspect of the landscape and their lives, the Gardners begin to turn on each other and themselves. It could have been played as a much deeper interpersonal drama—each of the characters has enough going on to carry some really involved development. However, the individual characters don’t meld together to form a family unit that becomes its own character, the way that they do in, for example, Us. While, on paper, they have moments of affection toward each other (a brief scene between Nathan and Theresa during the meteorite strike, Lavinia and Benny’s constant insults, which are played as terms of endearment the last time they see each other, Lavinia’s repeated attempts to use magic to save the others) they come across in performance as dysfunctional and self-involved, never really lifting up into something that can be considered love. It ultimately prevents the audience from forming a strong attachment to any of them.
While the characters and the acting are not great, they also aren’t entirely the point. They are cannon fodder. Thematically, the story is about how bad life can be and how bad things just keep happening, a standard Lovecraft view of a cold and uncaring universe. This is underlined by Theresa’s cancer, surgery, and recovery. The characters live in a false sense of security, thinking that they have moved to a perfect life out in the woods, and Nathan keeps repeating that everything is under control even in the face of the overwhelming chaos that eventually consumes his entire family. But the Gardners’ paradise was doomed from the beginning, even before the color arrived, because the mayor’s plan to build a dam would flood the entire valley in which they live anyway.
Arley: Thematically Die, Monster, Die! had this clear message about rich people hoarding scientific resources and bad stuff happens as a consequence. But mostly it leans on the idea of a dark, magical presence. Which I think is interesting because the original story is very science fiction. Lovecraft spends, like, two and a half to three paragraphs going through the various sorts of experiments they conduct on the meteorite. Again, this movie lands somewhere in the middle, with the primary stand-in for scientific observation being Ward (Elliot Knight).
Josh: I thought the mayor’s line was a pretty clever little bit of exposition, having her give this almost throwaway piece of information and then have them reiterate it with political ads throughout the rest of the film.
Arley: For me Elliot Knight was probably the best actor in the movie. He also had the most grounded, compelling character, in the sense that he was a closer-to-real person getting snared in this family’s unnecessary drama and subsequent horror. Example: Lavinia is downright rude to him up front, and then, talking about him to her brother, says, “Hey I met some weird guy… he’s kind of cute, though.”
Tommy Chong plays Ezra, a hermit squatting on the Gardners’ land, which lines up with the character of Ammi Pierce from the original story—the sole survivor of the tragedy, who tells of the events to the surveyor/main character. Tommy Chong plays a very Tommy Chong character, a hippie burnout ex-electrical engineer whose hut is wired for satellite and surveillance. The lunatic in the woods might be trope now, but to Lovecraft—pulling from Algernon Blackwood or Natty Bumppo-mountain-man types—it wouldn’t have yet felt so overused. Chong takes something seen before and injects enough techno-paranoia into it to avoid making his character and associated exposition tedious.
Nicolas Cage plays… well, he plays something else.
Arley: In other roles, Cage often veers into way too hammy, but for most of this movie he scaled it back. At least, somewhat. In the first scene with his character, I thought, Nic’s charisma is back. He was funny and natural. At the same time there was this heavy-handed writer thing of “we’re going to meet this character, and now this one,” etc., but with him it actually worked. I was looking forward to watching him. Compared to other stuff I’ve seen him in where it’s way over-the-top. Sometimes I feel like he’s just playing “Nicolas Cage.”
Josh: I got a different read from it. I actually wanted to see this movie almost entirely because he was going to be in it. I was anticipating a performance (and visual extravaganza) like in Mandy, which we don’t quite get. You’re right that he doesn’t go as over-the-top manic in Color Out of Space except when he’s biting all the tomatoes, but I think his “normal” is already pretty disturbing—he sounds like how a crazy person acts when a cop is around. (Check out his “Big Daddy” character in Kick-Ass, it’s the same thing.) There’s a really good NYT interview with him in which he says, “There are times when I’m intentionally being mischievous with a character.” You can definitely see that in this movie, because he starts to impersonate Trump during Nathan Gardner’s “crazy moments.” (I’m using the term “crazy” very loosely here to mean unpredictable, manic behavior.) Nic Cage is almost the perfect metaphor for the combination of camp and quality in this film. He’s this big-name, Oscar-winning movie star, but his career has been all over the place. You never know what you’re going to get when you bite into him.
The crowning achievement of the film is its finale visual effects, which comes after a well-paced escalation of weirdness. We’re never told why the invading color eventually leaves—nothing that the characters do have any effect on it, there is no action they can take to save themselves, which is satisfyingly consistent with Lovecraft’s unknown horrors. But after it’s gone, the landscape is blasted into monochrome, like a reverse Wizard of Oz. The 2010 adaptation Die Farbe does something similar, shot entirely in black and white except for the color itself (which is pretty much purple).
Arley: The person I saw this movie with was disappointed that the color was just purple. Or pink. Or magenta—whatever it was. But of course, how would you display, on film, a color that’s supposed to be beyond the regular spectrum?
Josh: It’s like octarine, The Colour of Magic. Purple is a proper psychedelic color, in my experience, so I was on board with it. As soon as the movie ended, the person I saw it with said, “Well, that was weird.” And I thought, “Yes, yes it was. But was it weird… enough?” I was waiting to see some CRAZY SHIT and visuals, again like Mandy. Did it deliver? I think so. Even though it’s an old story, this movie was different from a lot of things we see recently. Science fiction these days is Star Wars and superheroes, but this was pleasantly neither.
Arley: I’m glad to have this movie around. I’m glad they subverted Lovecraft’s notorious beliefs with obvious cast and writing choices, because when his fiction is the source material, I immediately get nervous about what kind of socio-cultural messages will come through. And I’m glad that they did, pretty much, a solid, good job. It’s better to watch on the big screen, if you can get it.
Directed by: Richard Stanley
Written by: Scarlett Amaris & Richard Stanley, based on the short story by H.P. Lovecraft
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Joely Richardson, Madeleine Arthur, Elliot Knight, Tommy Chong, Brendan Meyer, Julian Hilliard, Josh C. Waller, Q’orianka Kilcher & Melissa Nearman
JOSH PEARCE, Assistant Editor, started working at Locus in 2016. He studied creative writing at SFSU and has sold short stories and poems to a variety of speculative fiction magazines. Born and raised in the Bay Area, he currently lives in the East Bay with his wife and son and spends way too much time on Twitter: @fictionaljosh. One time, Ken Jennings signed his chest.
ARLEY SORG, Associate Editor, grew up in England, Hawaii, and Colorado. He studied Asian Religions at Pitzer College. He lives in Oakland, and usually writes in local coffee shops. A 2014 Odyssey Writing Workshop graduate, he is soldering together a novel, has thrown a few short stories into orbit, and hopes to launch more.
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