Savina Petkova on Richard Stanley’s ‘Colour Out Of Space’ (2019)
Paralleling the inner psyche and the world “out there”, supernatural horror is deeply rooted in magical practices. As is Richard Stanley’s oddball first feature since 1996, Colour Out of Space. Based on the infamous 1927 short story “The Colour Out of Space” by H.P. Lovecraft, this film is the fifth (!) adaptation, alongside other titles such as Die, Monster, Die! (1965) and The Curse (1987). Stanley has tackled the story with impressive plasticity, taking on the task of depicting a powerful, ominous colour that emits disaster with gusto. In addition, he’s appointed expressionist stalwart Nicolas Cage (a well known weird fiction enthusiast) as the leading man alpaca-farmer, Nathan Gardner, and accomplished it all with a small seven-figure budget. As an adaptation, the film succeeds in planting the psychic uncertainty and paranoia associated with Lovecraftian creatures. However, it fails to blend its comic episodes in a seamless tonality. This liquid emotional response, rather than making for a complex viewing, mostly risks flattening the jokes or ridiculing the sternness of the evil forces.
Mr. Gardner lives in a farmhouse somewhere deep in the forests of Arkham, Massachusetts (a fictional town prominent in Lovecraft’s stories) with his stock-broker wife Theresa (Joely Richardson), six groomed alpacas and his three children: witchy Lavinia (Madeleine Arthur), stoner Benny (Brendan Meyer), and the youngest and most vulnerable, Jack (Julian Hilliard). All is peaceful and serene until a peculiar meteor lands in their front yard, affecting each family member in sly and gruesome ways. While the film starts off as a merry tale of “living the dream” away from the city life, the atmosphere turns sour as the colour palette submits to tones of magenta and amethyst radiating from the meteorite, and latching onto every living thing. Curiously enough, the transition from colour as an ethereal cause of physical effects is handled with imaginative techniques and the special effects ought to be commended. The acting, too, is praiseworthy, especially given to a neurotic, overly gestural Cage and young Madeleine, who twirl in a protracted toxic father-daughter strife.
The film threads its relationship terrain slowly as it, at first only hints, then twists the family dynamics to their breaking point. Nathan’s biggest fear is revealed early on — the prospect of adopting his abusive father’s behaviour. Theresa’s battle with cancer has left her disconnected with her teenage daughter, who has an inclination towards black magic, necromancy, and fishnet stockings, while Jack’s voluntary isolation will make him the most susceptible to evil influences. The colour’s presence amplifies these latent tensions, doing justice to the monstrous creatures of Lovecraftian mythology that are less personified here but are, nonetheless, the offspring of psychological and physiological regression – mother and son are violently strung together in one organism, while Nathan ultimately succumbs and becomes his deranged father. Horror is, it seems, a liminal state between being solid as a rock (even metaphorically) and becoming as liquid and immaterial as a radiating colour.
Nevertheless, the film’s narrative oscillates between moments of excess and normalisation, fluctuating in tone and diluting its emotional intensity. By the end of the film, the pathos of an omniscient narrator strikes as mawkish and the psychological portraits wasted, discarding the metamorphic potential of becoming monster. In hindsight, Colour Out of Space places a brave bet on its creative ingenuity, only to be reduced to alpaca memes and agricultural quotes. Put simply, if a film spends too much time mocking its flesh-and-bones characters’ quirkiness, it may as well be remembered only for its alpacas.
Colour Out of Space screened as part of the 2019 BFI London Film Festival.