A film review by Craig J. Koban March 14, 2020

COLOR OUT OF SPACE jjj
 

2020, No MPAA rating, 111 mins.

 

Nicolas Cage as Nathan Gardner  /  Joely Richardson as Theresa Gardner  /  Q'orianka Kilcher as Mayor Tooma  /  Tommy Chong as Ezra  /  Brendan Meyer as Benny Gardner  /  Madeleine Arthur as Lavinia Gardner  /  Julian Hilliard as Jack Gardner

Directed by Richard Stanley  /  Written by Stanley and Scarlett Amaris, based on the short story by H. P. Lovecraft

 

 

 

 

It's hard to imagine that director Richard Stanley hasn't made a feature film in nearly 25 years.  

His last attempt at such was the doomed production of 1996's THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU, which was a self professed passion project for the filmmaker, but his dreams of seeing that film through to final fruition failed when he was unceremoniously terminated and replaced during principal photography.  Soured to the whole Hollywood system, Stanley has laid dormant from it ever since, opting to make documentaries and short films to quell his creative thirsts.  Outside of MOREAU, 1992's DUST DEVIL and 1990's HARDWARE, Stanley simply hasn't been a part of the feature film world. 

That, of course, changes with COLOR OUT OF SPACE, which marks a highly triumphant return to form for the previously disgraced director, which in turn (by his own aims) marks the first in a trilogy of films based on the impossibly-hard-to-adapt-to-film works of H.P. Lovecraft.  The wait was well worth it, seeing as COLOR OUT OF SPACE (based on a Lovecraft short story) benefits from a supreme audacity of vision from Stanley, who manages to take very difficult source material and miraculously crafts something genuinely horrifying and visually stimulating all the same.  Part SIGNS, part THE THING, part THE FLY, and multiple parts INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, COLOR OUR OF SPACE benefits from not only from being a supremely assured and bold appropriation of Lovecraft's source material, but it also represents a truly inspired mishmash of midnight cult film appeal with the sheer and untamed nuttiness of Nicolas Cage, who stars here as the lead in a memorably gonzo performance with very little filters being placed over him. The unbridled strangeness of Lovecraft blended with the unhinged performance histrionics of Cage makes for a wicked cocktail, for sure.  

The Oscar winning actor isn't in full-on Cage-ian insanity mode right from the very beginning, though.  In the opening stages of the film we meet his character, Nathan Gardner, a former artist that has decided to completely uproot his entire family to Arkham, Massachusetts, more specifically to a rural farm where he hopes to cultivate a living as a raiser of alpacas (okay, so the film is weird from the get-go).  His wife in Theresa (Joely Richardson) has recently had a tough battle with cancer, and their children in Lavinia (Madeline Arthur) and her young brother Benny (Brendan Meyer) deal with their own unique growing pains of being isolated from the world.  Their relative state of normalcy is deeply uprooted by the sudden crash landing appearance of a mysterious asteroid of unknown origin on their front lawn.  And it's no ordinary space rock, mostly because it pulsates with an ethereally bright pink/purple glow.   

 

 

The family is initially annoyed by the appearance of this extraterrestrial anomaly that has gutted their property, but things change for the worse when the rock starts to spontaneously disintegrate, and it's at this point when some truly bizarre occurrences begin.  New flowers begin to rapidly bloom in Nathan's garden, with his own tomato crop managing to sprout in ways that defy all agricultural science.  Then the home's electronic devices begin to behave strangely, losing their signals and displaying ominously creepy test patterns.  Soon after this, all of the members of the Gardner clan begin acting very, very oddly, which shockingly culminates with a near zombified Theresa committing a horrific act of bodily harm to herself without even acknowledging it.  The youngest kid in Jack (Julian Hilliard) becomes utterly transfixed by their well, and Nathan displays what could be best described as schizophrenic behavior.  A newly arrived hydrologist in Ward (Elliot Knight) begins to sense that something is wrong with the water supply after doing some routine tests, but it might be too little too late for the Gardners, as their possessed minds get the better of them, and the entity that's doing the possessing leads them down a truly nightmarish path. 

One thing that I chiefly admired about COLOR OUT OF SPACE is Stanley's untamed willingness to simply swing for the fences and embrace this macabre material as opposed to lazily and slavishly adhering to safe and secure genre troupes.  Obviously, the idea of aliens - in one form or another coming to Earth to infest people and rob them of their humanity - is hardly new to sci-fi horror, but COLOR OUT OF SPACE brings a whole new level of chilling weirdness to the proceedings.  As the foreign spirit begins to take a stranglehold on the family, it's at this point when Stanley's film becomes a twisted menagerie of ghoulish sights and sounds.  This isn't an obligatory alien invasion picture on pure autopilot, nor does it involve this family battling the aliens in the literally sense.  COLOR OUT OF SPACE is about showing the unstoppable and almost invisible way that the alien force corrupts this group for the hellish worse, leaving them with very little in the way of a fall-back defensive position.  What is Nathan, as the head of the family, to do when his skin starts to rot and his mind has become equally rotten by this cosmic force? 

For a modest budgeted effort, COLOR OUT OF SPACE contains a considerable amount of glossy production value, especially in the arena of practical and CG visual effects, the former delving into aspects of ghastly body disturbance horror that makes comparisons to similar work in THE THING all the more credible.  Horrific sights and monsters also appear to traumatize the broken down Gardners, with the titular color from space perhaps being the most intimidating of all of the dangerous forces.  The otherworldly and psychedelic cinematography here works wonders at crafting a vividly beautiful, but terrifying sheen to the film, and Colin Stetson's undulating music score eerily compliments the story's parade of monstrous imagery.  As an auditory/visual experience, COLOR OUT OF SPACE is an intoxicating affair, showing Stanley's unwavering desire to make audience members feel as increasingly ill at ease as the characters. 

Commendably, Stanley takes his time on expositional family particulars before throwing them down a rabbit hole of unspeakable horrors.  The character dynamics of the Gardners feels relatable and authentically drawn, in particular Theresa's recent grapple with and victory over a near cancer afflicted death, leading to her having fears and doubts about her future (it has the effect of making what happens to her and her husband all the more unbearably unsettling when the alien starts to really have its way with them).  Then, of course, there's Cage's appearance here in this RLJE studio produced fright fest (they also coincidentally produced last year's straight-up insane MANDY, also starring Cage).  True to form, Cage is given supreme carte blanche here to show Nathan's slow descent into incurable madness, and those in attendance watching COLOR OUT OF SPACE wanting - nay, demanding - another soon-to-be legendary cult freak-out performance, then you'll definitely feel appeased here.  Witnessing the actor's work in MANDY and in COLOR OUT OF SPACE (two pitch perfectly paired for future double feature screenings) reminds us that only an actor of Cage's range, skill, and throw caution to the wind nuttiness would have made this role work. 

Having said all of that, it's a true Herculean feat that Stanley has lovingly and boldly crafted a sci-fi horror effort that's arguably crazier than Cage's bizarre acting proclivities, and I think it certainly requires some level of discipline and conceptual persistence for Stanley to hold this whole enterprise together with reasonable confidence.  Not everything works here, though, like perhaps a bit of distracting too on the nose casting of Tommy Chong as a local pot smoking hermit with a cat named...G-Spot (he's good in the film, but the payoff of his character is kind of achingly telegraphed).  There's a somewhat failed attempt to flesh out some of the surrounding town's characters that kind of goes nowhere.  Yet, those are minuscule issues, because I was so taken in by the sheer haunting strangeness of COLOR OUT OF SPACE that I found myself having a hard time shaking this picture from my mind after viewing it.  Equal parts intense, perverse, and harrowingly offbeat and unpredictable (the climax alone is a bombastically bloodcurdling humdinger), Stanley's first feature film since the mid 1990s shows that he still has nerve-jangling tricks up his sleeves.  

And if you want to see a scene featuring an unstoppably crazed Cage orally abusing multiple ripe tomatoes, then look no further than here. 

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