Well ain’t that weird, this one’s a tricky one- I actually quite liked Richard Stanley’s The Color Out of Space a wee teeny bit, but I’m hard pressed to explain why. Maybe its the fairly poor track record for films based on H P Lovecraft’s horror fiction; its highly likely that the best Lovecraft films are not actually based on any of his stories at all- thinking of Alien and Annihilation here- and its pretty clear that when film-makers try to bring actual HPL stories to the screen it never really ends well. Ironically, while HPL’s own prose is very serious and thoughtful archaically elegant, most films seem to swap tension for laughs, as if the tales are just so ridiculous you have to wink at the audience rather than yell “boo!” which is something that has endlessly irritated me, a trend set way back by 1985’s Re-Animator. If I had to name my favourite ‘proper’ Lovecraft film, it would probably be the late Stuart Gordon’s Dagon from 2001, and that was far from perfect. Or maybe the 2005 Call of Cthulhu produced by H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society, although I’d contend that was more a ‘fan film’ than a genuine full-fledged motion picture. What I’m saying is, as far as Lovecraft films are concerned, the bar’s set pretty low.
Maybe if Guillermo del Toro had managed to shoot his At the Mountains of Madness film ten years ago, things would be much different. That film possibly ranks among the great films never made, one of those lingering ‘what-ifs’ that film buffs can wax lyrical over whilst sharing drinks on a cold and stormy night. By all accounts, that film might finally have been Lovecraft done right, with a huge budget, visionary director and a great cast.
Lets get the elephant out of the room straight away- I’m no fan at all of Nicolas Cage and he is perfectly hideous in this. Although one can argue the slippery slope his career has been on has been a long and steep one (if Hollywood had a Mariana Trench, you’d find Nic halfway down it), in recent years particularly he has essentially become a parody of himself. Here in The Color Out of Space he is absolutely, horrifyingly, mind-bogglingly terrible- I’ve seen him phone in some nonsense before, but he seems to think he can justify his casting in this film by having a wild tantrum in the kitchen. Maybe there is some level of meta-horror here in his casting that escapes me, some level of terror that his performance graces this film with that elevates it to some other subconscious territory of horror – God knows when I think back upon his performance it evokes something of a shudder.
Its clear that The Color Out of Space suffers by being made after the fantastic Annihilation, a film that, sharing so many of the themes and ideas of Lovecraft’s original story, visually pre-empted many of the visual flourishes that Richard Stanley uses here- the twisted, richly-coloured vegetation and strange alien creatures used to express the sense of unknowable, alien nature. Indeed some viewers could be forgiven, in fact, for mistakenly thinking its based on the same source material or is indeed a sequel, both films after all concerned with an alien rock falling to Earth and transforming the land around its crash site, and ultimately warping reality. The world within the Shimmer of Annihilation has a profound strangeness, of normality slipping into alien nightmare, and Stanley uses similar art direction to same effect with this film. But Alex Garland’s film is far, far superior, with a better cast and script, and Stanley of course sadly has to contend with dear Nic. In any case, with the nagging feel of the familiar hanging so obviously over Stanley’s film, it loses any sense of originality that might have otherwise excited attention.
But all that being said, how bad Cage is and how much the film suffers in comparison to Alex Garland’s film, I have to admit I still found it worthwhile. Maybe it was just refreshing to see someone trying to make something decent while at the same time making a HPL film: its heart was in the right place, you know? You gotta love a trier, especially if you’re a fan of this Lovecraft stuff, as I am.
Yet again though, here’s a horror film that makes the unforgivable sin of not really being scary, but that’s something I can say of most horror films of late so its perhaps not fair to slap the film with that one. Perhaps its the limitations of the budget, or the cast (the lack of chemistry between Cage and his onscreen wife Theresa, played by Joely Richardson, is deplorable, albeit quite funny in their awkward romantic moments, which had me wondering if it was a clever reference to Lovecraft’s real-life antipathy towards women, as if Stanley was weaving some complex meta-story). One of my chief issues turned out to be that perennial favourite of HPL movies: with it showing flower-child daughter Lavinia (Madeline Arthur) messing around with amateur black magic at the start, the film establishes a silly fairy-tale-like milieu from the start that undermines any attempt to make anything afterwards feel as real or involving as the events, of, say, Annihilation. And that’s before the pattern of nuttiness that rolls in when Nic appears, leaving Stanley nowhere to go but a kookier colour Purple than even Prince could have ever imagined. This, in a film which I’ve praised for being a serious take on Lovecraft. If nothing else, that surely indicates how low the bar has fallen with all these Lovecraft adaptations.