Cosmic horror has always been difficult to translate on film. H.P. Lovecraft, the genre’s godfather, wrote about characters facing otherworldly terrors that defied description: trans-dimensional monsters whose mere sightings could drive a person to madness. The stories were often short on description and heavy on suggestion, relying on readers’ imaginations to fill in the blanks on what dreadful, oozing creatures lurk along our universe’s outskirts.
That’s a tough vision for any filmmaker to literalize on screen, which is why most tend to not even try. Stuart Gordon pulled it off wonderfully with 1986’s profane and delirious From Beyond and Alex Garland’s 2018 adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation worked as a headier, more philosophical riff on Lovecraftian themes. Color Out of Space — the first full-length feature since 1992 from director Richard Stanley, responsible for such cult classics as Hardware and Dust Devil — already arrives with lofty expectations using one of Lovecraft’s most revered tales as source material. Add a berserker Nicolas Cage in the lead role, and you’ve got all the makings of a midnight-movie masterwork.
Color Out of Space doesn’t reach those impossible heights, but it’s a gory hoot all the same. As with Stanley’s previous efforts, Color is rough around the edges, suffering from a pace that lags in stretches and frustratingly thin characters. Still, every time it threatens to collapse under its own self-seriousness or spends too much time following a character we don’t care for, Stanley will startle the film out of its stupor with some grisly body horror, or Cage will make an inexplicable acting choice in the way only he can.
Like From Beyond or Re-Animator (also from Gordon), Stanley’s adaptation modernizes Lovecraft’s original premise while offering a handful of idiosyncratic touches. Whereas Gordon added perverse sexual overtones to differentiate his takes, Stanley goes all in on ethereal cinematography and a brooding atmosphere that eventually grows into full-borne hysteria. He also throws in a manic Cage performance and a few alpacas for good measure. The plot kicks off when a meteorite crash lands onto the Gardner family’s farm; the resulting crater emits an ominous, pink-purple fog that surely — at the very least — can’t bode well for any surrounding crops.
Of course, this movie isn’t concerned with logic or characters who make rational decisions. So the family does not realize that the meteorite’s alien properties have contaminated the water supply until they’re already deep into crazy-pants territory. Despite the frequent signs things are amiss, and everyone’s increasingly erratic behavior, no one ever really tries to, you know, get the hell out of Dodge.
Such lapses in logic can be forgiven, however, as the fun lies in Stanley gradually ratcheting up the weirdness while the meteor’s mutative effects begin to take hold. The film’s second act is mainly an excuse for Cage to lose his shit, screaming about alpacas and acting in monstrous ways toward his family. It’s one of those instances in which Cage’s mega-acting is used in service of the story itself rather than in direct opposition to it. His lunacy here doesn’t rival the glory of 2018’s Mom and Dad (with which Color shares several surprising similarities), yet those in need of a quick Cage fix can do far, far worse.
The other performers aren’t quite as up to the task, although Joely Richardson brings a lingering menace as the wife, Theresa. There is a moment halfway through involving Theresa and a kitchen knife that’s Stanley’s way of announcing his lack of fear regarding bonkers developments. The young boy and teen son and daughter (respectively played by Julian Hilliard, Brendan Meyer and Madeleine Arthur) don’t fare much better, with the former succumbing to those tired “creepy boy” tropes of unsettling, scratchy drawings in crayon while Arthur’s sullen goth girl and Meyer’s generic pothead never coalesce into anything besides lame teenage stereotypes.
What elevates Color from passable DTV trash to solid horror schlock is Stanley’s willingness to appall audiences. The travesties that befall the Gardner family are unquestionably heinous, and halfway through a certain character’s body is molded into a form that can only be described as obscene. The (overall) reliance on practical effects is a relief as well; when a movie’s tension and gross-out moments resort to shoddy CGI, it can sink the entire enterprise. This may not be the magnificent return to form that a certain niche of horror geeks may have hoped to see from Stanley, but it’s nevertheless nice to see him team with Cage for such a goofy, unreconstructed dip into Lovecraftian terror.