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Making the switchover from H. G. Wells to H. P. Lovecraft, director Richard Stanley comes back from the 1996 debacle of losing his long-cherished project, The Island of Doctor Moreau. His new Color Out of Space is a satisfying shot at bringing a classic of the sci-fi/horror genre to modern audiences. Though updated with internet and cellphones that receive alien babble at all the wrong moments, it’s surprisingly faithful to Lovecraft’s original story “The Colour Out of Space” published in Amazing Stories magazine in 1927.
Of the many short stories that the cult writer penned in his life, this was his personal favorite. Centered on evil aliens who invade Earth as an eerie, nonexistent color, it has stretched the imagination of readers and filmgoers alike and has enjoyed many screen adaptations, beginning with the 1965 film Die, Monster, Die! starring Boris Karloff.
Hitting the main plot points with well-designed SFX and some impressive night photography, Stanley’s film manages to be frightening indeed, even with star Nicolas Cage’s semi-farcical leavening adding some nutty laughs. RLJE Films, who did quite well with Cage’s bloody revenge tale Mandy, confirmed U.S. release just as the film bowed in TIFF’s Midnight Madness tank.
Paterfamilias Nathan Gardner (Cage) has just moved his brood to the Massachusetts sticks, in fact to Arkham, the dark city often featured in Lovecraft stories. Blithely unaware of this, Nathan and his wife Theresa (Joely Richardson, matching his hippie-turned-houseowner look) have renovated his father’s old farmhouse with modern taste and comfort. He grows tomatoes in the garden and back in the barn he’s busy raising — wait for it — alpacas, which even his kids think is ridiculous. A symbol of Nathan’s basic unfitness as a farmer, the woolly creatures become a running gag. Meanwhile, Theresa struggles to keep in touch with her clients over the house’s dicey internet system while recovering from a breast cancer operation. They’re an offbeat couple you can’t help but like, even when everything you know about horror films tells you to keep your distance.
The three kids are in various phases of rural adjustment. While oft-stoned Benny (Brendan Meyer) dutifully feeds the alpacas, teenage Lavinia (Madeleine Arthur) has a rebellious streak and is a practicing Wiccan, which is presented in a rather positive light as an empowering woman thing. She’s in the middle of a magic ritual by the river to heal her sick mom when she is interrupted by a good-looking young surveyor sent to test the water levels. Ward (Elliot Knight of American Gothic) will stand in as narrator and witness of the horror to follow.
Completing this basically lovable family is little Jack (Julian Hilliard, who already earned his horror stripes in the recent The Haunting of Hill House), a sweet mama’s boy who is the first to get hypnotized by the Color. It lands one night inside a steaming red-hot ball near a well in the front yard. Nathan calls in Arkham’s sheriff and the mayor (Q’orianka Kilcher), who get Ward’s educated opinion that they’re probably dealing with a meteorite.
But according to the old hippie Ezra (Tommy Chong) who lives in the woods, something has gone seriously wrong with nature, an idea that shifts the tale into modern ecological disaster territory.
You can’t trust the Earth anymore. Flash lightning storms, tropical creepers and radios going berserk are added to other inexplicable phenomena. Jack starts talking to someone in the apparently empty well and a huge, mutant praying mantis flies out in brilliant colors. The family dog goes missing. Nathan’s crop of giant tomatoes ripens early but tastes horrible, mushrooms sprout in vivid fuchsia and the water turns poisonous. Good thing that Ward, a hydrologist, decides not to drink it. Too bad for the Gardners. In a truly scary shower scene, Nathan discovers his arm is turning scaly. He’s also starting to be hypnotized by waves of color on the TV set and is getting much weirder than he already was.
All of this is a bit random and haphazard but it’s clearly leading up to something, and that something is the payoff. When the Color decides to let go, there’s no stopping it, and one by one the members of the family are made to feel its power. The dog reappears as a mutant monster and the alpacas turn into melted cheese. The family starts losing their minds. Nathan crosses the line when he goes all hysterical and begins locking up broken loved ones in the attic.
It’s hard to depict a scary color, particularly one that has never been seen before and is outside the visual spectrum, but DP Steve Annis takes a valiant stab at shades of pinkish violet that swirl through the air like a pastel fog. The film also does a good job suggesting horrid things — mangled bodies, radiation burns, mutated animals— without fully showing them, leaving much to the imagination. Only in the final explosive blowout do the special effects people go for broke, no more subtlety needed.
Production companies: SpectreVision, ACE Pictures
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Joely Richardson, Q’orianka Kilcher, Madeleine Arthur, Brendan Meyer, Julian Hilliard, Elliot Knight, Tommy Chong
Director: Richard Stanley
Screenwriters: Richard Stanley, Scarlett Amaris, based on the H. P. Lovecraft story
Producers: Daniel Noah, Josh Waller, Lisa Whalen, Elijah Wood
Director of photography: Steve Annis
Production designer: Katie Byron
Costume designer: Patricia Doria
Editor: Brett W. Bachman
Music: Colin Stetson
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Midnight Madness)
World sales: XYZ Films
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