H.P. Lovecraft is a flaming racist. He is a terrible human being who treated people of color and women with total disdain in most of his writing. There it is. I am glad we got that out of the way. I am on the record that at the very least he is quite problematic. When it comes to cosmic dread his work is also foundational. Which means folks who enjoy the academic side of horror (as we do here at Signal Horizon) often have difficulty reconciling the two.
So when Richard Stanley chose to open his adaptation of The Color out of Space with a strong and powerful female lead meeting an African American hydrologist, Stanley was prepared to meet Lovecraft’s demons head on. It is the first choice in a litany of choices Stanley embraced that made this adaptation a triumph. It was the most fun I had at Fantastic Fest. The movie had a clear vision, strong performances,and an aesthetic that was so confident it was able to capture the essence of the sublime a literary concept that is incredibly difficult to bring to the big screen but one Lovecraft loved to use.
Adapted (sometimes literally as the opening and closing lines are lifted directly from the short story) from the Lovecraft short story of a similar name Color out of Space follows the Gardner family as they deal with the fallout from a meteor landing in their backyard. As the origins of the meteor become clearer (maybe murkier) the family and its farm start to change in frightening ways. The Gardner’s patriarch Nathan is played by Nicolas Cage who alternates between a slightly quirky dad and full blown Rage Cage as the film progresses. Late in the film he spends a great deal of time doing what can only be described as a Trump impression (Stanley confirmed in the Q and A after the film that the impression borrows heavily from the Commander in Chief).
Cage is allowed the freedom to create highs and lows but never becomes the dominant focal point. Unlike Mandy which seems as much about Nick Cage as about the plot, Stanley uses Cage as an ensemble piece which greatly benefits the movie overall. Madeleine Arthur who plays the teenage daughter carries the film. She is the first person on screen and the final character we worry about. As things on the Gardner Farm go from bad to worse she brings the emotional punch that turns the film from good to great. The other actors bring strong performances that help set the ambiance and mood. Tommy Chong playing the squatter Ezra brings an over the top mysticism to his role that only seems to be fitting. Ezra and his strange shack are all based off a friend of Stanley who helped inspire the film. That story alone made all of Fantastic Fest worth it.
The color palette is beautiful. In many ways, the movie leans heavy into the Weird elements of the story. Vibrant hues, impossible colors, and natural elements that feel slightly off, start to invade the farm as the entire family vacillates from awe to fear. Its not just the colors of the movie as Stanley uses a healthy dose of practical effects to create some of the monsters. There is a hybrid monster we spend a lot of time with at the end of the film that does an incredible job of being empathetic while also instilling terror in the characters and the audience. That is what is so compelling about the story and the movie. Its grandeur is so total that you can’t help but look at it slack-jawed. Its the exact same response the Gardner family has when initially confronted with the color out of space.
Richard Stanley is back from director purgatory. Stanley’s reputation was sullied by The Island of Dr. Moreau adaptation that was a train-wreck from the get-go. Perhaps the best thing that could have happened was his removal from that film if it ended up allowing him to create Color Out of Space. Or, it could be that he never left the industry at all. That he was biding his time, writing, directing and preparing for this confident return to the mainstream (if that is what this is). His talent is singular and when you pair it with bizarre source material and actors willing to take big swings you end up with art.
Fantastic, haunting, grotesque art. The entire movie feels like we are living inside of a Dali or Picasso painting and we can’t get out of. Guernica made real. Somehow Stanley navigates Lovecraft with such a delicate nature that we get all of the greatness of the troubled author without any of the baggage. Its a difficult task for sure. To somehow separate the racist from the racism, The sexism from the misogynist. But Stanley succeeds so completely it feels meant to be. Maybe it was.
Tyler has been the editor in chief of Signal Horizon since its conception. He is also the Director of Monsters 101 at Truman State University a class that pairs horror movie criticism with survival skills to help middle and high school students learn critical thinking. When he is not watching, teaching or thinking about horror he is the Director of Debate and Forensics at a high school in Kansas City, Missouri.