Color Out of Space is auteur director Richard Stanley’s return to filmmaking almost a quarter century after being unjustly fired during the filming of 1996’s The Island of Dr. Moreau and literally running off into the jungle. And we’re lucky to have him back, because Color Out of Space fully rules. Based on the short story “The Colour out of Space” by horror architect H.P. Lovecraft, the film is about a meteor that crashes into the Gardner family farm, emitting an otherworldly light that gradually reveals itself to be a malevolent entity from beyond space and time. The Color corrupts everything around it, mutating plants and animals (and the Gardners themselves) while twisting the very fabric of reality so that nobody can remember the last time the alpacas got fed, let alone what day it is.
The movie is a gorgeous piece of surreal psychological horror, with some gen-u-ine gore and body horror thrown in for good measure, just in case you thought the Color was all about mind games. Things hit a fever pitch in the last 20 minutes, when the world goes full-Lovecraft and logic is obliterated into cosmic dust set to a soundtrack of Nicolas Cage doing his voice from Vampire’s Kiss. Stanley does an excellent job of adapting the cacophonous madness that punctuates virtually every Lovecraft story, which consequently means that it’s a bit confusing. So what exactly happened in that ending, after the hapless hydrologist Ward (Elliot Knight) returns to the Gardner house to try and save the family only to have the shit hit the interdimensional fan? Obviously, SPOILERS are ahead, so if you haven’t watched Color Out of Space you should probably do that before you read any further, and also what the hell are you doing with your life?
The concept of shifting time is a major point throughout the movie – Lavinia (Madeleine Arthur) stands in a trance at the kitchen sink after washing her mother’s blood off of a knife for something like 6 hours, while Benny (Brendan Meyer) gets lost in their own backyard for an entire day. The genial old hermit Ezra (Tommy Chong) suggests to Ward that he has been sitting in his shack recording audio evidence of the alien entity for a very, very long time, despite the fact that the meteor only crashed a few days ago. So keep that dynamic in mind as we unpack the film’s bizarre ending.
Ward returns to the Gardner farm with Sheriff Pierce (Josh C. Waller) to see Nathan (Cage) sitting alone on the couch watching an endless stream of static in which the Color can barely be seen making shapes that are just beyond comprehension. When asked where his family is, Nathan bemusedly gestures to the empty room and insists they’re all here with him. At this point, Nathan is fully plugged into the time loop created by the Color, which means as far as he can tell, his family truly is sitting in the living room with him. He’s experiencing past and present events simultaneously, because of how the Color warps time and reality around those it infects. Bookmark this exchange in your head, because it’s going to be the key to understanding what happens in the climax.
Ward and Pierce bust into the attic where Nathan has locked Lavinia with the mutated creature that used to be his wife Theresa (Joely Richardson) and their youngest son Jack (Julian Hilliard). Ward and Pierce are understandably too stunned to react, but Nathan appears and kills the creature himself, muttering “They’re not my family.” Because again, as far as he’s concerned, his family is sitting downstairs waiting for him in some past memory that the Color is projecting for him. They all head downstairs, where Nathan sees the Color rising out of the well and aims his gun to fire at it. Pierce, thinking Nathan is pointing the gun at Ward, shoots Nathan, presumably killing him. Ward tries to convince Lavinia to leave, but she refuses, insisting “I live here.” Lavinia, who earlier wanted nothing more than to escape the farm and abandon her parents, is trapped in the same time loop that absorbed Nathan – her family is alive and intact right here on the farm, so why should she want to leave?
Ward and Pierce go to Ezra’s shack to try and evacuate him, but they discover that the hermit has aged to the point of mummification. Ezra’s body is glowing with the infection of the Color, with his reel-to-reel Memorex tape deck playing his dictations about the Color on a loop that is constantly speeding up and slowing down, either from extreme deterioration due to age or because of the fluctuating time continuum. (Or both!) The Color bursts out of Ezra’s body and warps the area around his shack, bringing a tree to life that snares and crushes Sheriff Pierce to death.
When Ward returns to the Gardner farm, he finds Lavinia, fully inhabited by the Color, standing in front of the well as the entity flows out into the air around them and funnels upward into the sky, opening a portal to the Color’s home dimension. She grabs Ward and imbues a vision of the Color’s world, which in true Lovecraft fashion is just sharp angles and insanity. Ward breaks free and we can see that he is glowing slightly from the Color’s influence, but it appears that he severed the connection before getting completely absorbed. Lavinia disintegrates from our reality and is taken up into the cyclone, and Ward runs inside the Gardner farmhouse.
Here’s where conventional logic really begins to slip. Ward appears to be constantly sliding into a prism of light, which is the pull of the Color attempting to draw him into its dimension. Everything around him is afflicted with the same visual effect, which represents the Color beginning to rip everything in the farmhouse out of reality. Ward can now hear the voices of the Gardner family as they spoke to each other over dinner in one of the film’s earlier scenes. He can also see Nathan sitting in the living room just as he was before, staring fixedly at the TV. The rash on his body is now even more advanced than it was when he was supposedly killed by Sheriff Pierce, with his face covered in huge boils. Nathan’s continued deterioration suggests that he either wasn’t actually dead when Ward and the Sheriff left for Ezra’s, or that the Color is keeping his body animated on cosmic life support. (Or a third possibility that a future version of Nathan has been created by the Color’s time distortion, similar to what happened to Ezra.) But there’s clearly enough of Nathan left in that body to compel him to sit and wait in his chair, his designated spot as the Gardner patriarch. Ward can also see the echoes of the Gardner family sitting in the room with Nathan, presumably what Nathan himself was seeing when he insisted earlier that his family was gathered around him. Nathan chases Ward into the basement as reality continues to slide, speaking in memories Ward has of his interactions with the Gardners (most notably, Nathan repeats Lavinia’s playful accusation “Are you looking at my legs?” in Lavinia’s voice). Ward is experiencing the time loop for himself, surrounded by the echoes of the Gardner family that the Color has programmed into an infinite playlist. Finally, the farmhouse and the surrounding land are torn up into the sky and back into space by the Color, leaving behind a blasted landscape of colorless ash. Ward climbs out of the cellar and presumably spends the next several days drinking heavily.
The final scene of the movie is Ward standing on the hydroelectric dam his company sent him out here to survey in the first place. Ward’s closing narration implies that the Gardner’s land was flooded to make the dam, erasing any evidence of what happened. But the very last shot shows the sky above the dam glowing with the Color, suggesting that a trace of the entity remained behind.
Drowned cities and forgotten knowledge are a common motif in Lovecraft’s work, so the ending is both thematically satisfying and a bit of an easter egg. Stanley is a Lovecraft fan, so unsurprisingly there are a handful of other easter eggs scattered throughout Color Out of Space for fellow Weird Fiction nerds to find. Ward wears a Miskatonic University shirt, which is a major location in several Lovecraft stories, including “The Dunwich Horror” and “Herbert West – Reanimator” (and the cult classic Stuart Gordon film adaptation Re-Animator). The towns of Arkham, Innsmouth, Kingsport, and Dunwich are all mentioned, which comprise “Lovecraft Country”, the fictional areas of Massachusetts, Vermont and Rhode Island wherein the majority of the author’s stories take place.
But the biggest easter egg is Lavinia herself. First of all, Lavinia uses a copy of the Necronomicon to cast a ritualistic spell to protect herself and allow her to escape. If you pay attention, the spell actually works – Nathan throws her to the Theresa creature, but while the monster spends considerable time slobbering menacingly into her face, Lavinia isn’t actually harmed by it (or by anything else, really). And she technically escapes the farm when she is dragged off into space by the Color, although probably not in the manner she was envisioning when she cast the spell.
But here’s the biggie – the Necronomicon is a fictional book created by Lovecraft that featured heavily in some of his stories, notably in “The Dunwich Horror”. Lavinia is named after Lavinia Whately, a character in “The Dunwich Horror” who uses the Necronomicon to summon a monstrous extra-dimensional being. And Stanley has stated that he plans to make a trilogy of Lovecraft films, with the second installment being an adaptation of “The Dunwich Horror”. If that’s not the winking of some gigantic cosmic eye, I need to return my copy of Vampire’s Kiss to the Stygian abyss which birthed it.
Color Out of Space is now available on Digital HD, Blu-ray, and DVD.