You could say that Richard Stanley’s new movie Color out of Space is a mashup of relatively recent horror films like The Thing, The Witch, and Annihilation, but really you just need to look at the film’s source material and those films’ progenitor: the works of H.P. Lovecraft. Based on Lovecraft’s short story “The Colour out of Space”, Stanley’s movie offers its audience no quarter as a family is slowly torn asunder in body and soul by an otherworldly force. For fans of Lovecraft, there’s plenty to like in Stanley’s contemporary adaptation, but when there’s no trace of hope for the characters, the audience likewise becomes trapped. Halfway through the film, you know all these people are doomed, and so you just bide your time and hope that the psychedelic visuals and another crazy Nicolas Cage performance are enough to carry the day. Sadly, they’re not.
Set in the present day (Lovecraft’s story was published in 1927), we follow the Gardner family—father Nathan (Cage), mother Theresa (Joely Richardson), daughter Lavinia (Madeleine Arthur), and sons Benny (Brendan Meyer) and Jack (Julian Hiliard)—live a relatively quiet life on a small farm near the fictional New England city of Arkham. One night, a meteorite of a strange color crashes down in their front yard. Despite warning from the local hydrologist Ward Phillips (Elliot Knight), no one seems to acknowledge how this foreign body has contaminated the water table and also seems to be wrecking havoc on all electronic devices. As the foreign body starts transforming the flora and fauna outside the Gardners’ home, the family starts going insane as the unidentified terror rips apart their bodies and minds.
By the time the first act of the film was over, I asked myself why I was even watching this, not because the movie was awful, but because I knew I was subjecting myself to a barrage of horror and dread for about two hours. For some viewers, they happily sign up for those emotions. At no point does Stanley trick his audience. This is a film by a Lovecraft fan for Lovecraft fans. Ward even wears a Miskatonic University shirt. When you get into Lovecraft’s world, you need to know that things are going to go very, very bad for pretty much everyone and there’s no solution to the horror. Imagine Poltergeist but no one is coming to help the family and the ghosts win, and you’re on the right track to Color out of Space.
Stanley plays up the psychedelic visuals and helps put you in the mindset of the family losing everything, and yet it feels emotionally hollow. You get very little sense of the Gardners’ individuality before everything starts falling apart, so their pain becomes generic. You know that Lavinia is into wicca, Benny smokes pot, Jack is an adorable scamp, Theresa is recovering from cancer, and Nathan may have made a mistake thinking he could raise alpacas. It’s better than nothing, but it’s not much, and certainly not enough for us to grieve the loss of these people. They essentially become cannon fodder while we wait for the Eldritch horror to engulf them completely.
For me, that becomes kind of exhausting. Yes, the film is scary and shocking and feels Lovecraftian in a way that also plays as modern, but there’s not really anywhere for the story to go except “And then more bad things happened.” Some may derive some giddy glee from the family’s misfortunes, but there’s no dramatic tension to the events. It’s just constant horror with no dramatic investment beyond what strange and awful thing Stanley will unveil next. What starts out as terrifying eventually just becomes tedious.
The director also isn’t helped by Cage’s performance. We’ve seen that Cage can do quite well in psychedelic horror (Mandy), but here his performance is so off-balance that Nathan never feels like a real person struggling with the loss of his family. Perhaps to make the madness seem more random, Nathan will switch from “crazy” to “sane”, but that only serves to show how goofy his crazy side is. When Nathan is in “crazy” mode, he puts on a weird accent and seems like a different person rather than a more dangerous and psychopathic version of his “sane” self. There are those who like to watch Cage go crazy, but I like seeing him give a real performance because it makes me invested in the character. There’s a time and place for ironic Nicolas Cage appreciation, but it’s not here.
If you’re looking for Lovecraftian horror and not much more, Color out of Space certainly delivers. But the film feels like a missed opportunity to use Lovecraft’s creatures and inescapable dread to tell an interesting story that’s actually about something. Yes, there are glances at corrupt government and global warming, but the focus is on destroying this family and everything they hold dear. And if that’s to be the film’s focus, then we need to care about these people as individuals and not just prey for an alien terror. Unfortunately for the Gardners and us, they only exist to suffer.