Richard Stanley makes his feature directing return with a can’t-miss combination of Nicolas Cage and H.P. Lovecraft.
Once upon a time, there was a promising young filmmaker named Richard Stanley, who wrote and directed Hardware, outrageously violent dystopian sci-fi horror that developed a dedicated cult following. Though Hardware was a flop at the box office, and Stanley’s follow up feature Dust Devil barely saw theatrical release, he was given a golden opportunity to direct a big budget adaptation of The Island of Dr. Moreau. This resulted in a legendarily disastrous film shoot, where not one, but two actors seemed to take their roles with the express purpose of sabotaging the production. Stanley actually got off easy, as he was fired barely a week into filming (and later snuck back onto set in costume), but the experience so soured him on feature-length filmmaking that he spent the next two decades focused mostly on short films and documentaries.
Some of these dispiriting stories about the cutthroat world of movies have a happy ending, however, and here it’s Stanley returning to feature films with Color Out of Space, a nicely creepy mindmelter adapted from an H.P. Lovecraft short story. If the idea of Nicolas Cage doing Lovecraft makes you all but quiver in anticipation, you’re just the target audience. With that combination, even if the movie was bad, it would still be entertaining. There’s simply no way it couldn’t be. That it turns out to be well-made and effectively unsettling is merely a bonus.
Cage stars as Nathan Gardner, who’s relocated to a farm far out in the isolated woods of New England with wife Theresa (Joely Richardson), teen witch daughter Lavinia (Madeleine Arthur), stoner son Benny (Brendan Meyer), and younger son Jack (Julian Hilliard). Though there’s some unexplained discord about a recent operation Theresa went through, and Lavinia seems to be simmering with resentment about the move, they’re for the most part united in their desire to make the best out of their situation.
With that combination, even if the movie was bad, it would still be entertaining. That it turns out to be well-made and effectively unsettling is merely a bonus.
Bucolic country living comes to a swift and explosive end when a meteorite crashes into the Gardners’ front lawn. Emitting both a terrible smell and a dazzling pink and purple light, the meteorite seems to concern no one in the nearby town except hydrologist Ward Phillips (Elliot Knight). Out of fear that it might be contaminated, Ward warns the Gardners against drinking their well water, a warning they opt to ignore, because they’re white people in a horror movie.
The meteorite disappears, leaving behind a bounty of beautiful, exotic-looking purple flowers. On the downside, the Gardners’ phones no longer work properly, they’re tormented by a high pitched whistling sound, the local animal population seems to be mutating, and Theresa is so distracted by…something that she grievously injures herself. The whole family, even little Jack, is eventually in whatever arrived with the meteorite’s thrall, to various, yet equally horrifying, degrees.
Color Out of Space starts out as a haunted house movie (there’s even an homage to Poltergeist in one scene) before taking a hard, gruesome turn into eco-terror and body horror. Up until the last ten minutes, when it does get genuinely trippy, it’s fairly straightforward, with a little dash of Event Horizon and a healthy serving of The Thing on the side.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, most of the weirdness up to that point is provided by Nicolas Cage. As always, it’s far more enjoyable to see him giving it his screaming all, like in 2018’s Mandy, rather than sleepwalking through another B-level thriller, like the recent Grand Isle. Occasionally slipping into his distinctive Vampire’s Kiss accent in some scenes (and one that sounds startlingly like he’s channeling Donald Trump in another), Cage has been given full license to do what he does best, which is aggressively throw tomatoes into a trash can and shout “They’re alpacas!” I don’t want to sell short his quieter scenes either, such as when, while giving a lesson on alpaca milking techniques, Cage says “You have to be very gentle with the boobs.”
Make no mistake: Color Out of Space is a wild, effectively creepy ride. Like Panos Cosmatos and Mandy, Richard Stanley found his perfect muse in Cage. It may not necessarily have been written as a vehicle for Cage, but there doesn’t seem to be anyone else more appropriate to play Nathan Gardner. Stanley and Cage, along with co-writer Scarlett Amaris, and cinematographer Steve Annis (not to mention delightful acting support from Tommy Chong, as a conspiracy theorist hippie squatting on the Gardners’ property), have made something wholly unique. Color Out of Space will make you laugh, jump and cringe — sometimes at the same time — but, like the Gardners and the mesmerizing light coming from their well, you won’t be able to look away.
Color Out of Space premieres at Chicago’s Music Box Theater on January 24th.