Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Listener Sam Reviews: A Color Our of Space

Richard Stanley has a reputation for being somewhat of a maniac. After masterfully directing Hardware and Dust Devil in the early nineties, he was famously fired from the production of The Island of Dr. Moreau. He also famously haunted the set in a dog mask, spying on his own lost production. 

It seems fitting that Stanley’s comeback would come in the form of an adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s The Color Out of Space. His early career began and ended with all the splendor of a comet whizzing past, majestic and bright, before crashing spectacularly into a New England farm.

That’s more or less how Stanley’s adaptation of Lovecraft’s novella begins, and somehow it only gets crazier from there. If you’ve read the story, you’ll know what happens, and if you haven’t I suggest you read it. Like much of Lovecraft’s writing, it’s in the public domain and available through the H.P. Lovecraft Archive

The story, in essence, is about an infectious color that haunts a New England farm. Despite a change of time period, I think it’s fair to say that Stanley’s adaptation is fairly faithful. It’s not a beat-for-beat recreation of the story, but it is about a farm in New England that’s devastated by an alien color.

To this end, I think it’s fair to say that Lovecraft works best as an idea man. Sure, he has some genuinely good stories, but his stilted prose, hollow characters, and his occasional bouts of extreme racism and xenophobia make direct adaptations difficult. Many of the great Lovecraft adaptations take only the base elements and turn the story into something entirely their own. (From Beyond, Re-Animator, Castle Freak, Dagon, and Shatterbrain all come to mind)

That’s exactly what Stanley does, as he shows a family’s descent into technicolor madness. Nicolas Cage (Mandy, Mom and Dad) stars as Nathan Gardner, the father of a family farm who has moved to a secluded New England farm to raise Alpacas (a delightfully weird choice for a delightfully weird movie). Cage gives another solid horror performance. He manages to play it impressively straight for the beginning of the film and goes completely mad at the end. It’s what we’ve come to expect from Cage, but that makes it no less fun.

The rest of his family is comprised of an amusing cast of characters, but his daughter Lavinia (Madeleine Arthur of Big Eyes) who begins the film hanging out in a velvet cape with a white horse doing magic. This choice initially seems bizarre until you realize that this movie is gunning for high strangeness, which it nails at every turn. 

His youngest son Jack, played by Julian Hilliard of The Haunting of Hill House, is portrayed mostly as a scared, innocent child, but Hilliard nails it. It’s rare to see such a convincing performance from such a young actor, and between this and Hill House, his career is off to an amazing start. 

As an aside, I caught this at Beyond Fest, with a Q&A that included Richard Stanley, Julian Hilliard, and a good chunk of the film's cast, excluding Cage. Hilliard absolutely stole the show. From his Nicolas Cage-themed Spider-Man Noir t-shirt, regaling the crowd with personal anecdotes and stories of Cage’s antics on set, and even interrupting Stanley to tell the audience a joke. It was legitimately one of the most entertaining Q&As I’ve ever been to, and Hilliard was largely to thank.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention Tommy Chong, who plays the farm’s resident squatter. He lives in an airstream with his pet cat, worships nature, records the sounds from underground, and acts like you’d expect a dirty hippy to act. It’s great.

The film balances horror and humor expertly. It blends written gags and laugh-out-loud Cage-isms with tense horror sequences, a few solid jump scares, and some legitimately harrowing scenes of gruesome body horror. 

While the film relies heavily on CGI, it never bothered me. At best it’s convincing and simply looks good, and at worst the CG creations fall far enough into the uncanny valley to fit with the film’s surreal sensibilities. Where the effects really shine is the color. This isn’t the first adaptation of this story, but it’s by far the most colorful, with a palette that feels like Annihilation on mescaline. 

Other adaptations cheap out on the concept of an alien color by presenting the film in black and white. Stanley instead chooses to bludgeon your eyeballs with a magenta sledgehammer, using the somewhat unusual color to depict a mix of infrared and ultraviolet. It looks stunning, and while some viewers might find certain sequences cheesy, I loved it.

Last but not least, the film is graced with a score by the fabulous bass saxophonist Colin Stetson, who’s in high demand after his killer score for Hereditary. Unlike Hereditary, Stetson’s score for Color Out of Space is bigger and more driven by a strange mix of orchestral and electronica sensibilities that seems strange at first but fits perfectly with the film’s aesthetic.

Maybe I’m biased. I love Nick Cage. Mandy was quite possibly my favorite film of last year, and I loved Mom and Dad. I believe that Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans is a masterpiece. I could watch The Wicker Man any day. By and large, I haven’t seen a Cage flick I haven’t liked. 

I’m also Lovecraft obsessive. I’ve read nearly all his stories, I love all of Stuart Gordon’s adaptations, and just about every other adaptation too. Even the bad ones. And sometimes especially the bad ones. I love cosmic horror, and it’s a joy when something good comes along.

Color Out of Space has already been picked up by RLJE Films, and will be getting a wide release this week. If you get a chance to see this one theatrically, jump on it. The gorgeous kaleidoscopic effects lend themselves beautifully to the big screen.

-Listener Sam

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