Richard Stanley’s 1990 cult hit Hardware and follow-up Dust Devil have careful threads that artistically weave pulp, world-building, and theme together. Hardware is at once a grimy hard rock music video of a killer robot movie and a trippy, subliminal meditation on survival within a toxic Earth. Dust Devil is a demonic South African horror western, and I really think that speaks for itself. Stanley builds worlds and explores themes and has garnered a deserved reputation as an artist despite only having two completed films under his belt. Fans have waited a long time since his infamous ousting from The Island of Dr. Moreau to see what he’d do next.
With Color Out of Space, Stanley stands on two firm feet and crafts a beautiful adaptation of the Lovecraft tale. Fans might be shocked to see that, rather than some meditative slice of pulp, what we have here is just a really good, if straightforward, horror movie.
Color Out of Space
Director: Richard Stanley
Released: January 24, 2019
Trying to forge a new life within the untamed wilderness of his father’s old farm, Nathan Gardner (Nicolas Cage) and his family live isolated from the city. His wife, Theresa (Joely Richardson) still clings to her former life working from the attic on her laptop. Daughter Lavinia (Madeleine Arthur) uses the freedom and mystery of nature to lean into a full-on Wiccan phase. Son Benny (Brendan Meyer) smokes a bunch of pot, and youngest son Jack (Julian Hilliard) pals around with the family dog and does all the creepy little kid stuff that horror movies call for when the time is right. The family raises alpacas, because they’re evidently, as Cage intones, “the animal of the future,” while finding a quiet peace following Theresa’s battle with breast cancer.
Much like Stanley’s previous efforts, Color Out of Space enriches its backstory at the periphery, using news footage and small hints at the Gardner family’s history to make the film’s world more lived-in. Perhaps not quite as fully realized as Hardware or Dust Devil, the city’s desire to buy the Gardners’ land so it can be flooded by a new dam comes off as a bit too threadbare, with only a conversation from Mayor Tooma (Q’orianka Kilcher) and some news snippets to explain a pretty central piece of the plot. Hydrologist Ward Phillips (Elliot Knight) is out studying the water in the surrounding area when he’s dragged into the Gardners’ world and has to deal with some out-of-this-world mind-fuckery that water school could never prepare him for.
A meteor crash-lands on the Gardners’ property, blasting a neon glow that will forever change the makeup of the Gardner family and the wilderness surrounding them. What ensues is a wild and weird ride through cosmic madness that this cast is absolutely down to bring to gorgeous life.
Nicolas Cage (continuing his recent streak of starring in some of the weirdest movies being made) is the most Nicolas Cage you could possibly want. Color Out of Space gives him the opportunity to exhibit a range we’re rarely blessed to experience. There are all the manic freakouts you’d expect. If you were playing Nicolas Cage movie bingo you’d win in every direction--he shouts about peaches, he screams and punches stuff, he affects a bizarre accent when channeling his father, and he even teaches the audience how to milk an alpaca--but you also see his under-appreciated and genuine ability to embody emotions. Nathan and Theresa Gardner have a worn and weathered romance that’s tender and human, and you want to see more of that before the walls cave in around the family. Cage is loudly shouting opera at her on a car ride home from the hospital, and it feels right. It feels kind and charming, and I don’t know of any other actor who can make that work. Cage has to pull off so many violent and sudden personality shift as Nathan Gardner comes undone, and he succeeds in a way I don’t think anyone else could.
Richardson, though quieter and much more bottled, is equally great. She has a crumbling confidence after her surgery and a high anxiety of being the only breadwinner left in the house, struggling to maintain her connection to the city while stranded in the wilderness. She also has to deal with some of the weirdest shit in this movie and she is more than game to play the uniquely disturbing monster she becomes.
There aren’t quite as many extraterrestrial creatures as I would have liked to see, but what’s here often looks great, and there are a handful of shocking, gruesome, and weird bits that will leave audiences squirming. Forest animals fuse together, an XTRO-style cat monster dashes across the street, the alpacas become a pitifully baying monstrosity, and an assortment of otherworldly oddities litter the film even as the strange glow that blankets the Gardners’ farm turns the land into a sweeping ethereal pastor photographed in glittering neon landscapes which set Color Out of Space as Stanley’s best-looking film to date. All the screaming horror and gruesome bloodshed--not to mention the absolutely grotesque thing Theresa Gardner becomes--will offer plenty of nightmare fuel for those seeking it, and there’s even room for one good jumpscare in the flick. All of this is buoyed on another wonderful soundtrack by Colin Stetson of Hereditary and the upcoming Uzumaki series. He weaves a chorus of alien synth that rises to a hip-gyrating beat over the ending credits. All of this meshes into something that can easily be called an experience.
Color Out of Space is not as thematically rich and subliminal as Stanley’s past films, but I’m not sure how far anyone can stray from traditional horror while adapting one of the old masters. What we have, though, is a shocking and deeply strange bit of cosmic horror and one of the best outings for Nicolas Cage you’re bound to see. It’ll play at midnight screenings, become a constant staple of that Nicolas Cage film festival, and continue a long tail following its theatrical release. I have no doubt this will be another cult hit for the director and stand alongside Re-Animator as one of very few truly good H.P. Lovecraft adaptations. It won’t change the world, but it’ll at the very least color your next week’s worth of dreams.