A meteorite crashes into the front yard of the Gardner family mansion. Soon after that, the fabric of reality is distorted, and the plants and animals near the crash site are transformed in bizarre ways. The mental state of the family members also slowly degrades, and when the unearthly power that came with the meteorite becomes fully unleashed, nature and humans alike face unspeakable terror.
Color out of Space is the newest addition to the slowly, but steadily growing list of adaptations of stories from cult horror writer H.P. Lovecraft. It is also the return of Richard Stanley as a director of a feature movie since his disastrous experience with The Island of Dr. Moreau (the story is told in detail in this excellent article. Before that, Stanley achieved some acclaim among genre fans with the slightly off-beat and dreamy Hardware and Dust Devil.
Films that are advertised by being based on works by H.P. Lovecraft have always been judged by whether they were able to replicate Lovecraft’s trademark of Cosmic Horror. In this branch of horror fear and terror are caused by the unseen, humanity’s insignificance in the face of a greater (evil) power is emphasized, and human life is generally a rather pessimistic affair. Color Out of Space arguably excels in many sequences at conveying this feeling. From the beginning, the forests and hills around the Gardner’s house are photographed beautifully and mysteriously. The image composition of the changing nature and mutations that start to infest the place is certainly unique. The mystical atmosphere gradually reverts to a diffuse feeling of dread, which in turn escalates drastically into more physical manifestations. The overall visual presentation creates a pervasively uncanny atmosphere, and is an impressive achievement by Stanley.
As for the characters, the movie starts out on a somber note as we’re introduced to the troubles of the Gardner family that recently moved to a remote mansion in a rural area. Their tarnished mental state actually seems to make them more susceptible to the madness emanating from the asteroid as compared to all other characters in the movie. Nicolas Cage takes the lead in this portrayal as father and husband Nathan. As in several other movies he gives a distinct performance of a person that slowly loses his sanity. If one finds his particular take on this agreeable is certainly a matter of individual taste. There may be a subtle nihilistic theme in the depiction of the Gardner family’s activities which is in line with Lovecraft’s typically gloomy take on human nature. The traumatic experience of the cancer disease of Nathan’s wife makes the family members struggle to regain control of their life. Nathan’s fanatic breeding of Alpacas and his wife’s bizarre habit of dwelling in the attic every day while fanatically making calls for her job are exemplary manifestations of their absurd behavior.
The inner demons of the family members are gradually replaced with threats from the outside, and the plot also is filled with more conventional horror tropes towards the end, including some rather stereotypical jump scares. This is a slight detriment to the overall quality of the movie but may have been a compromise Stanley had to take for commercial reasons. Another issue is that the movie follows the main plot points of the story rather well, but many elements are just too cliched and overused after being put into horror movies for decades. While this may please Lovecraft purists that attach a lot of importance to an adaptation that is as close to the original as possible, it really stands in the way of giving a more contemporary interpretation of Lovecraft’s story. Stanley still manages to crank up the level of uneasiness for the viewer to the maximum by including some gross graphic sequences with well done practical effects, and a stroboscopic inferno at the end of the movie as an appropriate climax.
Color of Out of Space is an ambitious and refreshing take on Lovecraft’s original story, that is only slightly set back by inclusion of some fairly mundane horror tropes. It features a beautiful and eerie visual style, an ever-increasing atmosphere of discomfort and the convincing portrayal of people slowly descending into madness. Altogether it’s a nice package that should appeal to Lovecraft aficionados and horror fans in general.