H.P. Lovecraft’s work has had an odd life in the movies. The writer is undoubtedly influential on directors like Guillermo del Toro and John Carpenter, and his mythos of multi-tentacled alien creatures from other dimensions has crept its way into most alien and body-horror horror films. But straight adaptations of Lovecraft stories are few and far between. Re-Animator, from director Stuart Gordon, and In the Mouth of Madness, from John Carpenter, are among the most well-known and beloved Lovecraft adaptations, but their history stretches back even farther, to The Haunted Palace, a Roger Corman film with Vincent Price that’s a loose adaptation of the novella The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, and The Dunwich Horror, a 1970s schlock-fest starring Dean Stockwell, to name two. Lovecraft appears to be enjoying a resurgence now, in a slightly different (and less valorizing form): Jordan Peele is producing a miniseries adaptation of Lovecraft Country, a novel that deals directly with the violent racism evident in most of Lovecraft’s work, and now Richard Stanley has produced what might be the best Lovecraft adaptation in recent years with Color Out of Space.
Color Out of Space is based on the Lovecraft story “The Colour Out of Space,” and follows generally the same plot. A meteorite crashes on the Gardner farm just outside Arkham, Massachusetts, emitting a strange light unlike a color anyone has ever seen. The Gardners are a city family struggle to survive on a family estate in the countryside. Nathan (Nicolas Cage) is trying his hand at farming vegetables and milking alpacas, while his wife, Theresa (Joely Richardson), telecommutes as a financial consultant. Their daughter, Lavinia (Madeleine Arthur), enjoys practicing witchcraft (she happens to have a paperback version of the notorious Necronomicon), while elder son, Benny (Brendan Meyer), takes care of the alpacas and smokes weed. The crash of the meteorite brings sheriffs calling, but soon the rock has vanished into the soil and odd things begin sprouting around it. Meanwhile, Ward Phillips (Elliot Knight), a “hydrologist” from Miskatonic University, begins to investigate the water around the Gardner farm in preparation for a report on a future fresh water reservoir. He discovers that the water is contaminated, but not before the Gardners and their land begin to undergo some very odd transformations.
Color Out of Space is vintage Lovecraft, replete with weird happenings, creepy noises, and unimaginable horrors from beyond time and space. It happens to be based on one of the odder stories out of a very odd oeuvre—the villain is a literal color that has no earth-bound equivalent, which Stanley interprets as a neon pink and purple amalgamated light show. The Gardners slowly begin losing their minds (and parts of their bodies) in the most Lovecraftian way possible, even as Elliot attempts to convince them to abandon their farm because the alpacas are turning inside out.
While we might have expected Color Out of Space to be a Cage vehicle, it happily is not, trading instead on Cage’s wildness in short, controlled bursts as things get ever weirder on the family farm. Yes, there’s histrionic yelling and odd line readings, but there are also moments of remarkable gentleness and pathos, reminding us that Cage rightfully has an Oscar. In fact, what makes Color Out of Space work so well is that it takes its subject seriously. This isn’t about mocking Lovecraft’s insane and overwrought plots and language, but dwelling steadily within them, using cinematic imagery the way that Lovecraft used prose. There are points of fantastic body horror akin to The Thing, cringing moments of self-mutilation, and insights into horrific worlds beyond the stars. The climax is one of wildest works of sci-fi horror I’ve seen in some time.
But while this film evidently loves Lovecraft, it doesn’t shy away from the things that make his work less than palatable. “The Colour Out of Space” is one of Lovecraft’s less racist stories (mostly because non-white people do not exist in his Arkham), but this adaptation actually (and subtly) does something that he would’ve abhorred. Stanley casts a black actor as Ward Phillips, an American Peruvian actress as Arkham’s mayor (Q’orianka Kilcher, who played Pocahantas in Malick’s The New World), and Tommy Chong as Ezra, the crazy old stoner in the woods who also happens to figure out what’s going on before anyone else. Given that the mutating, self-satisfied, murderous, and insular Gardners are all white people…boy, old H.P. would’ve hated this.
Color Out of Space is a niche narrative, so fundamentally Lovecraftian that, if you like his work, you’ll enjoy this, and if you don’t like it…well, you might actually be interested after this one. Stanley has threaded a difficult needle, crafting a story that is at once critical of Lovecraft’s ethos, and fully conversant with his mythos. While there are wobbles within the narrative – it takes a little while to get to the meteorite, and some of Lavinia’s whining becomes irksome – the result is so pleasurable, and so creepy, that it’s easy to see past those problems. This is a film that loves Lovecraft and that Lovecraft himself would’ve hated. That’s exactly the way it should be.
Color Out of Space hits theaters this week. See it, and may God help us all.