Richard Stanley returns with a clunky, campy Lovecraft adaptation.
This is a spoiler-free review.
In 1990 South African director Richard Stanley made a name for himself with the cyberpunk slasher Hardware, a delightfully trashy yet frequently beautiful woman-vs-murderbot flick. Several years later, he parlayed his success directing violent indie horror into a gig helming a big, studio-backed adaptation of H.G. Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau. The critically-savaged film and its equally disastrous production became the stuff of legend, effectively ending Stanley’s career as chronicled in the 2014 documentary Lost Soul. Almost three decades later, Stanley has returned to helm yet another literary horror adaptation: H.P. Lovecraft’s The Colour Out of Space. Financed by niche production company SpectreVision, who produced the 2018 psychotropic horror masterpiece Mandy as well as last year’s similarly-bedecked Fight Club riff Daniel Isn’t Real, the company has established something of a house style: mind-bending niche horror with a technicolor vaporwave aesthetic. Color Out of Space hews closely to that house style, with an abundance of pinks and purples amidst dense, mystical forests and scored with an ominous, synth-heavy soundtrack. But for all its trendy stylishness (am I the only one growing weary of bi-lighting?) Stanley’s horror sensibilities apparently have not evolved much in the years since his last foray into feature filmmaking. The script, co-written by Stanley and Scarlett Amaris is maddeningly clunky, and to any passing horror fan the scares feel rote and belabored while doing little to advance a wispy, insubstantial plot.
No doubt SpectreVision is banking on the audience appeal of its star, Nicholas Cage, whose unhinged, blood-soaked performance in Mandy was one of the actor’s most impressive in recent years. And indeed, if your primary draw to this film is to watch yet another of the actor’s trademark manically comedic performances, Color Out of Space is worth the price of admission. But audiences seeking a more heady, immersive experience will be frustrated by the plodding pacing and campy film-school-quality script.
The film’s true protagonist is difficult to pin down, but most of the action more or less seems to revolve around Lavinia Gardner (Madeleine Arthur), a cliché mopey goth teen with an interest in Wiccan spells. She lives in an ancestral farmhouse deep in the forests of Massachusetts (where they nonetheless have little problem acquiring cell signal) with her brothers Benny (Brendan Meyer) and Jack (Julian Hilliard); mother Theresa (Joely Richardson), a stock broker whose only apparent personality trait is having survived breast cancer; and impossibly square father Nathan (Cage). Much humor is milked (literally, at one point) from the recurring joke that Nathan has decided to raise alpacas on the family farm — for their meat, not their wool. There’s a pervading broad, campy humor running throughout the script that would be charming if it wasn’t tonally at odds with the biological horror of the rest of the film. That horror comes in the form of a meteorite that crashes into the Gardners’ front lawn, contaminating the groundwater and spawning bizarre, kaleidoscopic flora and fauna in the surrounding area, as well as inspiring erratic behavior in members of the Gardner family. What follows is something like Annihilation meets The Shining meets The Thing, but nowhere near as thoughtful or fascinating as any of those films.
The plot is not particularly complex, and yet the 111-minute film takes a surprising amount of time to move things along while also maintaining a maddeningly poor attention to detail. Plot points and thematic elements are referenced without being properly established in the first place. The dialogue is somehow both overly-expositional and ultimately pointless, and characters enter and exit scenes seemingly without impetus. Scares often arrive unmotivated, with a predictable clockwork tedium that rarely bothers to subvert our expectations of classic jump-scare tropes. A few practical Bottin-esque creature effects add some squicky body horror to the proceedings, but like everything else their presence feels perfunctory to the rambling plot.
The introduction of unnecessary secondary characters further bogs down the momentum. There’s Wade (Elliot Knight), the handsome hydrologist who seemingly serves no purpose in the story except to bookend the film with pseudo-poetic narration. And then there’s the cameo by Tommy Chong, playing a character who is breezily introduced by Nathan as “Ezra, our squatter.” The film doesn’t really know what to do with Chong, whose spaced-out hippie mysticism adds a thin layer of woo-woo stoner spiritualism but not much else.
The film canon is overflowing with horror classics that couldn’t find a coherent plot with two hands and a flashlight. But they endure because they manage to fill that void with a sustained feast of visual and visceral delights — they’re funny, or violent, or impossibly weird, or some combination of all three. Color Out of Space contains trace amounts of all of these elements but fails to ever really commit to any of them. It’s sorta funny, sometimes violent, occasionally a little weird, but never amplifies those qualities or sustains them sufficiently enough to forgive the clumsy dialogue and trivial plot. And yet while it falls well short of great horror cinema, there’s a good chance audiences will enjoy this film regardless. Nicholas Cage’s flamboyant performance as nebbish dad-turned shotgun-weilding madman is, like many of his portrayals, an amusing oddity. The film’s humor, while not particularly nuanced, nonetheless radiates a dorky charm. Richard Stanly’s release from movie jail might not be as triumphant as horror fans and the film’s producers might have hoped, but Color Out of Space is nonetheless a passable, if insubstantial, returning effort.