Movie review: Color out of Space (2021)

I freely admit that I’m a huge fan of Lovecraft’s writings.  For me, no other classic author struck such a careful balance between exposition and mystery, which let my imagination freely flowing.  His terrors are largely unnamed and not well described, and nowhere it is true more than in The Colour out of Space, where the antagonist is an alien color that is indescribable.  I was thus interested in how a movie could portray such a force.  The result was fascinating…

I am not ashamed to admit that seeing Nicolas Cage as a hapless farmer who sees his family deteriorating before he loses his mind and eventually falls apart was one of the main reasons for me to watch.  This didn’t pan out as expected, but it was for the better.  Cage plays Nathan Gardner, a city man who moves to an estate in rural Massachusetts and starts an alpaca farm.  He is accompanied by his wife, played by Joely Richardsonin in her second cosmic horror movie, who is in a very bad shape after a series of cancer treatments, but still works very hard as a financial advisor.  They have two sons and a daughter.  The oldest, Benny, is a stoner and a slacker, who likes to hang out with the local weirdo, played by Tommy Chong.  Lavinia, the daughter, spends her time studying witchcraft, which she hopes would help her escape back to the city, and the youngest, Jack, is a little boy with very little to offer.  Together, however, they present a very genuine family, which is trying to indulge the father in his foolish endeavor, while silently acknowledging that they owe their prosperity to their mother.

All changes one night, when a meteor falls into their front yard.  Strangle purple light seeps into the house, Jack becomes catatonic out of fright, and the rest of the family goes to investigate.  They find the meteor, but by morning, it seems to have evaporated.  From then on, strange occurrences keep happening.  The Carters seem to be living their normal lives, not noticing that what they consider normal is slowly changing.  They are changing along.  Jack spends long hours sitting on the porch and communicating with “the man in the well”.  Purple foliage spreads from that well.  Animals become skittish.  Nathan is oblivious to the fact that the TV turned into static.  When his wife, Theresa, cuts off her fingers with a kitchen knife without noticing, Nathan and the rest are awakened from their stupor to bring her to the hospital, but their mental state has deteriorated by that point that they don’t think it was strange.

Things are getting worse, however.  A purple haze lingers over the yard, and when Theresa and Jack enter it, purple lighting strikes them and fuses them together.  Strangely, they are still alive, and Nathan brings them in.  Even though they are originally kept in the living room, Nathan soon relents and moves them to the attic, where Theresa slowly absorbs her son.  Next are the alpacas, which mutate to even scarier creatures than Theresa.  By this point, Nathan has lost his mind, Benny his will to live and Lavinia, having carved wiccan symbols of protection into her flesh, seems to have become possessed by the spirits from the well.  They gradually die, but during the explosive finale they seem to be brought back to life, to try and drag their visitor, the hydrologist Ward Philips, into their own hell.  Before the end, it is revealed that the meteor was a spore, which would terraform the Earth into its image if it could.

There are some noticeable differences between Lovecraft’s story and the movie.  The events in the story take about a year and a half, and the change is much more gradual.  The meteor actually contains a malevolent entity, which seems to have a much greater freedom of action within a certain radius from the well where it lives.  It acts more like a vampire, draining the life force from its victims, who then disintegrate into dust.  By contrast, the movie timeline is only days long.  The changes are much more sudden, and the spore seems to be acting mindlessly, but in a much more graphic way.  Even events that happen in both media, such as a scene where very good-looking produce tastes terribly and must be discarded, don’t obfuscate the differences.

On a deeper level, however, the stories are much alike.  Lovecraft describes the family as living in “stolid resignation”, and the director here achieved the same effect.  I never wondered why the family just didn’t pack up and leave.  The technical hurdles, such as a stalled car, wouldn’t have stopped them from doing so, especially since their lives were on the line.  Here, though, the movie is faithful to its literary predecessor, where the alien visitor pollutes the family’s minds.  I felt that Cage and Madeleine Arthur, who played Lavinia, sold this gradual descent into madness very well.  Cage is the slightly incompetent head of the family who chases his foolish dream of breeding alpaca for milk and meat, when in fact he is running the household.  His wife is largely absent, closed in the attic, interacting with clients.  Lavinia buts heads with her father, but never becomes rebellious enough for people to take serious notice.  Everyone acts subdued and natural, as a normal family would.

Then comes the new normal, which slowly changes their environment.  Even though the changes are much more sudden than in the story, the actors very convincingly match their mentality to the new circumstances.  The genius here is in the family acting normal, even though we the viewers see nothing normal about their situation or their reaction.  At one point, Nathan locks his daughter up with her mother in the attic.  By the time this happens, the mother had become a monster intent on eating Lavinia, but Nathan calmly tells his daughter to “take care of her mother” because “everything is under control”.  This is delivered in the same tone as the conversations in the first act, before the meteor hit.  Cage actually surprises with his performance.  Many people, including me, expected over the top acting from him, but he is subdued throughout the entire ordeal.  Even his intense moments show a degree of self-control, and they are far more mellow than one would expect, given the circumstances.  His charisma is undeniable, and he pulls his entire family along, to create exactly the kind of resigned, maybe even brainwashed, mentality comparable to the mood of Lovecraft’s story.

Color out of Space has other qualities as well.  The visuals are very well made, as far as my small monitor could display.  The pacing doesn’t feel as rushed as the timeline suggests, and the menace always lurks just out of sight.  Physical character transformations, especially those of Nathan, his wife and their daughter, go in line with their mental deterioration.  I also liked the inclusion of Tommy Chong’s character.  His role was small, not really necessary, but offered a nice break from the dread around the Gardner farm.  I also thought that it served as a middle finger to the infamous US prosecutor Mary Beth Buchanan, who set to destroy Chong’s life nearly twenty years ago, to score a few cheap political points.

Still, the credit for this potential cult movie belongs to two people.  Nicolas Cage carries the movie and delivers an unexpectedly controlled performance, which perfectly mimics the subdued mood of Lovecraft’s story.  The director, Richard Stanley, who also cowrote the script, does an excellent job portraying an unknown but terrible menace, and excellently paces the story.  This movie definitely belongs among the best interpretations of Lovecraft’s stories I’ve seen so far.

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