One of the first horror writers, H.P. Lovecraft created an entire world of dark, twisted tales that featured terrifying beasts and unrelenting nightmare situations. There’s no redemption, no neat endings, just a perverse, cynical view of humanity and the greater world around us. His greatest creation was the beast Cthulhu but through his many novels and short stories, he created an entire Lovecraftian world. Miskatonic University, Dunwich, Arkham, Innsmouth and Kingsport are all familiar to horror fans and show up in a wide variety of pop culture contexts. In Gotham City, the fictional setting for the Batman stories, criminals are sent to the Arkham Asylum, for example. Not a coincidence. There are also lots of Lovecraft-inspired movies, with varying levels of cinematic success. The best of them are dark, really dark.
One of Lovecraft’s favorite stories was a short piece called “The Colour Out of Space” that he wrote for the September, 1927 edition of the fiction magazine “Amazing Stories”. Tired of benign aliens portrayed in contemporary works, he offered up a weird and cautionary tale of a meteorite crashing into the woods outside Arkham, Massachusetts and subsequently causing strange things to occur. The new Richard Stanley film “Color Out of Space” is based on this story and even opens – and ends – with a narration directly from the story.
The central character of this film adaptation is hydrologist Ward Phillips (Elliott Knight) who is researching the aquifer near the farm of crackpot Nathan (Nicolas Cage) and type-A investment advisor Theresa Gardner (Joely Richardson) prior to the construction of a major dam. Perpetually wearing a Miskatonic University sweatshirt, he meets and flirts with the Gardner’s teen daughter Lavinia (Madeleine Arthur), who alleviates her boredom by reading magical tomes and performing strange rituals. Other members of the family are lazy teen layabout Benny (Brendan Meyer) and nerdy young Jack (Julian Hilliard). They also have a squatter living in a makeshift home elsewhere on their sprawling and isolated property, the peculiar hermit Ezra (Tommy Chong).
The film moves rather slowly for the first few scenes but eventually the meteor crashes into the dirt just feet from the Gardner home. Inexplicably, all the plants are suddenly growing more quickly, they’re healthy and vibrant, there are flowers where none were planted, and the vegetables are huge and beautiful. But it’s all a sham: the vegetables have no taste, the flowers no scent. Then little Jack starts hearing strange voices from the well and the family dog goes a bit nutty and then vanishes. Local mayor Tooma (Q’orianka Kilcher) and a few police show up to investigate the meteor, but their focus is on the upcoming dam project and they dismiss Nathan as a crackpot.
But Nathan’s right. The meteor is way more than just a rock in the garden and all too soon it’s not just the plants that are transforming in weird and inexplicable ways. When animals in the area start to change, that’s when everything goes from curious to alarming. Then the Gardner’s family of alpaca start to transmogrify in both appearance and behavior and, well, yikes. It’s not pretty.
That’s when Color Out Of Space gets really weird. Scary, troubling, messed up, “what’s wrong with these filmmakers?” weird. It’s fun and you’ll more than once yell “WTF??” at the screen during the last portion of the film. But that’s the mark of a movie true to the spirit of a Lovecraft horror story; entertaining even as it’s alarming and, yes, gross at moments.
Though there’s no apparent connection, it’s hard not to draw parallels between the creepy and enjoyable 2018 film Annihilation and this movie. Both have plants, creatures and eventually people mutating in peculiar ways, both involve a meteor crash and both revolve around a scientist or engineer trying to figure out what’s going on. Candidly, Annihilation is a better movie, though if you’re a Lovecraft fan, you’ll definitely enjoy Color Out Of Space. Just know what you’re getting into before you walk into the theater or press PLAY on that video stream. And don’t drink the damn water.
Dad At The Movies Addendum: No. This is not for your kids to watch. Even teens might be a bit freaked out by the mutated creatures that show up later in the film. And no question, this’ll cause nightmares for a lot of kids, even teens who aren’t already steeped in modern visual f/x-laiden horror films.