There is a huge cult appeal to director Richard Stanley, and as he makes his return to fiction (after doing documentaries and shorts off-and-on for years since The Island of Dr. Moreau), many genre fans still can’t believe it is happening. Color Out of Space expands on that allure by tethering Nicolas Cage — also an icon to many genre fans. The result is a movie that feels right at home in Stanley’s filmography of movies too ambitious for their own good, held together by fantastic special effects and a lead performance that’s as gonzo as a Lovecraft adaptation deserves.
The Gardner family, led by patriarch and alpaca farmer Nathan Gardner (Cage), has moved far away from the city, and now lives in a house near a lake in the woods. Pretty much cut off from everything and everyone, the family still heavily relies on communications such as the internet, phones, and cable. Lavinia (Madeleine Arthur) has taken up witchcraft and rituals when she’s not just sitting at home listening to black metal; she’s a typical angst-ridden teenager, made even more familiar by the constant bickering with her parents. However, Stanley has never been good at human interaction. His characters almost always fall into archetypes, and their relationships feel forced and contrived. There’s a whole “This family stays together” mantra that works when Color Out of Space leans into its source material, but that element falls apart because these relationships just feel tired.
That being said, characters fall into archetypes even more so when a meteorite falls from the sky and starts changing the area around it, including the people and the environment. Anyone familiar with H.P. Lovecraft’s short story of the same name knows how weird things can get. Bookended by narration from a hydrologist who experiences the meteorite’s impact, Color Out of Space pulls pretty much directly from Lovecraft’s story, right down to the color itself being an indescribable hue. Cosmological horror is where Color Out of Space shines brighter than all of Stanley’s previous work, as everything around the meteorite nightmarishly mutates, akin to the way the Shimmer transformed flora and fauna in Annihilation. A heavy use of practical effects touched up with digital gives the film some incredibly grotesque mutations that all feel coated with a lustrous glow.
Having kids and teenagers be the focal point of any film is an often hit-or-miss exercise, and in this case that is where much of the film’s problems lie. The children are not particularly interesting, and even when the meteorite falls it can’t make them compelling. Instead, it’s what they are reacting to that holds Color Out of Space together. Only Cage displays reactions that are congruous with the film, delivering a performance that is to be expected at this point in his career. He gets pushed off-the-rails on multiple occasions, doing weird affectations with his voice when he starts losing his mind, only making the delivery of every line funnier and funnier as his character starts unraveling. His performance is the only one absolutely befitting an H.P. Lovecraft adaptation.
Where Stanley fans will get their thrills is in the film’s final act, which stands tall among the rest of his filmography as a buffet of cosmic delirium. The special effects are combined with a thunderous, appropriately extraterrestrial score by Colin Stetson (whose Hereditary score is still haunting) mixed so loudly over the dialogue that it feels like the whole world’s sonicscape has shifted. That’s the stuff that Stanley as a director has always been able to execute to tremendous effect; he captures a feeling, and even if it takes a while for Color Out of Space to get to that final act, it still feels wholly satisfying to find something so profoundly ethereal amidst the carnage and dementedness. That’s what the short story was able to convey, and Stanley does the best job anyone has done in adapting it.
The Toronto International Film Festival runs September 5 – September 15