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Non-Review Review: Colour Out of Space

Colour Out of Space is a visceral, haunting, beautiful nightmare.

H.P. Lovecraft is a notoriously difficult writer to adapt for film. It’s arguably that the best adaptations of his work have been spiritual companion pieces like John Carpenter’s The Thing or In the Mouth of Madness. There are any number of reasons for this, such as the uncomfortable racism that unpins his recurring fear of “the other.” However, there is also the obvious challenge of trying to craft cinematic adaptations of a horror often rooted in monstrosity beyond the human capacity for comprehension.

The family that stays together…

Colour Out of Space works reasonably well as an adaptation of the Lovecraft story of almost the same name. Indeed, the film is bookended by extended quotes from the source material. Director Richard Stanley’s adaptation is surprisingly faithful to that story, even if there are obviously lots of adjustments that have to made in shifting the action to the twenty-first century in both setting and production. It helps that Stanley has a great deal of experience in body horror, and clearly appreciates Lovecraft’s influence on that school of cinematic horror.

However, the real beauty of Colour Out of Space lies in the way in which if feels like a Lovecraftian adaptation of a Lovecraft text. It represents a cold and cynical nightmare of curdled and metastasised sixties psychedelia, playing as a riff on Lovecraft’s resurgence within sixties counterculture. Colour Out of Space is the story of how the sixties kids who rebelled against adult authority have so readily allowed themselves to acclimatise to it. Colour Out of Space is a story about how children become their parents, albeit perhaps more literally that the phrase suggests.

Purple haze…

Colour Out of Space exists at a strange confluence of horror subgenres. Most obviously, the film draws from one of the most influential voices in American horror, and exists within a framework of adaptation that leans heavily into body horror. However, it also exists within the context of Lovecraft’s unlikely status as an icon of sixties counterculture, fueled by the success of writers inspired by him like Robert Bloch, who helped to usher in the sixties by providing the novel that inspired Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.

The film plays well as an environmental parable. It is narrated by Ward Phillips, an environmental scientist who works for “HydrEx, the hydro-electric company.” Ward is conducting surveys for a dam that local authorities are hoping to construct. Stanley opens the films with long and probing shots of the vast New England wilderness, those impossible forests that seem to stretch on forever and may yet swallow anyone foolish enough to wander into them. It spoils little to suggest that this is more than just a colourful metaphor.

The bulk of Colour Out of Space focuses on the Gardner family, who have made a home for themselves in what the patriarch Nathan describes as “the Sticks.” It is a different world. The Gardners hope to live off the earth. All their water comes from a well on the property. They grow their own fruits and vegetables. They even raise alpacas for their milk and other purposes. “No one eats alpaca meat,” Lavinia chides her father. That won’t stop Nathan from selling.

Naturally, this resource dependency is a source of tension. Nathan refuses to sell the land to the local authorities, who hope to flood the area to provide hydro-electric power. Over the course of Colour Out of Space, it is repeatedly suggested that the land has become tainted. Young Jack Gardner claims that he can hear the man living in the bottom of the family’s well. The water goes brown, and starts triggering hallucinations that may be related to radiation. Nathan discovers strange giant tomatoes growing, only to be confronted with the fact they are inedible.

Benny and gone.

Like any compelling environmental horror, Colour Out of Space suggests that the land is avenging itself upon the Gardner family. More than that, the film repeatedly underscores how oblivious that family are to their rapidly-changing environment. While this is obviously a horror of itself – a sense that the characters are as shaped by their environment as it is by them – it also taps into the deep-seated fear that mankind have willfully blinded themselves to how bad things are getting in terms of environmental damage.

Stanley skillfully underscores all of this. He constantly frames shots so as to underscore how dwarfed these human characters are by the natural surroundings. Young Jack stands on a gently-sloping hill, framed by two majestic trees; the shot holds long enough for the audience to see the purple threads working their way up the trunk, pulsing almost like veins. One shot late in the film even demonstrates the horror of this environmental catastrophe, pulling sharply upward so the infestation looks like a growing spot of mold on the surface of a green apple.

Colour Out of Space engages with Lovecraft in an interesting way. Stanley cannily inverts or reverses a number of Lovecraft’s core dynamics, retaining the same basic fears and anxieties while using them to different ends. A lot of Lovecraft’s work is anchored in a heavily racialised fear of the “other”, the intrusion of non-white elements into white spaces. This is what makes Lovecraft-inspired riffs like Lovecraft County so effective, using that underlying fear as a vehicle for broader commentary.

Stanley doesn’t try anything quite so ambitious in Colour Out of Space. Instead, he reframes Lovecraft’s anxieties through the lens of deeper American fears. There are elements of another great American horror writer in all of this. Stephen King has been heavily inspired by Lovecraft, and his own brand of New England horror aligns nicely with that of Lovecraft. It is not impossible to imagine that Derry is located just a few hundred miles from Arkham or Dunwich. However, King understands a slightly different anxiety underpinning American fears of the wilderness.

He’s said it until he’s purple in the face.

King stories often position that fear as rooted in an insecurity among the white settlers, a fear that this ancient land might yet reject its new arrivals, and that the efforts of Europeans to “tame” the North American continent might have created horrors that echo through vast wildernesses and might awaken something primal and unyielding; this fear can be seen in adaptations as diverse as The Shining, Pet Sematary or even the recent IT: Chapter Two. Stanley weaves similar fears into Colour Out of Space.

The plot is spurred by the arrival of a strange rock on the Gardner farm. Ward tries to classify it as a “meteor”, but the way in which its arrival is shot and telegraphed suggests that this is nothing as simple as a rock hurdling through the void. Whatever the rock might be, it immediately begins to terraform the local landscape. Strange insects emerge from the rock. The water changes colour. Plants begin to mutate. Even the grass seems to become hungry.

The only character who seems to understand the rock is Ezra, a “squatter” who lives at the edge of the Gardner farm. Ezra seems to live in harmony with the earth, drawing all of his power from the sun. Ezra speculates that the rock is transforming the planet to make it “more like the world it came from, more like the world it knows.” In order to do this, the rock will hungrily consume anything that wants, kill whatever it needs, and transform whatever it touches.

As such, the horror at the heart of Colour Out of Space becomes one of colonialism. It is telling that the Gardner family are white, in marked contrast to the more diverse ensemble. Ward is played by Elliot Knight, while Ezra is played by Tommy Chong. Even the local mayor is played by American-Peruvian actor Q’orianka Kilcher. Colour Out of Space suggests a classic War of the Worlds pitch. It is a story of the horrors of colonialism being inflicted upon those who have benefited from colonialism. The Gardners watch their world transformed, as their ancestors transformed America.

Out of this world.

More than that, Richard Stanley and co-writer Scarlett Amaris understand the fears underpinning Lovecraft’s horrors. Lovecraft is often anxious about ideas of integration. Colour Out of Space plays on this idea, with both Nathan and Theresa Gardner noticing that their daughter Lavinia has taken an interest in Ward, and both seemingly discomforted by the prospect; Nathan sends Lavinia back to the house so he can talk to Ward alone, while Theresa chides her for wearing shorts. “What signals are you sending?”

As such, Colour Out of Space inverts this core dynamic. The real horror of Colour Out of Space is not the possibility of union with the unknown or the other. Instead, the nightmare at the heart of Colour Out of Space is homogeneity. Over the course of the film, characters fear being smoothered by family. After Ward’s opening narration, Colour Out of Space centres its attention on a Wiccan ritual being conducted by Lavinia. “Get me out of here,” she pleads to some higher force. That plea is repeated throughout the film.

Colour Out of Space suggests that the real horror is to be swallowed by one’s family – whether literally or figuratively. As the eponymous phenomenon begins to feed, that horror manifests itself in the dissolution of boundaries. Creatures and people are often melded into one another. As Nathan slowly loses his mind, he is driven by images of his wholesome family sitting down to watch a black-and-white Marlon Brando film. Even as the world comes apart, the Gardner family home plays out a grotesque parody of wholesome normality.

Repeatedly in Colour Out of Space, children discover themselves becoming their parents. Nathan is defined by the troubled relationship that he had with his own “intellectually abusive” father, despite his best efforts to be a different sort of patriarch. Despite a rebellious youth, Nathan eventually returned home to run his father’s farm. “Like I swore I never would,” he admits. Theresa acknowledges that it was “the first time he would have been proud of you.” After one early accident, Lavinia and Ben are left running the farm by themselves, playing the roles of their parents.

That healthy glow…

As one might expect given the title and premise, Colour Out of Space is steeped in psychedelia. Tommy Chong is cast in the role of Ezra, the person most in tune with strange phenomenon. The visual language of a lot of the horror – strange pulsing lights in purples and pinks, ominous mists, warped sense of time – is that of the cinematic drug trip as codified by Trainspotting or Requiem for a Dream. It is telling that so many characters define the horror as a colour rather than as a physical object or scientific principle.

This makes sense in terms of Lovecraft’s own history with the sixties counterculture. However, it also works in the context of how Colour Out of Space approaches Nathan and Theresa. The pair are defined as former hippies. Accounting for his stories of the man in the well, Lavinia remarks, “Dad dropped a lot of LSD back in the day.” Now he lives in a farmhouse with a wine cellar. Theresa was once a hippy, but is now a stock broker, dealing with international clients in a range of currencies.

Nathan and Theresa have sold out. They have embraced exactly the sort of life that they once resisted. They have become their parents. The acid trip of sixties idealism has become warped and grotesque. It has folded back on itself, becoming a waking nightmare. Colour Out of Space offers its characters the ultimate bad trip, playing as a criticism of the cynical abandonment of sixties utopianism in favour of the comfort and wealth.

There is something very biting and somewhat timely in all of this. It is tempting to describe Colour Out of Space as a particularly subtle and psychedelic “okay, boomer” horror movie. Nathan and Theresa have created a good life for themselves and an idyllic family home. However, in doing so they have also trapped their children inside their deranged nightmare. It is no coincidence that Lavinia and Ben notice that the phenomenon distorts the flow of time. This is powerful and evocative stuff , ably assisted by knowing performances from Nicolas Cage and Joely Richardson.

Alpaca-in’ heat.

To be fair, Cage is something of a mixed blessing for Colour Out of Space. The actor brings a sort of washed-up and disillusioned energy to the film, similar to his work on Mom and Dad. Part of the horror of Nelson Gardner is in watching a once-vibrant and highly-energised man who has become a pale shadow of what he might have been, and the sense of frustration and discomfort simmering beneath that. Cage works best playing Nelson’s mounting resentment, but occasionally veers a little too far into the high camp of “Full Cage” towards the climax.

Still, it’s a minor problem. Colour Out of Space is a weird and unsettling horror bristling with big ideas and haunting imagery. In some respects, it recalls the more outlandish work of directors like John Carpenter, the sort of late eighties and early nineties horror that found expression in movies like The Thing or In the Mouth of Madness.

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