Richard Stanley’s return to film could be called triumphant. It could also be called nauseating, annoying, bewildering, beautiful, breathtaking, absurd. But of the many things to call the first feature, from the fired director of the disgraced Island of Dr. Moreau adaptation, it can – and certainly should – be called welcome.
Indeed, all of the director’s outlandish impulses that he’d hope to bring to the table twenty-four years ago, before studio meddling and actors’ egos got in the way (all recounted in 2014’s documentary Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau) are finally allowed to bloom in their full, rapturous glory. In Stanley’s adaptation of an H.P. Lovecraft short story beloved by him as a kid, Nic Cage does an uncanny impression of a human being before finding normalcy in his usual insanity, as a purple haze with unsavoury ends descends from the stars upon his peaceful, alpaca-filled family farm. At nearly two hours, Color out of Space is fraught with pacing issues, clumsy amounts of awkward dialogue and confounding characters, but it’s a stomach-churning trip to take if only for the revolting, rewarding final hour, in a shunned weirdo’s passionate second cinematic coming.
Nathan Gardner (Cage) lives on a farm on acres of ancient wilderness near the town of Arkham, with his three children; teenage Benny (Brendan Meyer), young son Jack (Julian Hilliard) and daughter Lavinia (Madeleine Arthur), and his wife, Theresa (Joely Richardson). Theresa is recovering from a recent mastectomy surgery as part of her cancer treatment, the diagnosis of which practising Wiccan Lavinia attempts to ward off with a ritual. During this ritual at the shores of a lake nearby, Lavinia meets young Ward Phillips (Elliot Knight), a hydrologist doing research on the local groundwater for a planned hydroelectric dam, and who develops a flirtatious rapport with Lavinia. At the Gardner farm are the family’s small herd of precious alpacas, Lavinia’s horse Comet, their dog, and a pot-smoking squatter played by Tommy Chong who lives in a shack in their woods, I guess.
One fateful night, after a moving stock photo family dinner and a successful if not cringe-inducing attempt at courting his wife for sex, a meteor crash lands on Nathan’s farm, glowing purple and emitting a pungent smell. The self-serving mayor of Arkham, along with the authorities, come by the farm the next day to survey the damage and consider the best ways to exploit the situation, meanwhile Nathan and his family begin to experience strange phenomena in the meteor’s wake. Ward tests the water and warns the Gardners not to drink it when his test strip glows with the purple colour, but the damage has already been done. Jack has begun sitting calmly in the front yard and claims to be speaking to a friend in the well; Theresa finds herself in a trance one night and accidentally chops off the tips of two of her fingers; and all the while the yard has slowly turned an eerie shade of violet, Nathan Gardner already descending into madness.
Enduring the first hour of the film is just about worth the reward of the gruesome body horror extravaganza that ensues in the final stretch. Leading up to it, the actors seem to be giving their best impersonations of human beings – Stanley having written dialogue as if he’s never had a real human interaction before in his entire life, his characters simply an approximation of how people must talk and act. The aftermath of the meteor and the freakish body modifications it enacts are reacted to with dismay as opposed to wild horror, and for only a hydrologist, Ward Phillips seems to know a little bit about everything, somehow. There’s an extended sequence, leading up to Theresa’s fingertip-chopping, where Nathan fixates wildly on his buffoonish behaviour in a news interview to do with the meteor crash, and while it’s meant to act as tension-building, it just feels bizarre to watch Cage force himself to hem and haw well past the point of hem-and-haw normalcy.
And Cage playing a well-meaning family man feels miles more unsettling than when the purple pandemic fully infects his mind, and he lets loose into some prime cut Cage insanity – his crazy-man cinema persona, at this point, fitting onto him like a well-worn glove. Ultimately, the unwieldy amount of time we spend with the Gardner family feels utterly spent by the very end, and which feels unnecessary to a body horror film. At least thirty minutes could have been shaved off the first half, where we’d still have enough emotional investment in the family to balance out what happens to them in the end, without simultaneously feeling like we wasted our time with them. Though the last half of the film does curdle into a phantasmagoric treat, it only whets our appetite for more. With plans to follow up with another Lovecraftian adaptation, here’s hoping that Richard Stanley’s well-deserved return to feature film packs a little more punch on the next swing.
Color out of Space is available on Digital now
by Brianna Zigler
Brianna Zigler is a graduate in Film-Video and Writing from Penn State University with big plans and not a lot of planning. She loves horror, absurdism, Twin Peaks, is a die-hard Wes Anderson fan, and currently has almost 250 movies in her watchlist. Her favorite films are What We Do in the Shadows, A Serious Man, Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Swiss Army Man, and Suspiria. You can follow her on Twitter @briannazigs