Review of Color Out of Space (2019, Film)
Color Out of Space. Dir. Richard Stanley. SpectreVision, 2019.
Produced by Spectrevision, Color Out of Space (2019) is the latest rendition of H. P. Lovecraft’s most adapted short story to date. Richard Stanley’s cosmic horror film centers on a family who moves to a remote farmstead in rural New England to escape the hustle of the 21st century. They are adapting to their new life when a glowing meteorite crashes into their front yard and melts into the earth, poisoning both the land and the fabric of space-time with a strange, otherworldly color. To their horror, the family realizes that an alien force is gradually mutating every life form it touches. The film stars Nicolas Cage as a neurotic, righteous family man who faces the odd phenomenon while his wife and children fall victims of a grotesque transformation, which takes him to the brink of madness.
The film opens with a voice-over narration of the first lines from “The Colour out of Space”: “West of Arkham the hills rise wild, and there are valleys with deep woods that no axe has ever cut…”. The plot follows that of the source material, but also dialogues with the more magical-supernatural side of the Mythos by adding a wide range of references to the storyline. In the first scenes, for example, the family’s daughter Lavinia Gardner (Madeleine Arthur) performs a Wiccan ceremony to cure her mother’s cancer. Later, a copy of the Necronomicon and a notebook with arcane symbols can be seen in the girl’s bedroom. Witch cults, occult arcana, and ancient folklore are recurring motifs in Lovecraft’s fiction, although they are absent in that specific source. In addition, the glimpse of a psychedelic dimension inhabited by alien entities whose tentacles curl up through the moving image references the Cyclopean architecture and the dream worlds of “The Call of Cthulhu” (1926) and other stories.
Stanley also brings a new color palette, which was a significant move from earlier adaptations of “The Colour out of Space”. Historically, cinema has built a correlation between the “blasted heath” and the effects of radioactivity on the environment—that was already hinted by the source itself. It’s not by chance, for example, that the “color” fluoresces green from enriched uranium in Daniel Haller’s Die, Monster, Die! (1965), the first adaptation of the story for the screen. That “green” had long become associated with radioactivity, how it reflected post-Cold War era fears, and how it taps into science fiction tropes of radioactivity and outer space. In this sense, Stanley’s color purple is innovative since it departs from the shining green, with any allusion to radiation being much subtler and almost disappearing.
It is interesting that in changing the color palette of the film, Stanley seems to be aesthetically invoking that more magical-supernatural side of the Mythos, instead of the extraterrestrial-cosmic side of it. At the beginning, the strange meteorite is implicitly summoned as a result of Lavinia’s magic ceremony. Nevertheless, the Color’s effects are just as devastating, since it infects mind and body, destroys soil and crops, and causes horrific mutations. At the climax, the color purple is dominant and leaves a trail of destruction. The newcomer hydrologist Ward Phillips (Elliot Knight) witnesses the Gardner property becoming the visual depiction of Lovecraft’s “acres of grey desolation,” with everything (even the color palette) “turning grey and brittle”, “fast crumbling to a greyish powder.”
The film also interacts with the history of horror cinema, since it plunges into body horror—a subgenre of horror and science fiction films since the 1980s. After being affected by the Color, Theresa (Joely Richardson) absentmindedly cuts off two of her fingers with a kitchen knife, spreading blood in the sink. Later, the Color fuses the mother and her son Jack (Julian Hilliard) together into a deranged, grotesque mass in the gruesome style of Sam Raimi, Stuart Gordon or David Cronenberg. In the stables, the alpacas undergo a horrible mutation and become a many-headed monster that resonates the practical effects in John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982). In a way, Color Out of Space could be said to be a film of that decade, and is definitely related to the 1980s revival being currently experienced in film and television.
Color Out of Space opens valuable avenues of interdisciplinary research. If previous generations interpreted the Color’s green as radiation—a “scientific” fear that was a product of the Cold War—, the film reveals how cosmic horror appears to have taken a departure from science fiction in recent times (excepting in media like Stranger Things and Chernobyl, perhaps). Adaptation studies may shed a light on this departure and why it has become a trend in cosmic horror films nowadays. In the field of reception, the changing in the color palette may clarify today’s audience’s fears and the metaphors Stanley is exploiting. Another point of interest, which also represents a departure from Lovecraft’s writings more generally, especially given Lovecraft’s blatant racism, concerns the main roles being played by a female actress and a black actor—Lavinia and Ward, respectively. Reminiscent of the novel Lovecraft Country (2016) and its adaptation, this choice points to the currently changing landscape concerning adaptations of period literature, and should be considered to explore key areas in gender and race studies. On a more paratextual level, the film is tackling the horror that was Lovecraft and racism in general, by casting a diverse cast. Also in the field of gender studies, Lavinia’s mystical bonds with the Color may raise questions about how the female character is represented and why it is more connected to the magical-supernatural side of Mythos.
Joshi, S.T. I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H.P. Lovecraft. Hippocampus Press, 2013.
Lovecraft, H. P. “The Colour Out of Space.” The Complete Cthulhu Mythos Tales, 2015, pp. 62–85.
Mariconda, Steven J. “Atmosphere and the Qualitative Analysis of ‘The Colour out of Space.’” Lovecraft Annual, no. 14, 2020, pp. 14-25. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/26939805. Accessed 31 Mar. 2021.
Poole, W. Scott. “Lovecraft, Witch Cults, and Philosophers.” The Age of Lovecraft, edited by Carl H. Sederholm, and Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock, University of Minnesota Press, 2016, pp. 215–230.
Lúcio Reis Filho is a Ph.D. in Media Studies (University Anhembi Morumbi, 2019), film critic and historian specializing in the relationships between cinema, history, and literature, with a focus on the horror genre. Addressing the echoes of H.P. Lovecraft in Clive Barker’s works, he wrote the chapter “Demons to Some, Angels to Others: Eldritch Horrors and Hellbound Religion in the Hellraiser Films,” in Divine Horror: Essays on the Cinematic Battle Between the Sacred and the Diabolical (McFarland, 2017). His award-winning research funded by CAPES (Coordination for the Improvement of Higher Education Personnel, Brazil) “Lovecraft out of Space: Echoes of American Weird Fiction on Brazilian Literature and Cinema” was published in Lovecraftian Proceedings No. 3. He also wrote essays on zombies in contemporary Latin American films, published in journals such as the SFRA Review and horror-themed anthologies. Currently, he investigates Lovecraft’s works and its cinematic adaptations in the late twentieth century