Iridescent nightmare

Poster for Color out of Space

It is a rare adaptation that captures the original's feeling so well that it convinces me I need to re-read the original story as soon as I can. It hasn't happened once before with H.P. Lovecraft adaptations – not until Richard Stanley's wonderfully disturbing Color Out of Space.

And you know what? I wasn't giving it enough credit. I expect it to be mostly a movie where Nicolas Cage gets to do some Nicolas Caging, this time against slimy horrors instead of hell bikers. I smirked when it took the movie less than two minutes to name-drop Arkham, thinking it was only that long because they had to show some credits before our unseen narrator started soliloquizing. His words had a familiar feel, a half-remembered sensation of old, dusty smells filtering through library stacks. They were the same words that open Lovecraft's short story and one of the many direct parallels the movie has with its source material.

It shouldn't have surprised me. It's an adaptation, after all. But, to be frank, I was expecting this to be one of those “inspired by” jobs. It is instead a faithful adaptation, updating only some minor details. If you have never read the original story, a meteorite lands in Nahum Gardner's farm, and the color that expands out of it begins consuming everything. In the original, a surveyor hears the tale from a crazy old man who was around when it happened, decades earlier, at the end of the 19th century. The movie instead involves the surveyor in the story instead of having him receive it second-hand, modernizes the names (Nahum becomes Nathan), and there's a daughter delightfully named Lavinia.

While the visuals are an iridescent magenta-tinted cousin to The Thing, with a scene that directly references the first time we glimpsed that particular horror, its story beats are straight from Lovecraft's tale, as is its style. It takes its time. It spreads its spores into your mind. It lets them germinate, expand, until it has wholly infected your attention.

Much more subtle how it gets the more unpleasant aspects of Lovecraft himself right, without rubbing them in your face. The Gardners are conservative and old fashioned. They call the caretaker a “hippie reprobate” (immediately telling you why Tommy Chong is in the cast), yet Nathan refers to him as “their squire” (a line only Cage would be able to deliver with a straight face). Both parents make remarks about how their daughter Lavinia dresses, never saying she looks like a whore but having it painted on their faces. They disapprove of Ward, our hydrologist narrator who their daughter has a crush on, and you get the impression that they are just as uncomfortable with the idea of teenage sex as they are with Ward being black.

Fascinating as the adaptation is, what surprised me the most was that it made me realize something I never had in the thirty-plus years since I first encountered Lovecraft: how much body horror there is in his stories. Granted, a lot of it is the flat-out racist “parents fucked the wrong kind of people,” which is likely why I hadn't spotted it – I'd mentally filed it as a metaphor for his fear of anyone who wasn't the right shade of pink. There is, however, the recurrent theme of bodies turning against themselves, whether because of their horrible parentage, a character's choices, or an outside influence. Edward Derby's terrible fate in The Thing in the Doorstep. Doctor Muñoz in Cool Air. Wilbur Whateley's misshapen form, his unnatural odor, and rapidly dissolving corpse. Even Peaslee's possession in The Shadow out of Time, where both his body spends years out of his control and Peaslee ends up trapped in a monstrous, ancient shape.

Color Out of Space brings these elements to the front and, in representing story elements in a way that would be right at home in a 1980s Cronenberg movie, made me finally spot this pattern. I don't think I've ever been as perturbed by the representation of someone suffering a disease since the image of Zelda in the initial Pet Sematary adaptation, emaciated, twisted body crawling out of her attic bed and towards her sister.

It's not perfect. There is a subplot that never gets developed, and hangs there like a vestigial finger stuck to the movie's wrist – you could extirpate it and end up with a much shapelier creature. But that's as much as I can complain about, and the more I think about the movie, the less relevant it becomes.

Now Richard Stanley wants to follow this up with The Dunwich Horror. The last thing my mind needs is his take on the story of the Whateleys' sexual habits and horrid descendants. Nicolas Cage as Old Whateley, though...

Sir, may I have some more?

#horror #nicolascage #richardstanley #hplovecraft #joelyrichardson #madeleinearthur #elliotknight #tommychong