The trouble with adapting H.P. Lovecraft is that at some point, you have to depict the indescribable. Much of Lovecraft’s fiction involves compiling the details surrounding some awful happening, or some madness-provoking creature, without staring either directly in the face. His stories walk readers up to the cliff of an abyss, then insist they take the last steps themselves — an approach that generally works better on the page than on the screen.
That’s more of a problem than usual when it comes to Lovecraft’s 1927 story “The Colour Out of Space,” in which a remote corner of New England becomes deadly and strange after a meteorite crashes on an unfortunate farm. The event has many consequences for the region’s vegetation, livestock, and eventually, its human population, and those consequences all bear the same shade — a color unknown to human eyes. (Or, as Lovecraft phrases it, “hectic and prismatic variants of some diseased, underlying primary tone without a place among the known tints of earth.”)
Color Out of Space, a new take on Lovecraft’s story, wisely doesn’t even try to solve the problem of creating an impossible color: it settles for a sickly pink-purple. That works well enough, in part because the hue envelops a film that stays true to the spirit of the Lovecraft story while bringing it into the 21st century. Largely set on an initially peaceful farm, Color Out of Space lets unsettling developments mount slowly, then quickens the pace to the point of madness. The film marks the comeback of Richard Stanley, director of the 1990 cult classic Hardware, who’s largely focused on short films and documentaries since his doomed 1996 attempt to direct the film The Island of Dr. Moreau. Maybe that’s why Color Out of Space’s fevered second half plays like the work of a director who has decades of pent-up ideas, and is determined to get them all on screen.
But first, Stanley spends time setting up the characters who will be going mad. Co-written by the director and Scarlett Amaris, Color Out of Shape focuses on a family in retreat. Tired of the city, the Gardner family has taken up residence on a sprawling farm. Theresa (Joely Richardson), though still recovering from a recent cancer battle, keeps a foot in her old life by trading stocks miles away from Wall Street. But Nathan (Nicolas Cage) has gone all-in on getting back to the land, raising crops and alpacas, which he’s learned to milk with gusto.
Their kids are taking a little longer to figure out where they fit in. Lavinia (Madeleine Arthur) takes to the woods to perform Wiccan rituals, Benny (Brendan Meyer) mostly gets high and watches NASA videos. Young Jack (Julian Hilliard) just seems to be along for the ride. It’s an unsettled family situation, but one that seems destined to sort itself out in time. Then a meteorite falls in their backyard and changes everything.
In Lovecraft’s story, change comes by degrees over the course of years. Stanley’s film tightens the timeline, but keeps many of the details. Strange flowers bloom in the yard. The garden produces huge, bounteous vegetables that prove bitter. The water takes on a strange taste, but the Gardners drink it anyway. Then they start to change, too. One of the film’s smartest decisions links the film’s slow, observant opening scenes with the slowly unraveling phantasmagoria that follows. As the meteorite’s influence deepens, the Gardners become more themselves. Theresa becomes obsessed with work, Lavinia gets witchier, Benny gets spacier, and Nathan surrenders to the anger and frustration that his new back-to-the-land life has stifled, but not quite destroyed.
Hiring Cage to play this part almost seems too obvious, particularly since he brilliantly played a screw-loose violent patriarch not that long ago, in 2017’s Mom and Dad. But Cage serves the film well, playing Nathan as a man whose personality seems to fluctuate as if being distorted by cosmic radiation. In one moment he’s a caring father, the next a man spinning out of control, then back again. Connoisseurs of Cage’s more outré moments will find plenty to like here, too, particularly a meltdown inside a pick-up truck, a disgusted taste test of his post-meteorite vegetation, and anytime he interacts with alpacas. (Anyone inclined to see a film just because it combines Nicolas Cage and alpacas won’t be disappointed.)
Ultimately, however, Cage losing his shit is just one element in a film determined to go to dizzying extremes. The weirdness boils until it explodes and the Gardner farm starts to look like an alien landscape populated by monstrosities. Stanley realizes this effect via some digital imagery, but mostly goes the practical route, crafting strange creatures inspired in equal parts by John Carpenter’s The Thing and Stuart Gordon’s From Beyond, another Lovecraft adaptation that finds ways to depict the author’s sense of unspeakable cosmic horror using movie tools.
Stanley has to show what Lovecraft only alludes to, but his film ultimately just takes a different route to the same, insanity-inducing destination, making stops along the way to gawk at human bodies twisted by alien forces, terrifying cat creatures, and, of course, mutated alpacas. “What eldritch dream-world was this into which he had blundered?,” Lovecraft’s unfortunate witness to horror wonders near the story’s end. People watching Color Out of Space may wind up asking themselves the same question.
Color Out of Space is currently in theaters.