Richard Stanley is a filmmaker arguably less famous than infamous. Though he’s directed a pair of thrillers, three docs, and a string of music videos, he might be best known for being fired from the helm of the 1996 studio adaptation of H.G. Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau. The outrageous behavior that got him sacked and the wild choices he made afterwards are detailed in the jaw-dropping 2014 documentary Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau. Beyond being a fascinating look into the madness of moviemaking, that doc helped spur a fresh fascination with Stanley and his unique vision for cinema. Which made Color Out Of Space, Stanley’s first narrative feature in 25 years, instantly intriguing. That this science-fiction thriller is an adaptation of an H. P. Lovecraft short story and stars the one-and-only Nicolas Cage? That is all gravy. Gooey, gonzo gravy.
In Color Out Of Space, Stanley and co-writer Scarlett Amaris leave faint traces of the original premise: a surveying outsider visits to a remote family farm, where he discovers an alien contamination that mutates the whole place into a nightmarish hellscape. But its details have been radically transformed. For one thing, the tale of a farmer’s family doomed by a fateful fallen meteorite, is transported from the 1920s (when it was penned) to modern day. There, the family Gardner complains about poor WIFI when they’re not tending to their alpaca prospects, which their positive patriarch (Cage) proclaims, “the meat of the future!” Pushing beyond Lovecraft, Stanley folds in elements that appear plucked from cinematic inspirations like Tobe Hooper’s haunted house classic Poltergeist, Alex Garland’s divisive invasion drama Annihilation, John Carpenter’s iconic creature-feature The Thing, Panos Cosmatos’s frenzied horror-fantasy Mandy, and Andrew Fleming’s witchy teen-dramaThe Craft.
Stanley’s Color Out Of Space begins on the quiet bank of a rural river, where Lavinia Gardner (Madeleine Arthur) carefully performs a Wiccan ritual beckoning for good health and escape from this bumpkin burgh. But she’s interrupted by a handsome young surveyor named Ward (Elliot Knight), whose been sent to test the water for the mayor’s dam-building project. Quickly enchanted with the teen witch, Ward will be drawn back again and again to the Gardner farm. And so, he becomes an awe-struck witness to the horrors they endure after the meteorite crashes onto their land and into their lives. The family’s young son (Julian Hilliard) begins to act strangely, whistling to an imaginary friend he insists lives in their well. An eccentric but friendly vagrant (Tommy Chong) starts speaking cryptically about a dark influence. The environment around the farm changes swiftly. Garish fuchsia flowers swarm like locusts. Crops grow fast but foul, and odd lights surge forth from the earth. But this alien glow is so much more than lights or color, it is a mysterious and merciless force that mutates anything it touches, including the Gardners.
Stanley offers an abundance of outrageous and atrocious spectacle. Skin melts, bones bend, and sanity snaps in his go-for-broke adaptation. The brutal body horror had audiences at TIFF yelping and dry heaving (this critic included.) The surreal extraterrestrials had us marveling yet feeling menaced. His visuals, gnarly and miraculous, dare you to look away while taunting you stare them down. And the audio design is ruthless, giving an oozy texture to every moment of terror. A family member struck monstrous by the color is not only a twitching nightmare made flesh, but also a gurgling, sputtering, screaming wretch that’s sounds haunt you even if you do look away.
Bolstering Stanley’s bold visuals is Cage, who turns his performance to eleven and then rips off the dial and chucks it down that dark, whispering well. Stanley has good cause to let Cage run wild. The color overtakes Nathan Gardner, amping his id to a manic level. He erupts in moments of frustration, like when he scolds his petulant teen daughter, “I’m tired of your DRAMA, Lavinia!” Cage punches “drama” like he’s punching through a wall. And every time he says “alpaca” it becomes an uneasy punch line, sparking smatterings of nervousness throughout the theater. The word becomes more and more absurd as Nathan tries to pretend everything is normal when it’s anything but. When he plucks massive tomatoes from his garden, Nathan’s excitement is so over-the-top it’s contagious. But when he bites in and tastes the rot, his explosive tantrum of screaming and spitting makes us tremble. On brood mode, his glare looks like it would melt through steel. So as Color of Space rumbles into its climax, there’s no telling what might come next from the color and Cage un-caged.
Color of Space is a positively insane film. It’s a violent collision of influences, emotions, beauty, and grotesquerie. It’s less a mind-fuck and more a mind-gangbang, overwhelming your senses until your stomach is churning, your pulse is racing, your eyes are watering, and you brain feels like electrified mush. But underneath all these bonkers bits and unbridled bravado, Stanley builds a story of family and love. It’s love that brought the Gardners to this farm. And it’s love that keeps them there. Now, what that says about love, well, that might be Stanley’s most disturbing reveal of all.
Color of Space made its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. Its US Premiere will follow later this month at Fantastic Fest.
Kristy Puchko is Film Critic at Riot Material Magazine. Ms. Puchko (@KristyPuchko) is a New York-based film critic and entertainment journalist, her work has appeared in Vanity Fair, IndieWire, Nerdist, and Pajiba (to name a few). Ms. Puchko is a regular contributor on the Slashfilmcast, and teaches a course on film criticism at FIT. To see more of her work, visit DecadentCriminals.com