Richard Stanley’s vision of hell is bright pink and full of alpacas. The director all but disappeared in the nineties after a string of flops, but now he’s back and he’s brought something with him. From the producers of Mandy, Color Out of Space is a technicolour wonder of cosmic horror and Nicolas Cage insanity.
Nathan Gardner (Nicolas Cage) and his family are minding their own business on their New England farm that houses alpacas (instead of cows) when a meteorite lands and reality folds in on itself. Despite all the B-movie body horror that takes places, cows to alpacas is the strangest change to H. P. Lovecraft’s short story. It’s also perfectly in tune with the uncanny atmosphere of the source material and Stanley’s modern adaptation of it. Alpacas are weird animals even without cosmic meddling; they also compliment Cage’s innate strangeness and the two together are a force unmatched. When he starts milking them, you are fully on board with it.
There’s a brief but well-measured set-up before the meteorite hits and the film shifts beyond the point of no return. Nathan’s wife, Theresa (Joely Richardson’s best role in years), is suffering from cancer, which is an unsubtle forecast for the malevolent invasion that comes. It does, however, give the film an added depth. As Annihilation showed – a clear touchstone for Stanley – cancer is an effective tool in showing the carnage and change caused by an insidious invader; how it warps and takes over the host, and in this case, how an alien colour causes the body and environment to morph into something distressingly unrecognisable.
There are strong performances from the children, with the breakout being Madeleine Arthur as the daughter, a witchy teen that enjoys rituals and provoking her parents. Her scenes with Cage bring many of the film’s funniest moments. Although this is very much in the spirit of Lovecraft, with its extraordinary visual palette and vague horror, it is also frequently hilarious.
The feature is shot by Steve Annis, who has previously worked on the Netflix sci-fi thriller I Am Mother, producing miracles there in what is otherwise a low-budget film. He reaches new heights in this retro delight, successfully interpreting images that only work on the page and bringing them to thrilling visualisation on the screen. The farm is cast in a blaze of ultra-pink, where strange flowers bloom, and Alpacas grow a dozen heads.
There’s a wonderful sense of otherworldly tension in the opening moments as the camera moves through the dense, looming trees, aided by a narrative bookend that takes some of Lovecraft’s text and rewords it. Ward (Elliot Knight) is the surveyor who recounts the story that devastates Nathan’s family. It’s a familiar Lovecraft trope to have the narrator imbedded in the story and come out the end completely changed, and in this instance, casts the story in a faithful, mythic light.
The visuals constantly delight, but the film owes significant debt to Colin Stetson’s moody score: a kaleidoscope of throbs and pulses, sinking into your bones and rattling your skull. It’s a brilliant concoction of synthetic sounds, enclosing Stanley’s strange nightmare in a bubble of hysteria and alien terror. It suggests a very exciting future for Stetson.
But the person the holds it all together, even when everything is clearly unravelling beyond comprehension, is Nicolas Cage. He’s in irrepressible form that recalls his Wicker Man days. Intelligently, Stanley knows that to get to the best Cage, you simply have to get out of his way. The mad-hat script written by Stanley and Scarlett Amaris allows him to do whatever he wants and have his worst impulses melt seamlessly into the fabric of the film. Most of his lines spin out of control, serious one moment and bizarre the next — with a ridiculous high-pitched tone to match.
It’s the early scenes that are perhaps my favourite, when things haven’t yet disintegrated into indefinable visions. When the meteorite falls, Nathan is swarmed by reporters. He watches this back on the television, swearing in embarrassment at the state of his hair and his own self-incrimination of madness. Cage delivers everything in the exact register required. He is very funny, and with this all-encompassing performance at its cosmic centre, Color Out of Space is deliriously entertaining.
Director: Richard Stanley
Producers: Elijah Wood, Lisa Whalen, Josh C. Waller, Daniel Noah
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Joely Richardson, Madeleine Arthur, Elliot Knight
Release Date: 2020
Available: In cinemas and on demand.
Featured image courtesy of SpectreVision