H.P. Lovecraft is the undisputed Old Master of American horror fiction. Although he died of cancer at the age of 47 in 1937, Lovecraft’s output was positively volcanic. The fantastic tales have made him posthumously famous, but he also wrote reams of poetry, and countless essays on science, philosophy, political and social issues. He ghost-wrote books for other authors and left a mountain of correspondence. It wasn’t entirely by predilection, because Lovecraft always struggled to make a living, and was penniless at the time of his death.
The Colour Out of Space (1927) is one of his best-known stories, although somewhat atypical of the supernatural sagas that have earned him a cult following. Nowhere in the tale does he refer to his favourite dark entity, Cthulu, or the other ancient horrors that have existed since before the dawn of time. At no point does he mention the dreaded Necronomicon, the book of magic spells put together by “the Mad Arab, Abdul Alhazred”.
It may sound silly but Lovecraft is the perfect author for an age of conspiracy theories, eager to believe in dark forces lurking in the shadows. His narrators tell of their experiences in measured tones, struggling to accept what they’ve seen with their own eyes. The classic Lovecraft trope is for the hero to be confronted at the end of the story with some horror so fantastic, so beyond-the-ken-of-mortal-man, so indescribable, that he doesn’t attempt to describe it. The hard work is left to the reader’s imagination, and this has proven to be a highly effective strategy – albeit a tease.
What makes The Colour Out of Space especially challenging for a filmmaker is that Lovecraft posits an entirely new colour. As colour is a matter of perception the scientifically-minded Lovecraft would have known this is pretty much impossible, but as a writer of imaginative fiction he couldn’t resist the brain-bursting possibilities. For the record, director, Richard Stanley, has decided the never-before-seen colour will be a kind of lurid pinky-purple.
I was surprised to find the story has been filmed twice already, as Die, Monster, Die!(1965), and The Curse (1987) – both freely available on-line. The former has the charm of a low-grade Hammer Horror, but the story is unrecognisable. The latter is appalling tripe.
Stanley’s new version sticks more closely to the original than any previous efforts, although the action is updated to the present day and there are those obligatory slabs of gore and yickiness today’s horror audiences seem to crave. There are also references to numerous other films, although I won’t venture to ask whether this is by way of homage, or simply denotes a willingness to recycle familiar motifs.
Lovecraft’s story was set in New England and framed as a reminiscence of the 1880s. Stanley and his scriptwriter, Scarlett Amaris, keep the action in the forests of New England but transform the Gardner family into refugees from the city seeking a tree change. Nathan Gardner (Nicolas Cage) is trying to raise alpacas and grow vegetables, while his wife, Theresa (Joely Richardson), is giving financial advice to private clients on-line. Their teenage children, Lavina (Madeleine Arthur) and Benny (Brendan Meyer); along with pre-teen, Jack (Julian Hilliard), are still adjusting to life in the wilderness.
The story begins, rather wonderfully, with the opening words of Lovecraft’s story being intoned over atmospheric shots of the forest, by a voice that will soon be attributed to Ward (Elliott Knight), a hydrologist who is doing a water survey of the region.
A new element enters right away, as we find Lavinia, dressed in a long lacy frock and a black cape, trying to cast spells from a paperback version of the dreaded Necronomicon.
The book, as noted, is not in the original story and neither is Lavinia. A vulnerable girl-child, in the Chlöe Grace Moretz mould, she has been added to provide a little gender balance. Although marooned in the country, she is a dedicated Goth.
The Gardners’ rural idyll starts to unravel when a meteor comes crashing into their front yard one night, glowing that mysterious shade of pinky-purple. It makes the farm into a temporary media sensation, but by the time the news cameras arrive the invader has shrunk to virtually nothing, leaving the reporters to conclude the meteor is a hoax and Nathan a drunk.
Soon there are weird pink flowers popping up all over the place, and a strange luminescence in the well. Vegetable and animal life is beginning to mutate. Can the Gardners themselves withstand the strange radiation from outer space? And what about old Ezra, the hippy hermit who for some unknown reason has been allowed to set up a shack on their property? There’s an unspoken gag in giving this role to Tommy Chong, of Cheech & Chong fame, who’s probably the right man for a story in which we seem to be seeing the world under the influence of psychedelic hallucinogens.
When things start going wrong the problems take many different forms. Soon matters will have escalated out of control for the Gardners, and for the filmmakers, who depart the realm of brooding suspicion and arrive in the land of full-blown horror movie cliché, complete with visceral gunk and lurid special effects.
One of the scariest aspects of the movie is to watch the decline of Nicolas Cage, from an actor who once played the romantic lead in cool films by big name directors, to the bellowing buffoon of this story who appears utterly deranged long before his official crack-up. Joely Richardson fares scarcely better, although her back-list is, at best, an up and down affair.
Having been a Lovecraft fan since my teens I’ve probably given this feature more space than it deserves. To say it is one of the best adaptations of his work is an indictment of the way these stories have been used by numerous directors from the 1960s to the present. It would be desirable to stop projecting the tales forward in time, and to avoid spelling out all those things Lovecraft left unseen and unsaid. For the essence of horror is not the quantity of gore than can be crammed into an hour-and-a-half, but the chill feeling that sends a shiver down the spine and lingers after the credits have rolled.
Colour Out of Space
Directed by Richard Stanley
Written by Scarlett Amaris & Richard Stanley, after a story by H.P.Lovecraft
Starring Nicolas Cage, Joely Richardson, Madeleine Arthur, Elliot Knight, Brendan Meyer, Julian Hilliard, Danny Chong
Malaysia/Portugal/USA, rated MA 15+, 111 mins
On Demand: via Telstra, Google Play, iTunes, Fetch TV, Foxtel & Umbrella Entertainment, plus DVD & BluRay
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 9 May, 2020