Where strange fact and stranger fiction collide
I am one of the first people outside the project to know that Richard Stanley’s 2019 Color Out of Space would star Nicholas Cage. Stanley unveiled this in a break out session at the 2018 HP Lovecraft Film Festival in Portland Oregon. Though the special guest had talked about his new project in many panels, as far as I know only the twenty or so people at the private session heard about Cage’s involvement, back then.
Stanley is a charming South African who lives near the Cather Castle in Montsegur France, and has become the de facto spiritual protector of said fortress. The truth was back then I was more interested in his tales about the church’s siege and apology for the crusade on the castle, than about his future movie project.
At the time Stanley was most famous for being fired from the set of The Island of Dr. Moreau because he couldn’t control Val Kilmer and Marlon Brando, then sneaked back on to the set and got a friend in the makeup department to give him an animal make over and he posed as an extra in the movie he was just fired from.
I cringed when someone at the break out session asked him about the firing, but Stanley was actually pretty cool about it, he even joked about how the TV show about the debacle, ‘let me cash the check any way I wanted.” He was very unguarded in that session and it was a delight to see the man as he really is.
I feel I can write about the movie now that I have seen it. I am grateful that I was able to see it in a theater during its limited release because the amazing colors and vivid panoramas deserved a large screen viewing. I will try not to spoil much about the movie that isn’t in the trailers or common knowledge, but I can’t write this without spoiling what happened in the short story. So, if you are not familiar with this 93-year-old tale you may want to read it before you read this.
The Color Out of Space was the story that Lovecraft was the happiest with. He was notoriously self-critical, but he liked this one. It came as a response to other writers describing aliens as little green men. Pulp authors of the time would make aliens look like humans, changing them by merely giving them antennae or changing their skin color. Lovecraft however felt that aliens would be truly that; alien. The only thing that we mere humans would be able to recognize in them is the fact that they have a color, even though that color is like nothing that has been seen on Earth.
The story is told by an unnamed hydro-surveyor who is trying to put together the pieces of a thirty-year-old mystery of what caused an area outside Arkham to become a dead zone known as the “Blasted Heath”. He tracked down one of the few surviving eyewitness Ammi Pierce, an old farmer who was friends with the Gardner’s the family who owned the land that eventually became the Blasted Heath.
A meteorite crashed on the Gardner property and when Miskatonic University scientists came out to examine it, the space debris began to dissolve. Over time it begins to change the family, who lived where it landed, both physically and mentally. The effects are described similarly to radiation burns, Lovecraft may have been inspired by the news stories of ‘’the radium girls’ (women who worked with radium and were pensioned and killed by radiation poisoning.). The mother, Mrs. Gardener was so mutated that Ammi had to put her out of her misery. The rest of the family vanished or is killed by the color. Ammi and a group of men return to see the color leave the family’s well and return to space. In keeping with Lovecraft’s idea that color is truly alien, its reason for leaving the Earth at the end, are unknown.
Lovecraft is notoriously unfilmable, but this is not the first attempt to film COoS. Though under several different titles, this story is probably the HPL short story that has been adapted the most. In 1961, in Boris Karloff’s Die Monster Die! Has the same plotline about a meteor crashing to earth and mutating the people in the surrounding area. In 1987 Wil Wheaton just off his run in TNG stared in The Curse, which at least in the beginning follows Lovecraft’s story, even though it was set in contemporary time and had Wil Wheaton in it. There has even been Italian and German language movie version of the story
Creepshow had a segment written and acted by Steven King called ‘The Lonsome death of Jordy Verrill.” based on his short story Weeds. Which is a spoof of sorts on Color Out Space. In which the poor farmer Jordy is forced to commit suicide after he ‘broke a meteorite’ and it began to turn him into vegetation. For some reason when I was 16 my Church youth leader thought it would be a good thing to show to our youth group for Halloween.
One thing Stanley said, in the breakout group was that he was adding a person of color and a final girl. When someone asked him “How he felt about the studio forcing that on him” he explained that was his idea, that he needed to make Lovecraft relevant to the modern day.
To be honest Lovecraft’s strength was is ideas and wordplay; characters were secondary to him. In fact, Ammi Pierce might be one of his strongest characters. So, it only makes sense that Stanley would develop and strengthen the characters in his version. He takes the Garner family and fleshes them out. in the short story we are told about them from the surveyor who got his story from Ammi. So, their descriptions are third hand.
Stanley takes the father Nuthum Gardener and makes him Nathan. The family patriarch is played by Nic Cage. This caused an excited ripple and shock of dismay among the Lovecraftian community when it was announced. At the breakout session Stanley said he had 6 million dollars. 2 million for Nic, 2 million for the rest of the cast and crew and 2 million left to make the actually movie.
So, the question of course many people were going to ask was, ‘If Stanley couldn’t control Kilmer and Brando, how was he going to reel in such a notorious character as Cage?” The answer is very well. There are some of “Mandy” like over the top moments but they come later in the movie when Mr. Gardener is deeply influenced by the Color. Stanley gives the Gardener’s a more fleshed out and nuanced treatment than old gent form providence did, and this is especially effective during the beginning, before the entity arrives.
Nathan is a mild-mannered soul who perhaps drinks a little more than he should, and finds it hard to relate with his children, because he had an over barring and unapproving father. He has moved his family back to his old man’s home in Massachusetts, to raise alpacas. His wife Theresa, played Joley Richardson, is the family’s bread winner, but has difficulty keeping her high-powered clients while living in the country. She recently had a mastectomy to save her from breast cancer.
Brenden Meyer has the role of the oldest child, Benny. He is basically a slacker, who everyone underestimates. The middle Gardner child had a gender swap and re-named Lavinia. She is a wiccan, who feels really bad about her mother’s cancer but doesn’t know how to tell her that and who chafes at rural life. She is played by Melinda Authur, who is amazing in the roll. The youngest child Jack is played by Jullian Hillard, who has all the fears as ten-year-old would have with his mother almost dying and moving from the big city. The family’s quirks and vulnerabilities not only endear them to us, but are used against them as the Color gains more influence over them.
The surveyor without a name in the short story is called Ward Philips in the movie. His opening narration, is a paraphrasing of Lovecraft’s beginning, this tells the audience that this is going to be faithful to the spirit of the source material, but to expect some knew aspects too. The fact that the actor Eliot Knight is a person of color brings the tale out of the past and in to the 21st century. The fact that he is HPL’s name sake (Ho)ward Phillips (Lovecraft), divests the story from Lovecraft’s racism, much in the same way Jordan Peele hopes too in this Summer’s Lovecraft Country.
Ammi Peirce is divided into two different characters the Gardner’s squatter Ezra (Tomy Chung) and Sherriff Pierce (Josh C Waller). These characters can give exposition as well as assist Ward in his quest to discover the truth about the Color. Though they are good strong portrayals they do not get the combined screen time that HPL devotes to Ammi.
It might be strange to say that there are Lovecraftian Easter eggs in a movie adaptation of a Lovecraft short story but there are. Besides the names of Ward and sheriff Pierce, we see a local whether report that includes the HPL favorites of Arkham, Kingsport and Dunwich, but also a few deep cuts are hidden here. Ward wears a Miskatonic U tee shirt and like his namesake is from Providence Rhode Island. Lavinia aslo has a trade paperback version of the Necronomicon. My favorite however is the symbol for the local news station WARK is a modified original elder sign.
One thing that I think is that Stanley did perfectly is the “less is more” style when it comes to the mutations created by the color. I am not talking about the CGI mantis, but the two main monsters. These creatures are truly scary, but the director never gives us a good view of them, this makes them scarier and even closer to some of the idle of Lovecraft’s truly indescribable entities.
I really like this movie but it is not perfect. There are some lose threads that never get resolved. I feel Ezra had more of a role in the original script and his parts got cut for time. There is an arc with the mayor that doesn’t go anywhere and when Benny descends into the well, he has his grandfather’s old goggles, and this Chekhov’s gun has no pay off. But those dead ends are my only complaint about the whole movie.
Color out of Space is loyal enough to the source material that true HPL fans will love it. Nic cage is just crazy enough, but doesn’t go full Nic Cage, that should keep his fans happy. People who love movies for movies sake will like the slow deliberate hand that Stanley brings to the set, For people who are interested in the movie but are intimidated because they know little about Lovecraft’s works have nothing to fear, they may miss a few Easter eggs, but still get a quality horror movie out the experience.
I think this is a great way to get Lovecraft’s name out to the public and 2020 is going to be a big year for him, with Lovecraft Country and Locke and Key (the graphic novel is set in a city called Lovecraft). Many more people will know who HPL is come December than who know him now.