H. P. Lovecraft is a notoriously difficult author to adapt to film. There have been a thousand riffs off his work over the years, with varying degrees of success, but to directly bring his work to the screen can be problematic at best. Back when authors were paid for every word, during the era of pulp magazines, Lovecraft never met an adjective or an adverb he didn’t like, and while his stories evoke dread and terror, he has a habit of shying away a bit from descriptions. His prose can be unwieldy to those unfamiliar with him. Plus, as a man, Lovecraft was problematic on his own – he was notoriously racist, misogynist, and misanthropic in general. But his stories are still beloved by horror fans throughout the world, and it’s easy to see why. Lovecraft had the uncanny ability to get under our collective skin, to give us glimpses of a mad universe, filled with entities who treated humanity like the insignificant insects that we were. If a filmmaker was able to tap into all the aspects of Lovecraft’s work that inspired horror writers for decades, they would have something quite terrifying.
With Color Out of Space, director Richard Stanley has crafted the best adaptation of H. P. Lovecraft to date. Right from the opening shots, as a narrator speaks the words from Lovecraft’s story The Colour Out Of Space, Stanley gets it – you can find inspiration from his work and use the undeniable power of the piece without being slavish to the material. John Milius did something similar with his Conan the Barbarian – it’s not a direct adaptation of Robert E. Howard’s stories, but it gets the spirit of his work exactly right, and so does Stanley. Stanley also brings Lovecraft kicking and screaming into the 21st century — I’m sure Lovecraft would have had a thing or a thousand to say about an African-American Miskatonic University graduate in his day — and he services the material so much better as a result. There is a way to keep the power of those stories intact while eschewing the terrible hatreds that Lovecraft fostered in his day.
Color Out of Space, like most of Lovecraft’s stories, is pretty simple – a meteor falls to Earth on Nathan Gardner’s (Nicolas Cage) farm, and then Bad Things Happen. As the eldritch forces of the meteor change and transform the surrounding land, the Gardner family undergoes change as well. Anyone who has ever read a Lovecraft story can tell you that things don’t end well for anyone involved, and that’s important to know going in for casual explorers of the material. The universe is indifferent to our fate. There are Beings out there who brush us aside like so much dust, and we cannot even hope to understand them. The true horror that each Lovecraft story evokes lies within the slow realization of that – Lovecraft certainly believed it in some form, and Stanley manages to get that intrinsically right. You can’t successfully adapt these stories without a keen understanding of that.
For this to work, you have to have actors who can commit to the insanity of that, and who better than Nicolas Cage to do so? Cage is a smart actor, and he knows what is expected of him and the impact that he has, so when he goes into full Rage Cage mode as he has done in much of his recent work, it feels genuine to the story being told and not just some quirkiness on Cage’s behalf. If I were to have any complaints about his performance, it would be that Cage should have probably dialed it down some in the first act to make when he goes full-on Lovecraft crazy later on more effective, but that’s a nitpick. Cage understands this material well and commits, adding much to the film’s verisimilitude.
But the surrounding players commit as well. I would never expected to see Joely Richardson in a movie like this, but her performance is an anchor here, especially during the second half, when things go dramatically south. No less impressive are the performances of the three children, played by Madeleine Arthur, Brendan Meyer, and Julian Hilliard. They are our entry point into the cosmic horror that awaits. Even Tommy Chong, as an eccentric neighbor, has something to add to the piece.
But is Color Out of Space scary? Oh my Cthulhu, yes. If you love cosmic dread and terror, do I have a film for you. Stanley gives us just enough to allow our minds to run rampant with the horrific imagery. He’s a lot like Lovecraft himself in that regard – Lovecraft often shied away from direct descriptions of his creations, which added to the horror of his work. You never quite understood what Lovecraft was describing, but you understood enough, and your mind did the rest. It’s probably the primary factor in why Lovecraft’s work has resonated so much through the years, and I’ve never seen a filmmaker who has successfully been able to bring that to adaptations of his work, until now. That’s what makes this the greatest Lovecraft adaptation to date: Richard Stanley has managed to capture that power here – he shows us just enough for us to understand the base of what we are seeing, and then our imaginations sweep us away in tidal forces that make Color Out of Space genuinely scary. The physical effects work is top notch, especially in a sequence during the film’s insane third act where even the sound design sends shivers up your spine. I haven’t even mentioned the phenomenal score by Colin Stetson, which evokes the atmosphere integral to making a film like this work.
People concentrating on another unhinged Nicolas Cage performance are doing the film a disservice. Yes, this is one of Cage’s best recent films, but more importantly, this is a film that has a larger scope and perspective than that. This is pure, unfiltered Lovecraft – it may not be as specific as some purists might like, but to hell with that, it gets the SPIRIT right, and that’s the most important aspect of all. As a lover of H. P. Lovecraft’s work but fully acknowledging his more troublesome aspects, Richard Stanley made me feel like I was 14 again, under the sheets, shivering in fear as something vast and unnameable slowly oozed between the cracks of reality to brush me cosmically aside. Richard Stanley has brought Lovecraft full-on into the 21st century, leaving everything I’ve loved from Lovecraft’s work intact, and for that I am very grateful. I adored this film. Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn!