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Living the Dream in Arkham:
Richard Stanley’s The Color Out of Space

700 words 

The Color [sic] Out of Space[1]
Director: Richard Stanley
Writers: Scarlett Amaris, Richard Stanley, H. P. Lovecraft (short story)
Stars: Nicolas Cage, Madeleine Arthur, Q’orianka Kilcher, Joely Richardson, Tommy Chong; full cast and crew credits here.

A certain tendency to insanity has always attended the opening of the religious sense in men, as if they had been “blasted with excess of light.”—Emerson, “The Over-Soul”

H. P. Lovecraft famously said that it was a mercy that mankind could not coordinate the contents of the mind, as if it did so, it would go mad from the shock.[2] Then try, gentle Reader, to coordinate these eldritch facts: another movie based on the work of Lovecraft, and starring Nicholas Cage.

The official synopsis notes, “After a meteorite lands in the front yard of their farm, Nathan Gardner and his family find themselves battling a mutant extraterrestrial organism as it infects their minds and bodies, transforming their quiet rural life into a living nightmare.” You can view the official trailer here.

The works of H. P. Lovecraft, some forty “tales” and a handful of novellas, seem to exert a doomed attraction to legions of cinematic Ahabs, drawn, like one of Lovecraft’s own protagonists, into confronting the task, heedless of all warnings.

It’s hard to see why anyone would think the tales are at all filmable, or even worth filming, any more than the novels of Samuel Beckett or the poetry of Apollinaire. The plots are rudimentary and repetitive, the characters one-dimensional, and most infamously, the almost total lack of female characters and thus of any conventional romantic interests. The main attraction is the famous Lovecraft verbal style, and even that has many detractors.

I suppose it must be the sheer unfilmability itself that appeals to some part of the human psyche, where ambition swells to the point of hubris.

Evidence for this can be found in the strange popularity of filming, or attempting to film, “The Colour out of Space,” whose very title announces its para-visual content, and whose plot requires the characters to simply stay put in increasing degrees of decrepitude worthy of Beckett himself. It suggests a movie version would consist of 90 minutes of the audience screaming “Get out of the house!”[3]

Depending on how much leeway you give the idea of being “based on” or “suggested by” the tale—more or less large deviations from which seem essential to the getting the work on film –this is about the fifth version. The title of the first—Die, Monster, Die (US title: Monster of Terror) already telegraphs how far we’ve moved from Lovecraft. Indeed, although made in England, it’s not even a Hammer film; it comes from the Roger Corman stable of schlock; its director, first-timer Daniel Haller, was the art director for Corman’s Poe series, and the whole thing seems to have been almost violently twisted into some more pseudo-Poe haunted-house nonsense, including the use of horror icon Boris Karloff (himself believably decrepit at this point) as the resident mad scientist.

At this point I should mention that I haven’t seen any of these first four movies (not that many people have).[4] Die, Monster, Die, however, does have a personal connection; it was the excuse for including Lovecraft’s story in a 1960s anthology of stories on which horror films had been based, and it was in this way I first made my acquaintance with Lovecraft.[5]

There are a couple more that people claim on the internet to be somehow “based on” or “inspired by” Lovecraft’s tale,[6] but let’s move to the penultimate one, 1987’s The Curse, with Wil Wheaton and Claude Akins. From the reviews, it seems to have been just some more lame 80s straight to VHS horror crap (again, Wil Wheaton); the main liberty taken with the text seems to be making the main farmer a religious guy (dum dum dum!) and the plague-laden meteorite some kind of divine retribution for his wife’s adultery. I’ll pass.[7]

At this point I should introduce another complication, the director, on whom a whole tale of terror hangs. The name Richard Stanley meant nothing to me, and likely neither to you, dear reader. Apparently this is his first film in 25 years, after he was infamously fired three days into production on The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996).

Stanley’s early career seems an unholy mash-up of David Lynch and Francis Coppola. Like Lynch, he was the director of a couple of well-regarded small films in his native South Africa—the post-apocalyptic science fiction film Hardware (1990) and the supernatural horror film Dust Devil (1992)—who was given the chance to direct a big budget, major league production. Unlike Lynch and Dune, however, Moreau was Stanley’s long-time dream project, like Coppola and Apocalypse Now (based on Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”). As detailed in David Gregory’s 2014 documentary Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau, some helpful people upped the budget, signed up Val Kilmer (riding high off Batman Forever) and Marlon Brando—Marlon Fucking Brando!, in full batshit crazy mode—and it became another Hollywood-style escalating money pit in a tropical hellhole.[8]

Incredibly, Brando—although he did insist on wearing whiteface and having an ice bucket on his head, and casting “the world’s smallest man” as his sidekick[9]—was not the more disruptive of the two; that honor fell to Val Kilmer, whose tit for tat battles with Brando (at one point they were each locked in their trailers, refusing to come out before the other one) turned the production into a true Hollywood clusterfuck.[10]

Stanley himself made his own contributions to the madness—consulting witch doctors, spending time in trees, and, most famously, returning to the set after being fired, disguised as one of Moreau’s human animals—and his storyboards show a truly psychedelic approach that might not have worked anyway.[11] (Come to think of it, it is kinda like Dune.[12])

Still, as Fairuza Balk, who played the role of Dr. Moreau’s daughter (and had her limo drive her 1500 miles away in a doomed attempt to escape the madness), says, “Things did not become ‘normal’ with Stanley out of the picture, if anything, they got much weirder.”

Before getting weirder, we should note that Graham Harmon has already discussed “how difficult it would be to do justice to Lovecraft in cinematic form”:

Some cinematic efforts would be more successful than others in visually capturing [Lovecraft’s] bizarre notion of “chiaroscuro and perspective gone awry,” but even in the best case, the most we could do would be to applaud in amusement at the director’s jolly good effort. In the strict sense, any filmed version of Lovecraft would fall short of capturing his allusiveness.

Moreover, things get worse when we get to the titular colour: “Colour now shares the same fate as geometry, chiaroscuro, and perspective.”

The problem is not simply that a certain kind of material yields an unusual spectrum. Instead, the resulting colour itself is impossible to assimilate into the known visible spectrum. For “it was only by analogy that they called it colour at all,” which sounds more like twisted Medieval sophistry than a phenomenon directly visible to the human eye. Here we have another impossible challenge for Hollywood filmmakers, since there is no conceivable way to put “colour by analogy” on film.

We are asked to imagine a colour that is not quite a colour, that is “almost impossible to describe,” and which in fact is a colour only by analogy—whatever that means.

The color out of space is easily visible to the naked eye, but is simply difficult to classify as a color in the strict sense. This color-by-analogy is now described as a “diseased, underlying primary tone.”[13]

And so on. The whole idea of a “colour out of space” seems itself to be undergoing a kind of degeneration not unlike what happens to poor Nahum and his family. The problem for the film maker is that the titular colour is not simply a color “never before seen” but is only called a color by analogy; it’s not really a color at all, but . . . something(s). Pity then, the poor, rushed director who reads no further than the title and first third or so of the story and says “That’s it, I know how to get that color right!”[14]

In Stanley’s film the color—SPOILER ALERT!—turns out to be magenta,[15] but what Stanley really does is shift across the spectrum, just slightly enough to make it hard to pin down. More importantly, Stanley suggests the indeterminate nature of the thing/creature/whatever by varying the effect it has on the characters; the pothead son experiences disorienting shifts of time, the Wicca daughter starts slashing herself and reading the Necronomicon,[16] Cage seems to be having acid flashbacks combined with really bad eczema, etc.

This also gives Stanley a chance to use various effects, producing homages to classic cinematic horror, such as John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) and David Cronenberg’s The Fly (1986). I must note that the poor Joely Richardson seems to bear the brunt of the director’s ingenuity; before the film even begins she’s a cancer survivor, despite which she is portrayed as an unrelenting shrew and hard-bitten business woman, then bloodily maimed for no reason other than to signal that strange things are beginning and finally prod Cage into using his car to get her to a hospital and leave the kids home alone; and finally undergoing the most grotesque, painful and symbolically disturbing of the various transmutations. One begins to think that the feminists have a point about the misogynistic nature of horror.

There is one mis-step here, where Stanley alters Nahum’s last speech (as Chong delivers a mélange of various mutterings in the tale): “it come from some place whar things ain’t as they is here” and adds “trying to make things more like what it’s used to” (or words to that effect); that seems to suggest “terraforming,” an idea popularized in a number of recent films,[17] and I call it a mis-step because it seems to do exactly what Lovecraft was trying to avoid, attributing some recognizable motive to the Color (it’s something we plan to do on other planets).

And Cage? Cage is . . . not bad; in fact, he’s the key to Stanley’s method. Cage here is combination of Jack Torrance (a failed painter, this time) and Clark Griswold (with the same big, goofy glasses); both are trying to shepherd their dubious families to a great, new life in the sticks—“living the dream,” as Cage’s character—here called Nathan Gardner rather than Nahum—fatuously notes from the head of the dinner table—and, when things go wrong, prone to dealing with it by shouting “Everything’s just fine!” or “It’s all under control!” Like Nicholson, he might be criticized as being a little too obviously unbalanced right from the start—when, towards the end, the witchy daughter asks “Is dad alright?” you might respond “Now? Now you ask?” Alpacas are the new bees.

That’s one of many times the movie is quite successful as a comedy, and not unintentionally. Seeing the film in a theater, like here in Stars Hollow,[18] nothing on the screen was so grotesque, so disturbing, that Cage’s reaction, physical or verbal, couldn’t provoke howls of laughter from the audience. When, towards the end, Cage remembers his has a car but finds that it won’t start,[19] he has an attack of behind the wheel road rage that rivals Basil Fawlty or Jerry Gunderson;[20] it would be interesting to see how the Coen Brothers would tackle a Lovecraft project.

Lovecraft is notoriously lacking in, shall we say, a sense of humor (or humour, as he would prefer), but it seems to be a necessary element in adapting the weird tale for the screen. Lovecraft learned from his master, Poe, that a tale should have one, unitary effect, but when adapting a tale into a 90 to 120 minute film, humor is needed to provide pacing and release tension, and also to deal with the unavoidable sense of the ridiculous that intrudes when a terrifying image is translated from page to screen.[21]

By the same token, while some reviewers have deplored the use of Tommy Chong as one of Lovecraft’s garrulous old local yokels (here retconned as an old hippie, living off the grid and recording alien messages), I found it quite amusing; but then, Up in Smoke is one of my favorite movies.

On the negative side, we have Elliot Knight, who provides the inter-racial romance as well as the Magic Negro, both of which seem to be required for any film made in the Present Time; at least Stanley has one character serve for both, and nothing much comes of either role.[22]

He does, however, get to read the famous opening lines, which Joshi says show Lovecraft’s “mastery” of atmosphere, the whole work being “one long but subdued prose poem.[23]

As Cage keeps muttering to himself “It’s just a color” we can hear both the cinema cliché, “It’s only a movie,” as well as a reference to Lovecraft’s equally famous summation, also voiced by Knight’s character:

This was no fruit of such worlds and suns as shine on the telescopes and photographic plates of our observatories. This was no breath from the skies whose motions and dimensions our astronomers measure or deem too vast to measure. It was just a colour out of space—a frightful messenger from unformed realms of infinity beyond all Nature as we know it; from realms whose mere existence stuns the brain and numbs us with the black extra-cosmic gulfs it throws open before our frenzied eyes.

Or, as Patton Oswalt[24] said at the Q&A as the lights came up:

“Wow, what an amazing ending to the Star Wars saga! I never saw that coming!”

Speaking of sagas and what’s coming, Stanley also announced that he’s next going to direct The Dunwich Horror (just as Haller followed up Die, Monster, Die, oddly enough),[25] and may go on to construct an entire Lovecraft cinematic universe. On the basis of this film, Lovecraft fans, and horror movie fans, will have little to fear and a lot to look forward to enjoying.

Notes

[1] “Lovecraft generally preferred British spellings to American ones, just as he mourned the defeat of King George III in the American Revolutionary War. Hence the use of the British spelling ‘colour’ in the title of this story is a deliberate decision on Lovecraft’s part.” Graham Harman, Weird Realism: Lovecraft and Philosophy (Winchester, UK: Zero Books, 2012); see my review “’A General Outline of the Whole’: Lovecraft as Heideggerian Event,” reprinted in The Eldritch Evola . . . & Others: Traditionalist Meditations on Literature, Art, & Culture, ed. Greg Johnson (San Francisco: Counter-Currents, 2014).

[2] “The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of the infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far.” ― H. P. Lovecraft, “The Call of Cthulhu.”

[3] “He and the boys continued to use the tainted supply, drinking it as listlessly and mechanically as they ate their meagre and ill-cooked meals and did their thankless and monotonous chores through the aimless days.” S. T. Joshi says “this single sentence is one of the most heart-rending and depressing moments in all Lovecraft.” I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (Hippocampus, 2013), Chapter 18. Stanley may be lampshading this when, immediately after the meteor lands, Cage already seems strangely reluctant to drive his literally shell-shocked son to the hospital, it being “so far away.”

[4] I may have tried to see Die, Monster, Die on late late TV, but if so I fell asleep almost immediately.

[5] I could have sworn it was Christopher Lee’s ‘X’ Certificate, but when finding it online, I discover that none of the stories I remember were in that one. It was illustrated with stills from the films, which may explain my slight sense of having sort of seen the movie.

[6] I might include Bill Rebane’s regional badfilm classic The Giant Spider Invasion, depending on how broadly you interpret the “meteorite lands on farm and chaos ensues” trope. The actual landing and subsequent light show (MST3k suggests adding a Pink Floyd soundtrack) does resemble the later film.

[7] I feel I should note here that there have been two outstandingly successful renderings, both products of the H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society, appropriately enough: The Call of Cthulhu (2005) and The Whisperer in Darkness (2011); both are period pieces, the former a silent movie in the style of Nosferatu.

[8] See Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, about the making of Apocalypse Now; or Tropic Thunder, for that matter.

[9] Probably the only thing anyone remembers, since it’s since been parodied on South Park and inspired the “Mini Me” of the Austin Powers series.

[10] Although Brando left this dimension years ago, Kilmer is still around, if not really working, yet refused to participate in the Gregory doc. Everyone else who decided to breach the decades-long code of silence, however, is quite happy to sit around and trash him; Stanley contributes some tales of his on set antics that would easily have him me-too’d today.

[11] In the recent footage, he still seems to see himself as some kind of Afrikaner shaman, and dresses in a way that Ian Faith might have called “an Australian’s nightmare.” He’s mostly been making documentaries, such as The Secret Glory — an examination of SS officer Otto Rahn’s search for the Holy Grail — in 2001 (e-book, 2010) and The White Darkness — a look at the voodoo practices in Haiti — in 2002. He is currently based in the Cathar stronghold of Montsegur in Occitania where he is working on a biography of the castle’s immortal chatelaine Esclarmonde de Foix – “The Light of the World.”

[12] See Jodorowsky’s Dune, about his stalled attempt to adapt Dune; reviewed by Trevor Lynch here and reprinted in Return of the Son of Trevor Lynch’s CENSORED Guide to the Movies; ed. by Greg Johnson (San Francisco: Counter-Currents, 2019). Stanley is interviewed, although I haven’t seen the footage.

[13] Harmon, op. cit.

[14] I’m reminded of Arthur Miller’s story of attending the premiere of Death of A Salesman and hearing two theatergoers in the lobby at intermission: “I always said that New England territory was no damn good!”

[15] It’s the same shade used in Micheal Mann’s Manhunter (1986): “Manhunter’s cinematographer Dante Spinotti artistically employs particular colours to emphasise dark emotional moods and symbiotic parallels. Green, purple, violet, and magenta recur in many scenes involving Dollarhyde and Lektor. For instance, when Graham looks inside Lektor’s antiseptic white cell, discordant colours of green, purple and violet appear as the camera pursues a subjective visual odyssey. These colours trigger Graham’s brief mental collapse as he runs away from Lektor suggestion of blood brotherhood.” Sense of Cinema. There are unexplained splashes of magenta in Lektor’s cell, especially the sink (=well); is Lektor under the control of the Color? Is that what accounts for his ability to contact the Tooth Fairy? The physical transformations orchestrated by the serial killers here and in Silence of the Lambs (Demme, 1990) are analogous to those effected by the Color; criminal horror vs. sci/fi horror. Paste says “Abetted by DP Dante Spinotti’s willingness to treat color like he’s lighting a giallo as much as a Miami Vice-minded crime thriller.” Both Spinotti and Stanley are influenced by giallo maestro Dario Argento, whom Stanley has worked with and calls his mentor. For more on Manhunter see my “Thanks for Watching: Awakening Through Repetition in Groundhog Day, Point of Terror, & Manhunter, Part 1” and “Phil & Will: Awakening Through Repetition in Groundhog Day, Point of Terror, & Manhunter, Part 2.”

[16] Homage to Fairuza Balk? I assume this is fan service, as it doesn’t go anywhere. Unlike references to Arkham (including the W-ARK news van) or Miskatonic University, The Necronomicon has nothing to do with “Colour,” which is essentially a sci-fi tale (as such, one of the first) rather than a supernatural one. Similarly, near the end the black hydrologist makes a gesture and flashes, in a very contrived way, a paperback of Algernon Blackwood’s “The Willows,” which Lovecraft considered one of the best weird tales ever, and a clear influence on “Colour”; there’s no reason to think this character would have any interest in weird fiction, unless perhaps he’s looking for bits of conversation to chat up Lavinia the teen witch.

[17] See Trevor Lynch’s reviews of Ridley Scott’s Prometheus (2012) and The Martian (2016), and especially of The Expanse (SyFy series, 2015-) and Man of Steel (2013).

[18] Not a few members of the audience were likely to have moved here for similar reasons.

[19] A bit later Lavinia, the daughter, remembers she has a horse, even though the first thing we saw in the film is her riding it; by this time, of course, it’s of no use.

[20] Actually, it may be a homage to Jack Nicholson’s car freak out in Five Easy Pieces.

[21] This may be why the tongue in cheek Reanimator series is the most successful of the Lovecraft adaptions, at least with general audiences.

[22] At the Q&A held in Stars Hollow, he said he was “glad to be in a horror movie where the black guy doesn’t get killed,” which is really all the part amounts to. Again, feminists can note that there is no Final Girl either.

[23] Joshi, op. cit. “West of Arkham the hills rise wild, and there are valleys with deep woods that no axe has ever cut. There are dark narrow glens where the trees slope fantastically, and where thin brooklets trickle without ever having caught the glint of sunlight. On the gentler slopes there are farms, ancient and rocky, with squat, moss-coated cottages brooding eternally over old New England secrets in the lee of great ledges; but these are all vacant now, the wide chimneys crumbling and the shingled sides bulging perilously beneath low gambrel roofs.”

[24] See Gregory Hood’s review of his Big Fan here.

[25] Although I found it strange that Stanley, a descendant of Sir Henry Morton Stanley, pronounced it “Dun-witch” as most people do; Joshi, I think, was the one who pointed out that surely it must be “Dun’itch,” as in Greenwich (a contraction of Green Village; hence “Greenwich Village” is redundant).

2 Comments

  1. 9coronas
    Posted March 8, 2020 at 6:27 pm | Permalink

    It is Dun-Witch because in Massachusetts where it’s set, the dubya is pronounced just like Greenwich, Massachusetts. Stanley is pronouncing it as a local would.

  2. Uncle Claudius
    Posted January 27, 2020 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

    Mother of pearl.

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