Literature on Film | A Horror Icon Adapts Another Legend’s Work With Color Out of Space

This article contains spoilers for Richard Stanley’s 2020 film and for H. P. Lovecraft’s 93 year old tale.

Howard Phillips Lovecraft has the unique reputation of being one of the most regarded and reviled men in horror literature. Though early horror was home to a fair number of nihilistic cowards entrenched in racist and misogynistic beliefs Lovecraft was one of the few who produced work that stood the test of time. His views were and are reprehensible but his ability to spin a tale of the sanity shattering unknown remains the benchmark by which all other stories of the cosmically terrifying are judged.

Richard Stanley on the other hand is highly regarded and not at all reviled. The South African director was one of the few original voices operating in the blasted, economically depressed landscape of 90s horror. His films Hardware and Dust Devil remain cult classics. After his unceremonious firing from the cursed 1996 adaptation of The Island of Dr Moreau, Stanley disappeared from the horror genre and decamped to France. The polar opposite of Lovecraft in that he is virulently anti-racist, sexist and nihilist, it’s hard to think of anyone better suited to adapt and challenge one of the 20th century’s most bigoted horror writers on the big screen.

In Stanley’s Lovecraft adaptation Color Out of Space, Ward Phillips (Elliot Knight) is hired to survey a valley that will one day be flooded by dam construction. Residing in the valley are the Gardner family consisting of Nathan (Nicolas Cage), Theresa (Joely Richardson), eldest daughter Lavinia (Madeleine Arthur) and sons Benny (Brendan Meyer) and Jack (Julian Hilliard). One night a pink-hued meteor crashes just outside the Gardner’s crop and alpaca farm. Soon the crops begin to grow at an exponential rate and both the Gardners and the local wildlife begin to change both physically and mentally.

The Colour Out of Space is, as Lovecraftian short stories go, incredibly dull. The unnamed narrator of the story hears the tale of the Gardner family from Ammi Pierce, the only man remaining in the “blasted heath” left by the poisonous alien rock. Ammi in turn pieced it all together from his interactions with the Gardners alongside rumours and hearsay. In other words the story is told incredibly passively always keeping us at a distinct remove from the Gardners. This occasionally enhances the horror of the unknown that Lovecraft is best known for but mostly it feels like we’re reading the diary of a very frightened bore.

In Stanley’s Color Out of Space – presumably renamed for people that think the ‘u’ after an ‘o’ is enough to cause reality to snap like a taut string – the story of Ward the surveyor and the Gardner family are one and the same. Stanley’s most radical departure from the source, other than giving shape and actual colour to the unnamed colour, is in his casting of Elliot Knight. Knight is a black English actor perhaps best known as Merlin in Once Upon A Time and Gaz in 2019’s Call of Duty: Modern Warfare.

Although Knight’s skin colour would not necessarily be as noteworthy if this was a story by Stephen King, it is important in regards to Lovecraft whose own hatred of black people often left him bedridden with apoplectic rage. Knight’s casting is essentially spitting in the eye of Lovecraft’s beliefs while Stanley’s placement of him within the action rather than outside of it gives the film real exciting energy.

If we must talk energy then let’s discuss the living dynamo at the centre of the film. Fresh off the equally psychedelic Mandy and in between straight-to-DVD thrillers, Nicolas Cage brought his living breathing version of hellfire to Color Out of Space. Mixing together a cocktail of Christopher Walken and Donald Trump impressions with a living manifestation of what Cage thinks the “OK Boomer” meme is and it’s probably the closest thing an actor has ever come to manifesting the reality of a Lovecraftian mind break. It is unhinged yes but within the cracked pieces its possible to see the Nathan Gardner that was once a loving if slightly kooky father.

The same can be said of the rest of the performances although none of them even attempt the insanity Cage brings to his role. Whereas the three children of the short story – all boys – and Nathan’s wife feel like afterthoughts at worst and plot devices at best, in the film the other family members ground Nathan’s loud descent. Lavinia loses herself in Wicca and death metal. Benny finds solace among the stars while Theresa loses herself in her work as a stockbroker and in her relationship with youngest son Jack. Contrary to the intent of the original story these details help rather than hinder the adaptation.

“The colour, which resembled some of the bands in the meteor’s strange spectrum, was almost impossible to describe; and it was only by analogy that they called it colour at all” is how Lovecraft describes the hue spread by the cosmic rock. Stanley opts instead for a brighter, more neon pink something that is recognizably alien but still capable of being processed by the eyes of the audience. This distortion of natural colour is echoed throughout the film in both its gory practical creature designs and in its warping, computer generated effects. Nathan’s treasured alpacas mutated and the merging of two Gardner family members into one echo John Carpenter’s The Thing, further aiding the translation of Lovecraft from page to screen.

The majority of Lovecraft’s work is considered unfilmable due to the nature of his monsters but on that, among many other things, is where Richard Stanley and the consensus differ. “The word unfilmable is like a red rag to a bull for me,” he said in a recent Irish Times interview. “And it’s especially lazy when applied to Lovecraft.” It’s time to accept and realise that unlike the aged, xenophobic professors and recluses that populate Lovecraft’s weird tales regular film goers aren’t going to lose their minds just because they see an enormous creature with dragon wings and a tentacle beard. Lovecraft’s work isn’t unfilmable, all it requires is a good deal of imagination, inspiration and some talented special effects artists.

Despite what I’ve written here, The Colour Out of Space is considered by many to be one of Lovecraft’s best stories as well as being a personal favourite of the author himself. Stanley counts himself as one of its greatest admirers but I think the filmmaker made an infinitely better version of the tale. With early plans to script a version of The Dunwich Horror, a key story in Lovecraft’s enduring Cthulu mythos, Stanley is not finished challenging the idea that Lovecraft’s stories are set in the beliefs of their maker. Stanley hopes that Color Out of Space will open the floodgates to more accessible forms of cosmic horror. After all how hard can depicting cosmic carrion Gods, imprisoned underwater deities and She Whose Hand Embalms really be?

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