At this point, Nicolas Cage the meme has overtaken Nicolas Cage the person, and the mere mention of his name is enough to send a certain subset of filmgoers into a hysterical giggle fit. And with this unspoken set of expectations looming in the background, it takes a visionary director to keep the circus inside the tent, so to speak. Color Out Of Space adds Richard Stanley—a noted wild man in his own right—to the short list of directors who are well matched with late-period Cage, a list that also includes Werner Herzog and Panos Cosmatos, who built an indie hit out of psychedelic atmosphere and Cage hysterics with 2018’s Mandy. Color Out Of Space also has both of those things, but with the added benefit of thematic depth and developed characters.
This is Stanley’s first non-documentary feature since the ’90s, when he was exiled from Hollywood after being fired a week and a half into a $40 million adaptation of The Island Of Dr. Moreau. Now, nearly two decades later, the industry has changed enough for someone to give Stanley another chance at a horror film. That someone is Elijah Wood’s production company, SpectreVision, specialists in cosmic horror who also find themselves compatible with Stanley. And if the opening scene of the film, where a teenage girl with purple highlights performs a Wiccan ceremony dressed in a long velvet cloak, just screams 1996? No problem—all that’s back in style, anyway.
Color Out Of Space is based on an H.P. Lovecraft story of basically the same name (the story adds a “The” at the beginning), and deals with Lovecraft’s usual themes of unspeakable beings from beyond space and time who can herd humans off the cliff of madness just by looking at them. Here, Stanley updates the material by tapping into contemporary anxiety about environmental disasters, specifically tainted water. Stanley underlines this theme heavily enough that it’s impossible to miss, placing glasses of water in the foreground even before the pulsating brain falls out of the sky and starts spitting out rainbows whose touch burns like radiation. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves here.
Cage stars as Nathan Gardner, an artist who’s left city life behind and has gone full dorky dad, raising alpacas in rural New England with his stockbroker wife, Theresa (Joely Richardson), and their kids. The dynamic is not without conflict: Nathan spars with his witchy teenage daughter Lavinia (Madeleine Arthur), middle son Benny (Brendan Meyer) can usually be found smoking weed in the barn, and Theresa still isn’t feeling herself after a bout with cancer. But overall the Gardners are a loving and supportive family unit, each with their own personal version of the eccentricity that led mom and dad to retreat to the woods. They’re even tolerant of the paranoid hippie named Ezra (Tommy Chong) who squats on their land. Stanley takes his time establishing this family dynamic, with every intent of incorporating it into the nightmare that’s to come.
Shortly after what they think is a meteorite crash lands in their front yard in a blinding flash of colored light, a mysterious alien something takes up residence in the Gardners’ well. The animals notice it first, as they always do; first, a cat named G-Spot (get it?), then the family dog Sam. Then the braying brood of alpacas in the barn start acting strangely. The Gardners are afflicted with odd seizures and intense headaches, beginning with youngest son Jack (Julian Hilliard). Mysterious neon flowers begin to sprout, until the whole wood turns hazy shades of pink and purple. It’s pretty to look at, but obviously deeply wrong. We find out how just how wrong when vibrant bolts of lightning start shooting out of the well, fusing together every living thing they touch into twisted, grotesque shapes before burning off their skin, so that they scream in agony for the remainder of their short lives.
Color Out Of Space builds to its mind-bending, reality-warping climax with a combination of CGI and gross, pustule-ridden practical effects, including some truly upsetting puppetry in the film’s second half. The digital effects are smartly applied, switching to a vivid version of Sam Raimi’s famous “demon cam” when a shot would otherwise be too expensive, and composer Colin Stetson—who also did the Hereditary score—gradually raises the tone from vaguely unsettling to full-bore freakout. Stanley also knows how to judiciously parcel out Cage’s signature excess, using his over-the-top temper tantrums as a tool to enhance the film’s steadily building sense of unease rather than showcasing them for their own sake. There are only a couple lines that land on the unintentionally humorous side of a Cage performance—which, on a wild ride like this one, can be considered a triumph.
That being said, Color Out Of Space is clearly a low-budget production, and it’s rough around the edges, particularly in a subplot involving a small-town mayor and a big-money reservoir project. Stanley does a remarkable job keeping the film grounded in emotional reality all things considered, but it’s admittedly an idiosyncratic movie about unconventional people made by an offbeat director. If you’ve read this far, you probably already know if you’re the audience for Color Out Of Space or not. If you think you are, have fun. If not—might we suggest a little movie called City Of Angels?