Color Out of Space: A Slow Descent into Madness
The appeal of “Lovecraftian” horror — a subset exemplified by the writings of, naturally, H.P. Lovecraft — is the underlying idea that the universe contains elements that exist beyond our realm of comprehension. As such, it stands in stark contrast to other popular horror genres, many of which are intentionally rooted in fears stemming from either modern reality (e.g. serial killers) or historical and religious beliefs (ghost stories, demonic possession, etc.). The novelty of such a concept is intriguing, but comes with a comparatively heightened degree of difficulty: in a primarily visual medium, how do you portray the unknowable? Richard Stanley’s Color Out of Space — an adaptation of Lovecraft’s 1927 short story (“The Colour Out of Space”) in which an extraterrestrial object crashes down on a New England farm and slowly drives the inhabitants mad — makes an admirable effort. In his first feature since the early 1990s, Stanley manages to create, on balance, a successful atmosphere of arcane terror by adopting a leisurely pace, imbuing the proceedings with a sense of creeping dread that ultimately erupts into a familial apocalypse. This unhurried nature is both blessing and curse, with the film too often seeming as though it is stuck in a rut of its own making: the narrative is too slight to fully earn its two-hour runtime, but acceleration and condensation would threaten to undermine the necessarily prolonged unease. As a result, the film often feels as though it’s spinning its wheels just a little too much — in horror, there can be a fine line between trepidation and boredom and Color toes that line more often than one might like. In the moments where the slow build pays off, however, it does so in spades, splitting its scares between the physical and psychological. Using a mix of practical and digital effects work, Stanley and his creative team draw from both the Carpenter and Cronenberg playbooks to showcase some of the most unsettling body horror since 2018’s Annihilation, providing just enough camera coverage to trick us into believing in the grotesquely impossible. Just as effective is the inevitable degradation of the protagonists’ sanity, impressively showcased in particular by Nicolas Cage as the Gardner family patriarch and Madeleine Arthur as his frustrated teenage daughter. Heavy-handed as some of the early character development may be, the time spent with the Gardners serves to earn the audience’s empathy — all the better to play on when it all goes off the rails. Cage has recently found a resurgent niche playing the family man driven to his breaking point by supernatural forces, and is compulsively watchable here, even trotting out a version of his affected posh Vampire’s Kiss accent (though I must confess, I initially thought it might have been his take on a Donald Trump impression instead). Arthur is even better — the true lead, she carries the emotional weight with aplomb, her heightened expressions a natural complement to Cage’s unhinged tendencies. As the film descends into madness and the eerie violet hues of the titular Color become more and more prominent, the sense of dread that had been bubbling below the surface finally erupts into full-blown terror, though for many it might be too little too late given the lack of action in the first two acts. But in its attempt to show the incomprehensible, Color Out of Space often succeeds in weaponizing the power of imagination in a manner reminiscent of the best horror writing, and for that alone the destination is worth the journey.