What is The Color out of Space?
After a meteorite lands in the front yard of their farm, Nathan Gardner (Nicolas Cage) 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. Based on the classic H.P. Lovecraft short story, Color Out of Space is “gorgeous, vibrant and terrifying” (Jonathan Barkan, Dread Central).
“It was just a color…but it burns.”
I regret making my A Beginner’s Guide to HP Lovecraft before seeing this movie because it definitely deserves to be mentioned among the “good” adaptations of Howard Phillip’s work. I mean, it’s still pretty campy in certain places but that’s actually not a bad thing as he was a Pulp writer and his florid prose as well as over-the-top elements are a feature not a bug.
I feel like the most memorable of his works ala Re-animator and Dagon benefit from going this direction versus the more subdued ala The Dunwich Horror (1970) and The Resurrected (1991). Why do I believe this? Because I suspect a substantial portion of my audience have never even heard of these latter two.
The funny thing about The Color out of Space is that it is probably HP Lovecraft’s best work and one of the easiest ones to introduce his work to an outsider with. It manages to convey the wonders of cosmic horror and weird fiction while also being removed from his greater crypto-mythology. No Cthulhu, Yog-Sothoth, or Necronomicon (okay, it has the Necronomicon, sort-of) here but it still properly conveys everything weird as well as terrifying in his writing style.
The premise for the short story and movie is elegant in its simplicity: a color arrives in the isolated farm of a family in rural Massachusetts and proceeds to utterly mess things up. Yes, a color. It’s a color no human has seen. It’s like being attacked by living geometry, it’s inherently nonsensical and that’s what makes it terrifying. HPL understood that horror was best when you didn’t know what was going on, what to do, or how to deal with it.
I mean, god forbid you find yourself facing a vampire. It’ll certainly be terrifying and to call into question everything you believe about the world probably. However, you know what a vampire is even if you don’t believe they exist. Maybe crosses or sunlight will help. You have a frame of reference. What the hell do you do against a living color? It’s a thing you’re clearly not able to comprehend and your brain is just trying to approximate whatever the hell it is.
Mind you, imagining a color trying to wreck your shit is something that would be hard to visualize. Some suggestions I’ve heard over the years would be to film the movie in black and white while have the Color be, well, in color. The movie makes the somewhat questionable choice to use the color magenta, which actually is scientifically accurate as a color that does not exist in nature, but makes the movie stand out like someone draped the Gardener house in Pepto Bismal.
I feel like the movie would have benefited if they’d gone with the more traditional color of neon green that most Call of Cthulhu and Lovecraftian adaptations tend to drench their works in. If you want to open a rift to another dimension, it’s usually bright green on the other side. Ironically, though, the kind of beautiful cherry blossom/rave colors started to work for me halfway through the movie.
Is this a good movie? Yes and no. No, let me correct myself. It’s a good movie. I liked it. I watched it twice in two days. I’ve recommended it to my best friend and niece. It’s not scary but it is genuinely unsettling in places. Which is better. The movie is also full of hammy acting, over-the-top effects, and surreal events that make no sense (nor are supposed to).
What makes the movie works is my long ago essay on slasher films versus survival horror. The TLDR version of that essay being that survival horror makes you want to have the protagonists live versus being monster fodder. I liked every single member of the Gardener family, especially Lavinia (Madeleine Arthur). They’re quirky and slightly dysfunctional but wanted all of them to live. Watching the Color tear them apart piece by piece, physically as well as mentally, is something that was all the more effective because I would watch a movie of them without a cosmic horror.