Midnight Madness, the Toronto International Film Festival’s genre program specializing in all manner of action, horror, shock, and fantasy, began in 1988, with a line up that included such wild offerings as Frank Henenlotter’s Brain Damage. And, in 1990 (a banger year that featured The Church, Frankenhooker, and Tetsuo: The Iron Man), Midnight Madness premiered Hardware, a ferocious cyberpunk sci-fi horror that put South African director Richard Stanley on the map.
Color Out of Space not only marks Stanley’s return to Midnight Madness but his return to feature filmmaking. After cementing his reputation as a visionary cult genre madman, Stanley was brought on by New Line Cinema to direct his dream project: an adaptation of The Island of Dr. Moreau. After being unceremoniously removed from the production just days into filming, the set succumbed to pretty well every disaster shy of a meteorite crash, resulting in the now-infamous 1996 film. Disheartened at seeing his creation destroyed, Stanley retreated from mainstream Hollywood, pursuing a swath of interests ranging from screenwriting to occult research to documentary film. But many held out hope that one day, Stanley’s dreamlike, visionary art house presence would return to the big screen. And earlier this year, the boys at SpectreVision announced that finally, Stanley was back.
The film is an adaptation of an H.P. Lovecraft short story of the same name. Lovecraft has a complicated reputation in genre film; his fingerprints are all over the shop, but solid outright adaptations are few and far between. This is certainly true of “The Color Out of Space,” whose influence is felt in everything from Annihilation to The Blob, to The Thing, to more intentional adaptations including 1965’s Die, Monster, Die! and the Lucio Fulci-produced The Curse. As in its source material, Stanley’s film concerns a meteorite crash that causes bizarre changes in the surrounding area and its inhabitants; plants produce unnaturally large but inedible fruit, animals mutate, and people go mad. The meteorite has brought with it some corrupting force: an ineffable “color” residing on some impossible spectrum of light that infects its surroundings, blighting all that it touches. Like the story, the film focuses on the family at the center of the meteorite influence, with the events unfolding around the steaming crater on their property.
The film’s score, from Hereditary’s Colin Stetson, is excellent and testifies to SpectreVision’s increasingly solid reputation as a platform-to-watch for innovative genre composers. Steve Annis’ cinematography (witnessed earlier in this year’s I Am Mother) does a fantastic job of capturing the desired combination of unease and wonder; an uncanny beauty best observed at a distance. Likewise, the progressive alteration of the forest is quite effective; with creeping fuchsias slowly invading the periphery of each frame. It is, on the whole: a very pretty film.
The heart of the difficulty of adapting Lovecraft is also at the root of what makes his particular brand of horror so special. Cosmic horror is hard to film. How do you visually depict something that defies definition? Now, for the record: cosmic horror isn’t unfilmable. Far from it. But the films that capture it best pull a similar trick: they make it personal. This was, on paper, the approach of Color Out of Space: a focus on the Gardner family told from their perspective rather than the account of a neighbor related to a surveyor per Lovecraft’s text. Regrettably, the emotional stakes in Color are simply just not there. We spend a shockingly little amount of time with the family before they start to change on us. And not knowing who these people are when things go south strips these changes of all emotional impact. For a film that put all its eggs in the “corrupting influence” basket, Color feels more like a series of random (if very pretty) accidents rather than anything pernicious or corrupting. Horrible things happen. But because we don’t care about the people they’re happening to, we’re never horrified.
Comedy is one of the canaries in Color Out of Space’s mine shaft. The laughs are there. But the film frequently pulls its punches at the last minute at the expense of developing any real sense of unease. This is most obvious in the film’s use of Nicolas Cage. Most people will enjoy Cage’s performance because Cage is boundlessly enjoyable. The film banks on that, which is a frustrating turn of events after Cage’s last SpectreVision project, Mandy. It takes work and set-up to get Cage’s impressionistic mania to belong to a character rather than to himself, and it’s a shame (if not a waste) that Color Out of Space doesn’t take its time to build to a break. It takes very little to open the floodgates and it all feels very one-note as a consequence.
In a way, Midnight Madness was the perfect way to watch Color Out of Space. It’s the kind of film that is best watched at the witching hour, in a packed theater, to a hyped, delirious, thrill-hungry audience, but will that translate in different contexts? One final thing: I hold SpectreVision to a high standard, especially when it comes to telling stories that aren’t just stylish gore-fests. When they talk about wanting to make genre “heart films” I believe them. And I’ve seen them do it. Unfortunately, the heart of Color Out of Space is not on the screen, it’s in the credits: Richard Stanley came back.