Certain kids find their way to H.P. Lovecraft. The darkly curious ones. The children with an ear to the unknown, who are both titillated and terrified by the unnamed forces that might have a hand on the wheel of their life. They sense a will, outside their own, at work. No, not their parents. Older ones: The Old Ones. In Lovecraft, young ones mine these ideas and find comfort in the unnamable abyss and the unattainable cosmic power found within. Not my fault, the gods have us.
Richard Stanley was one of those kids, and his earliest encounters with the writer’s dark scribblings forever scarred his psyche. “I was painfully young when I first read Lovecraft,” says Stanley. “My mum started reading me his stories when I was about seven or eight, starting me on the lighter, more fantasy-oriented stuff like The Dream-Quest of Uknown Kadath. I was drawing things in crayon when I was a kid, and they were distinctly Lovecraftian, and that led me to harder stuff. By the time I was 12 or 13, I was fully conversed in the Cthulhu mythos and read Color Out of Space.”
In the original short story, a meteorite crashes into the hills of Arkham, Massachusetts. An unnamed narrator attempts to describe the extraterrestrial influence on the natural world, detailing the biological destruction of plants, animals, and townsfolk. Color Out of Space is a no-brainer adaptation, easily accessible for a filmmaker on a budget. No need for Antarctic chasms or the unbearable sea voyages necessary to get our heroes to their dreadful destination.
“It’s public domain!” exclaims Stanely. “The studios like to own the full rights to everything and the fact they don’t own or control Cthulhu, or the Necronomicon scares the majors. Also, it doesn’t move much beyond the garden and the farm.”
While this relationship surfaces in nearly all of his films, Color Out of Space is the first one where the director had the opportunity to tackle his mentor’s work properly, but it’s not the Lovecraft story he was originally interested in adopting. “When I wrote the initial screenplay, I was very keen to go after The Dunwich Horror,” he says. “The initial backer of the film insisted it should be Color Out of Space. I was kind of, ‘Oh, can I do Dunwich?’ He said, ‘No, you must do Color Out of Space.'” The man with the money always wins, and Stanley sat down and tried to make the film work for him.
Stanley’s film is not the first version to go before cameras, but it is easily the wildest, with Nicolas Cage leading the charge of insanity as the Gardner family patriarch. Opposite him is Joely Richardson, meeting Cage’s electricity and ultimately encapsulating the darkest Lovecraftian depths. Her first reaction to Stanley’s script was a little unhinged.
“What is this?” she asked gobsmacked. “Are you joking? Are you serious? Is this scary? Is it funny? What was this meant to be? Is it just retro horror?”
The emotional confusion and discomfort were designed. For Stanley, horror is a wholistic approach to stimulation. Shock and awe eliciting a total mental and bodily reaction. “I mean no matter how terrible something is, even if you’re straight-faced about it, the audience is going to generally giggle or laugh right afterward,” he says. “They don’t know how else to respond. Those two things are usually right on edge.”
Stanley took to the adaptation with childish glee, but he also brought an adult-like purpose. Lovecraft is a troubling writer where deep-seated xenophobia and misogyny flows under nearly everything. If Stanley was going to dig his talons into the material, he had to address all aspects within and without the fiction.
“The opening was a deliberate shove across the bows for the traditional Lovecraft community,” says Stanley. “Ward [Elliot Knight] is the first mixed-race student to attend Miskatonic University ever. We wanted to address Lovecraft’s racism and misogyny because those are elements of his character I can’t agree with. I felt I needed to try to open up some kind of dialogue with the Lovecraft pantheon by deliberately going there and saying, ‘Okay, let’s make certain that if we’ve got identifiable leads in this movie that it’s going to fly in the face of the traditional Lovecraft worldview.'”
In addition, since Stanley was already altering Lovecraft to serve his emotions, the director morphed the Color‘s horrifying transformation metaphor to confront his dark dealings with life. Before we recognize our mortality, we must all stare into the oblivion that claims our parents. This natural tragedy infects everything going forward.
“The film had already shown up on my radar before my mother died,” he explains. “I got to tell her that we were making the movie. She didn’t believe me. She was like, ‘Nah, it’ll all come to nothing; it’ll come to nothing, it will spiral down to nothing.’ I said, ‘No mum, it’s going to be okay.'”
“I had to kill her in the end,” he adds. “A choice came to go on hydrating her, or to stick in a feeding tube, and I decided not to, which wasn’t popular with my sisters. We had a large family falling-out over the euthanasia aspects. So that also bleeds through into the completed movie with the issue over whether Nic should kill his wife and son or not.”
Richardson saw the personal passion Stanley pumped into the film, and she was moved. “I was really touched by his level of involvement,” she says. “And also touched by his story of what happened to him work-wise [see Lost Soul] There’s nothing like a group of people all wanting the best for the project, the best for Richard. That made it very harmonious.” The director gives everything at the office. It’s as clear on set as it is on screen.
Stanley would never claim to be a haunted director, but he does not dismiss the impact of unknown external forces. “I had a lot of dreams during the course of the shoot,” he says. “The color was trying to direct me and saying, ‘Make me beautiful. I don’t want to be ugly. Make me beautiful. When it takes over Nic, the color should look like the way I’m taking you over now. Look at your hands.’ I’d look at my hands in the dream and there were these flaming pink tendrils bursting through my flesh and things.”
Stanley crosses his fingers as he pushes his film out into the universe. He knows Lovecraft would hate the adaptation, but he hopes, at least, the color in his dreams approves. “I’m rather hoping that it’s happy,” he continues. “Happy that it’s gotten the adaptation that it wants.”
Color Out of Space is now playing in select theaters.