Friday 11 October 2019

LFF 2019: Color Out of Space (Portugal/USA 2019: Dir Richard Stanley)

The Gardner family live in a house in the middle of a dense area of New England woods (the fictional Arkham, Massachusetts, but actually shot in Portugal), an hour from the nearest anything. Dad Nathan (Nicolas Cage) is a slacker guy with a taste for bourbon, mum Theresa (Joely Richardson) is recovering from breast cancer and, it is strongly suggested, a double mastectomy. Daughter Lavinia (Madeleine Arthur), whose name is none more Lovecraftian, has goth tendencies and a copy of 'Necronomicon' is never far from her side. Her stoner brother Benny (Brendan Meyer) and younger sibling Jack (Julian Hilliard) complete the family, who are all clearly struggling in the wake of mum's illness.

Lavinia meets hydrologist Ward Philips (Elliott Kinght), completete with Miskatonic University T shirt - one of a number of none too subtle Lovecraft nods in the film - who's in town to check out the local water supply, which he thinks may have become contaminated. The arrival of a pink, glowing meteorite crash landing in their garden triggers a series of events which, to put it mildly, further destabilise a family that were just holding it together in the first place. The colour exuding from the fallen rock slowly transforms everything in the vicinity, from the increasingly otherworldly flora to the fauna: starting with bizarre insect life (which reminded me of the weird flying things in Frank Darabont's Lovecraftesque adaptation of the Stephen King story, 2007's The Mist), the meteorite's colour activates full on mutations while also distorting space and time. And through it all the Gardners struggle to hold it together as an alien presence uses their back garden as a potential centre for world domination and monster curation.

Color Out of Space was created by Elijah Wood's SpectreVision production team, who previously brought you 2018's Mandy. The movie shares some similarities with the company's last outing, not least the purple/vermillion tonal palette and of course Mr Cage, who - and this is a relative term obviously - dials down his performance as troubled family man Nathan. He still acts like he's strayed in from another film, exacerbated by the rest of the cast playing it rather straight (if a mum and son Thing like flesh-hybrid could be considered 'straight'). Whether sensuously hand milking his family of alpacas, or cosying up to yet another glass of bourbon when the going gets tough, it's hard to imagine anyone else taking on the role of Nathan.

But let's hear it for the effects here, which complement the general WTFery of the piece with some of the best practical makeup and set pieces I've seen since John Carpenter's The Thing reboot back in 1982. There's a definite celebration of 1980s animatronics going on, with some staggeringly well done set pieces; and a scene in the family's barn lovingly and horrifyingly homages the same setup in Daniel Haller's 1965 'The Colour out of Space' adaptation Die Monster Die! (aka Monster of Terror).

As an exercise in woozy terror Color Out of Space works in places. As a piece about the breakdown of the family I'm not so sure: and as a Lovecraft adaptation it's best seen as a sort of misfiring labour of love. In the Q&A after the movie the director mentioned that the introduction of younger people and indeed a person of colour (the Ward Phillips character) into the story was deliberately done because these were types not to be found in Lovecraft's writing. But this type of attempt to bring the author's work up to date just made me think that he remains pretty much unfilmable. So much of Color Out of Space is jumbled and uneven - what was that whole Lavinia witchcraft subplot about? - and some great special effects can't disguise a general air of cheesiness which renders the movie rather unsatisfactory. There's no doubting Stanley's intentions here, and there are moments in the film which remind you that he can be a very creative director, but ultimately it's just a bigger budget and way too long B movie.

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