2019 really was an epic year for Independent film. As I’ve noted, we had a ridiculous number of utterly amazing films playing this year, of which the best I’ve seen so far were The Tangle, Prospect, Das Letzte Land, A Living Dog and Cosmos.
So I now have another film to add to the list: I finally caught up with Richard Stanley’s Color Out of Space.
I never thought we’d see another Richard Stanley feature film. He launched his career with a cult hit, the black and nihilistic killer robot film Hardware, which is the cinematic equivalent of getting kicked repeatedly in the head. He then followed it with an eerie supernatural serial killer film, Dust Devil, which wasn’t as successful but has a strong cult following as well.
But then his film version of The Island of Doctor Moreau crashed and burned and he was replaced with another director.
That was in 1996. He hasn’t made a feature film since. Until now.
He spent years trying to find backers for this film. I suspect that the 2014 documentary, Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau, might have had a lot to do with getting this film made. It’s based on a classic story by H.P. Lovecraft:
One night, strange lights color the sky over a lonely farm deep in the New England forest, not far from Arkham. A mysterious meteorite crashes to Earth but then just as mysteriously vanishes.
Except that it really hasn’t vanished: it carried with it a color unlike any ever seen before, and its deadly influence has spread from the crater and is slowly transforming everything around it, including the plants, animals and, yes, even the people.
Frankly, there isn’t much to the original story beyond that, it’s fairly short and Lovecraft is more interested in creating atmosphere, and in the doom laden mood.
However, Stanley does not give us not a near-perfect Spielbergian family, but a family already troubled and unhappy. The father (in what proves to be a very over the top performance by Nicholas Cage) is afraid he’ll turn into his father. The mother is recovering from cancer and afraid he will no longer find her attractive, the oldest son is doing drugs — perhaps even a lot of drugs — and the daughter wants to escape and is busy experimenting with witchcraft to get what she wants.
Nor is the alien influence that has arrived from space the mindless, perhaps inanimate thing of the story, but it is something more, something which might even have intelligence and a will of its own, even if we never learn exactly what it is.
The unsettling events become stranger and more menacing as the film progresses. We are given hints of how wrong things are — a dog barking, the youngest son staring fixedly at the old well, strange flowers spreading from the impact crater as bright flashes of color against the dull earth — and things slowly build up, with the Gardner family slowly becoming more and more unhinged.
The influence is portrayed in lush waves and clouds of color and light, that spread and take form, filling the whole farm with a colorful mist. It is stunningly beautiful and unearthly — and yet disturbing.
It‘s in the last half hour or so that it becomes more and more deadly, with a reference to one of the most frightening classic SF films of the Eighties and some incredibly gruesome effects.
Now, we can argue about what the film is saying; or whether the influence is really a meteor or something else, perhaps even supernatural; or whether everything we see makes logical sense.
But none of that matters. This is a film that is meant to be experienced, not merely watched or analyzed. It is dazzling and beautiful — and yet it gives us some of the most horrible and gruesome images imaginable. There is no pretense of justice here: as in the classic Lovecraft stories, there is merely the terrible emptiness of the void and the horrible things that live out there and care nothing for us, who neither seek to harm us or care if they do. And we are left with an uncomfortable ending, where the unthinkable invasion has stopped, but it is far from clear whether it is gone forever or might someday return.
Color Out of Space was made with style and intelligence. It both dazzles us and horrifies us. It offers us staggering beauty and at the same time ugliness, horror and gruesome images.
I’ll admit that combination of beauty with ugliness and horror has been a hallmark of Richard Stanley’s films since Hardware, but Color Out of Space doesn’t resemble either of his other films. It is something unexpected and unique, unlike anything his done before — and unlike any attempt I’ve seen to film this story before.
So watch it, if you dare.
Just don’t stare too hard at what’s out in your backyard.
After all, you never know whether it is staring back at you.
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