By Peg Aloi
To move from a bucolic beginning to a surreal, chaotic climax, and then to an elegiac epilogue — that, in my book, is the sign of a well-crafted horror film.
Color Out of Space directed by Richard Stanley. Screening at Kendall Square Cinema, Cambridge, MA.
Never let it be said that a bad horror film can’t be redeemed by the presence of actor Nicolas Cage. That’s not to say that every horror film he’s been in is a bad one (cases in point: Mandy, Bringing Out the Dead, Wild at Heart). Nor is it to say that Color Out of Space is a bad horror film, though I did find it a bit inscrutable at times, and maybe a bit too expository at first. But, without question, this new movie from Richard Stanley (screenwriter of the 1996 remake of The Island of Dr. Moreau) is made all the more watchable and enjoyable because of Cage’s over-the-top performance.
The film begins with a dreamy voice over by Ward Phillips (Once Upon a Time’s Elliott Knight), though we don’t know who he is yet, talking about the forest near the town of Arkham, Massachusetts. Viewers familiar with the far-out fiction of H. P. Lovecraft will immediately know we are on the author’s prime turf (the screenplay was adapted from his short story by screenwriter Scarlett Amaris). As Ward describes mysterious goings-on in vague terms, and refers to the witchcraft legends of the region, we are given lush shots of the landscape: misty hills, tree branches dripping rain. A palpable Arcadian mystery seems to permeate this place. Just as he finishes speaking, the forest gives way to a clearing by a small lake, where we see a timeless, pagan scene of a cloaked figure and a white horse.
Standing within a circle of white stones is Lavinia Gardner (The Family’s Madeleine Arthur), a teenage girl with purple dyed hair and a pentagram tattooed on her foot, performing a ritual. She summons guardian spirits to bless her magic, burns a lock of blonde hair, and asks that her mother’s body be freed of cancer. She also asks for her freedom. We then see Ward, wearing a backpack, approach from the woods; he listens and watches silently, intrigued. Then arrives the second clue that we’re in Lovecraft territory: we see Ward’s Miskatonic University (the fictional institution featured in much of the writer’s fiction) T-shirt beneath his windbreaker.
Ward apologizes for intruding and tells her he’s surveying the property for a hydroelectric company. Lavinia’s annoyance is lessened somewhat when he tries to guess whether her ritual is Wiccan or Alexandrian. Witchy geeks like me know it’s the former because her last name is Gardner, as in author Gerald Gardner, who more or less invented Wicca in 1953. Did I mention the film employed a witchcraft/occult/ritual advisor? (Cool gig, sign me up!) The two have some chemistry.
Lavinia rides her horse Comet home to a sprawling estate, complete with a dog named Sam and several alpacas that roam the yard when they’re not hanging out in the barn. Of course, they must have alpacas. We learn that Lavinia’s father Nathan (Cage) and his wife Theresa (Nip/Tuck’s Joely Richardson) have recently moved from the big city to the old “farmhouse” that belonged to his family. The one he always swore he’d never move into. Yes, this is the kind of clumsy “backstory” writing one often sees in horror films—the strained effort to set up character stakes or supply situational details so that we can feel some connection to these figures. Before all hell breaks loose, which it will do very, very shortly.
The family is loving but has problems: Lavinia is a troubled teen (hence the witchcraft, I guess), brother Benny (The OA’s Brendan Meyer) smokes too much weed and is lazy about milking the alpacas, and young Jack (Greener Grass’s Julian Hilliard) is a shy kid who seems to understand what animals are saying. Theresa has a remote gig working in finance. She’s frustrated by the crappy rural Internet in the garret office where she’s been working since her breast cancer surgery. There’s the obligatory funny, heartwarming dinner scene, with the kids dissing dad’s cassoulet and dad goading the kids to do the dishes. We see that this is a family where there’s a good amount of affection and humor on a normal day. That night however, a big chunk of meteor falls on the property, shaking the house and radiating a magenta colored light in all directions. The Gardners are rattled but mostly okay … at first.
Local law-enforcement comes by in the morning, as does the local news media, and Nathan is amusing as he watches himself on the evening news, annoyed by what he thinks is the reporter’s manipulation. Ward also appears on the scene, prompting mom to tell Lavinia that her outfit is too revealing. Lavinia, upset, retreats to her room and Theresa is immediately remorseful. The situation foreshadows the breakdown of the family unit, soon to occur when the effects of the meteor’s radiation causes everything to breakdown. And let’s not forget the old stoner who’s squatting in an old shed in the woods (Tommy Chong, looking like a cool wizened hippie shaman), who seems to know what’s on the horizon.
Jack starts acting strangely, hanging out by the well where bright red flowers have sprung up overnight. Then Theresa goes into a sort of fugue state while making dinner and injures herself. Nathan drives her to the hospital. While he’s away everyone’s cell phones start malfunctioning; the only thing that can be heard through them is a kind of guttural, animalistic grunting. Time seems to be warping as well. Both Lavinia and Benny realize that hours have gone by as they struggle to cope with the strange and frightening things happening around them. After Nathan and Theresa return home, Nathan becomes short tempered and rather hilariously, incandescently angry about every little annoyance — only to quickly shift gears to being his usual understanding dad self. The madcap quality of Cage’s performance works extremely well within this absurd and terrifying situation, his wildly swinging emotions are as unpredictable as the space-borne contamination that quickly causes his family to unravel, turning his home into a purple glowing hellscape.
Color Out of Space has its flaws, but its quirky energy, excellent performances, and strangely mesmerizing visuals combine to make the whole compensate for its occasionally ill-fitting parts. I also appreciated the subtle yet provocative intimations of the fragility of the nuclear family, and the narrative’s vision of the willful destruction of the environment. To move from a bucolic beginning to a surreal, chaotic climax, and then to an elegiac epilogue — that, in my book, is the sign of a well-crafted horror film.
Peg Aloi is a former film critic for The Boston Phoenix and member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. She taught film studies in Boston for over a decade. She writes on film, TV, and culture for web publications like Vice, Polygon, Bustle, Mic, The Orlando Weekly, Crooked Marquee, and Bloody Disgusting. Her blog “The Witching Hour” can be found at themediawitch.com.