Matthew at the Movies: Color Out of Space (2019)

Color Out of Space is the cosmic horror film that I’ve been waiting for my whole life.

I’ve been fascinated with the ideas of Lovecraftian horror for quite some time. Otherwise known as cosmic horror or existential horror, the main idea of the sub-genre is the fear of the unknown. With the father of the genre, H.P. Lovecraft, being so influential and popular, you’d think there’d be tons of noteworthy and accurate adaptations of his work and ideas. Well, you’d be wrong.

That’s not to say there haven’t been adaptations of his work, there’s been hundreds, but very few get it right. Re-Animator (1985), directed by Stuart Gordon, based on ‘Herbert West – Reanimator,’ is one of my favorite horror films of all time, but it’s a low-tier Lovecraft story that doesn’t even stratch the surface of what he’s best at.

Films have come close, such as The Thing (1982), The Lighthouse (2019), Annihilation (2018). They dug deep into the cosmic madness of Lovecraft, but something seems to be missing. The closest thing to true Lovecraftian horror is John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness (1994), which isn’t directly based on any specific story, more-so Lovecraft’s ideas and themes, but it’s still missing something.

However, one film seems to have it all. All the horrifying and otherworldly elements that make horror cosmic finally put into one film: Color Out of Space (2019).

Richard Stanley’s Color Out of Space (2019). Based on the short story of the same name, the film follows the Gardner family, who live on a remote farm in rural New England. Suddenly, the family’s life is thrusted into chaos when a meteorite crashes into their front yard. The meteorite emits an otherworldly color never seen before as it begins to infect the land, time and space, and the minds and body’s of the Gardner family. 

Rarely do I find myself so taken by a horror film. Horror films, specifically slashers, tend to be my cinematic comfort food. Some like romantic comedies, I like Jason Voorhees. So, when a film shakes me to my core, I’ll be sure to never forget it. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) shook me, and it remains my favorite horror film, In the Mouth of Madness shook me, and now, Color Out of Space shook me.

The film’s director, Richard Stanley, has been a life-long Lovecraft fan:

“Lovecraft was my mother’s favorite author. As a fan, I would always be a little disappointed by the adaptations and felt that someone needed to do the material justice. [His books deal with the themes of] humanity’s share of smallness, left face of the cosmos, and deep time. But I didn’t feel that any of the movie adaptations had already secured that.”

So, when he was given the opportunity to adapt a Lovecraft story, he took it. Stanley was the perfect man for the job, he seems to truly understand what makes Lovecraft so great: “I think the essential Lovecraftian moment for me is going alone into that horror. Going into the void and having nothing to reassure you or to protect you from it.”

The script, adapted by Stanley and Scarlett Amaris, stays true to the themes of the original story, while also updating the film from Lovecraft’s xenophobia: “we fade in on the first sequence in the movie… which involves a young lady in a dialogue with a gentleman of color. Two figures who would never exist in a Lovecraft story.” Its mix of pitch-black humor and genuine terror is rarely perfected, but Stanley and Amaris manage to do so.

A good script is nothing without good actors, and thank god, this movie is full of them. Nicolas Cage plays Nathan Gardner, the father of the family, and he steals every scene he’s in. Joely Richardson plays Theresa, the mother of the family, and she almost out-plays Cage. They are a powerhouse to watch together. When they are finally let loose, you can practically see sparks fly.

Madeline Arthur plays Lavinia, the only daughter, and she is absolutely magnificent. There’s this deep sense of sadness and loneliness to her character, it’s hard not to feel attached to her the most. Brenden Mayer plays the eldest son, Benny, and Julian Hilliard plays the youngest son, Jack, both of them also give great performances. Each family member goes insane in their own way, and it’s both a delight and horror to see how it all unfolds and tears the family apart.

We spend a majority of the film with the Gardners, but the supporting cast is great too. Elliot Knight plays Ward Philips, a young hydrologist that befriends Lavinia. Both Knight and Arthur have great chemistry together. And last, but not least, Tommy Chong plays the eccentric, Ezra, an old, spiritual hermit who lives near the Gardners. Chong is so weird in this movie. It’s hard not to love him.

Nathan Gardner (Cage) looks over his land, as the infestation grows.

The film looks stunning. Steve Annis, the film’s cinematographer, and Stanley somehow managed to capture and distill what cosmic horror looks like: wavy, flourescent pinks, purples, and blues, and a dark, foreboding sense to it all. The gorgeous cinematography, combined with the ingenious sound design, make the infestation of the meteorite’s contents much more believable and fascinating to look at. The film’s score by Collin Stenson is magnificent. It truly sounds like something from another world.

For decades, we’ve been getting underwhelming Lovecraftian films. Until, every now and them, do we get something that resembles that kind of cosmic horror. But something seemed to click with Color Out of Space. Something just snapped into place. And it works.

I’ve seen the film twice now, and it’ll probably see it over and over again for many years to come. After my second viewing, I was confident I just saw one of my favorite films ever. It’s currently #1 in my ranking of films released in 2019. It also has a spot in my top-ten horror films of all-time.

Few films make me as horrified as Color Out of Space, as it could happen any day at any time. We haven’t even explored 0.1% of the universe, so, it’s entirely plausible that a meteorite could crash down and infect the planet like it did in the film. It’s from space, and what do we really know about the vast cosmos of space.

We are just a pale, blue, insignificant dot in an ocean of planets and stars and moons. We are just one grain of sand on a vast, humongous beach, and the tide is about to come in. We are helpless and defenseless to the uncaring and uncompromising unknown.

You cannot bargain with it. It doesn’t abide by the laws of Earth, Heaven, or Hell. It abides by the laws of the vast and chaotic unknown. As it crashes down and poisons everything, it emits a color, unlike any ever seen before. Its cosmic rainbow of strange and unseen colors amazes and attracts the eyes. 

All we can do is watch. We watch as the color out of space infects and spreads everywhere, like a plague. We watch as it transforms and terraforms everything around it into something familiar to it, but not familiar to us. We cannot stop it. We cannot contain it. We cannot control it. We are left naked and afraid. And the unknown is left to play.

“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”

– The Call of Cthulhu, H.P. Lovecraft

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