[Fantastic Fest review] ‘COLOR OUT OF SPACE’ a tasty bowl of WTF soup

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Preston Barta // Features Editor

COLOR OUT OF SPACE

Not rated, 111 minutes.
Director: Richard Stanley
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Joely Richardson, Madeleine Arthur, Brendan Meyer, Julian Hilliard, Elliot Knight, Q’orianka Kilcher and Tommy Chong

AUSTIN – Oh, Richard Stanley, how we have missed your intoxicating weirdness. After his departure from 1996’s THE ISLAND OF DOCTOR MOREAU (check out the 2014 documentary LOST SOUL for the whole story), Stanley put his focus into his short films, documentaries and writing. But now he’s back at the helm and directing shout-master Nicolas Cage in an H.P. Lovecraft adaptation, no less.

Stanley’s eccentric storytelling abilities is a seamless fit for Lovecraft. He proves that early on in his telling of Lovecraft’s 1927 sci-fi short story COLOR OUT OF SPACE. He statically captures the county land and rivers outside the fictional Massachusetts town of Arkham (no connection to DC Comics, but often featured in other Lovecraft works). The scenic landscapes may be worthy of your desktop background, but the smoky haze and strange hues show that evil lurks in the darkness.

The film opens with a rebellious teenager named Lavinia Gardner (Madeleine Arthur) performing a Wiccan ritual at a riverside. She is calling upon forces to ease her mom’s cancerous pain before she is interrupted by a handsome, young surveyor (Elliot Knight). The mysterious man is Ward, a hydrologist sent to the region to test the water levels. He also serves as the audience surrogate, guiding us through the character introductions and inevitable terrors. We learn through him that Lavinia and her family are the only people who live in the area, along with the kooky, off-the-grid hippie Ezra (Tommy Chong).

After their brief encounter, Lavinia returns home before nightfall, where we meet the rest of the Gardners. There is her father, Nathan (Nicolas Cage), who moved the family into his father’s old farmhouse. He renovated it with a touch that would probably make Chip and Joanna Gaines smile. Nathan grows tomatoes in the garden and tends to his alpacas.

Lavinia’s workaholic mother, Theresa (Joely Richardson), has many insecurities about herself because of her recent medical operation. She tries to tuck that away by burying herself in work, which is taking calls all day long in a dimly-lit upstairs room. But Nathan does not give up on her and continuously looks for ways to reignite the romantic spark.

Completing the family is Lavinia’s brothers, Benny (Brendan Meyer of THE GUEST) and Jack (Julian Hilliard of THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE). Benny is an adolescent who copes with his new living situation by smoking the devil’s lettuce (in the barn or with Ezra), while little Jack is a mama’s boy who is too young to care about the life change.

The story shifts into gear when a meteorite falls on the Gardner farm. It lands and brings about some strange happenings, including contaminated water, absent mindedness and unusual behaviors. What seems like an exciting discovery soon liquifies into a bloody cocktail with splashes of John Carpenter’s THE THING and Alex Garland’s ANNIHILATION (works that were likely inspired by Lovecraft).

No matter what I say, there is no preparing you for this space oddity. The film’s first act is a bit of a mess with its stilted dialogue and uninspired characterization; however, once the meteorite hits, eccentricity is on full blast.

Cage’s line deliveries give the film a considerable amount of juice. There is a scene that is rather calm and collective that takes a sharp turn in the other direction. Seemingly out of nowhere, Cage (humorously) yells about the importance of milking his alpacas. It resembles that time when George W. Bush shouted during a press conference about a park in Botswana. (YouTube it. It’s a hilarious tonal shift.)

Cage is always adding a unique flavor to his projects. In COLOR OUT OF SPACE, he dons Jack Torrance’s madness from THE SHINING, but with the voice of Donald Trump. It is so bizarre, but it keeps you glued to his performance. I mean, if you are nose-diving into the Twilight Zone, might as well cut a little rug, and Cage certainly does.

For a movie with an alleged six-million dollar budget, COLOR OUT OF SPACE has a slick polish. Some computer-generated effects look cheap (most notably when the otherworldly colors from the meteorite spread like a virus across the land), but there are also practical effects that amaze. It’s as if Stanley brought old school tricks to new school horror. Without getting into the specifics, there are two scenes of terror that are for nightmares only, and they feature practically made creations.

COLOR OUT OF SPACE may be too out-there for casual filmgoers. There are familiar story beats that have (admittedly) been explored better in other cinematic cosmoses (such as ANNIHILATION). Other narrative areas ring a little hollow as well. But Stanley elevates the material and manages to generate a few spooks (one quick overhead shot of something crawling on the wood floors will do the trick, big time). The actors also deserve praise for their committed performances. It’s hard to imagine these talents making sense of this film’s silly antics, but they play it straight (with the occasional dip in the cartoon pool).

All that said, COLOR OUT OF SPACE is a tasty bowl of WTF soup.

Grade: B-

COLOR OUT OF SPACE had its regional premiere over the weekend at Fantastic Fest, but encore screenings will be held on September 23 at 11:30 p.m. and September 24 at 11 a.m. Visit fantasticfest.com for more information. RLJE Films will release the film at a later time.

About author

Preston Barta

Hello, there! My name is Preston Barta, and I am the features editor of Fresh Fiction and senior film critic at the Denton Record-Chronicle. My cinematic love story began where I was born: off planet on the isolated desert world of the Jakku system. It's there I passed the time scavenging for loose parts with my good friend Rey. One day I found an old film projector and a dusty reel of the 1975 film JAWS. It rocked my world so much that I left my kinfolk in the rearview (I so miss their morning cups of green milk) to pursue my dreams of writing about film. It wasn't long until I met two gents who said they would give me a lift. I can't recall their names, but one was an older man who liked to point a lot and the other was a tall, hairy fella. They got me as far as one of Jupiter's moons where we crossed paths with the U.S.S. Enterprise. Some pointy-eared bastard said I was clear to come aboard. He saw that I was clutching my beloved shark movie and invited me to the "moving pictures room" where he was screening the 1993 film JURASSIC PARK to his crew. He said my life would be much more prosperous if I were familiar with more work by the god named Steven Spielberg. From there, my love for cinema blossomed. Once we reached planet Earth, everything changed. I found the small town of Denton, TX, and was welcomed into the Barta family. They showed me the writings of local film critic Boo Allen. He became my hero and caused me to chase a degree in film and journalism. After my studies at graduate of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, I met some film critics who showed me the ropes and got me into my first press screening: 2011's THE GREEN LANTERN. Don't worry; I recovered just fine. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD was only four years away.