Film Review: Color Out of Space

By Jay Armstrong

Color Out of Space is as much the defining statement of progression in the sci-fi realm as it is a nostalgic walk through the greatest moments of eighties horror. After thirty years of near-silence, Richard Stanley returns to the screen with a brave, bold, risk of a film which is nothing short of genius. Not seeing this in theaters would be a tragedy. All of this is obvious within about four minutes of the film.

Undoubtedly, justifiably, Color Out of Space will draw comparisons to the other SpectraVision masterpiece Mandy. Not because we have found another rare director who understands how to allow Nicholas Cage to go off the rails with enough talent as to avoid the always possible pitfall of landing in the painful territory of Zandalee, Vampire’s Kiss, or Wicker Man. Nor from the use of neon purple and pinks (Sergio Costa) locked under a wall of sound (Colin Stetson) creating a visceral psychedelic washing of the senses as overwhelming as it is exciting. All of which are present in this film. What makes it the perfect compendium to Mandy is much bigger. It is in how Panos Cosmatos took seventies horror and proved boundaries remained to be demolished. So too does Stanley towards eighties sci-fi. It is as though Mandy laid the groundwork to allow Color Out of Space to exist. This film seems destined forever to be seen as the spiritual sequel to Mandy which fans will forever find themselves mentioning one with the other side by side in awe forevermore.

Evil Dead, The Thing, Society, The Gate, Night Beast, 976-Evil, on and on ad infinitum have distinct derivative placement throughout this film. Each scene is woven with respect down to the most intricate details in a successful homage to the greatest moments of perfection from the decade that defined just how cool terror could be. This film is a phenomenal jumping-off point to guide young audiences down the well of this important niche; a metaphor Stanley even works into the film itself, clearly stating that yes what once was pure and perfect now reeks of stale rank death but if you are willing to lower yourself into it then you as well will forever be transformed by how it grabs you to never let go. The best explanation without spoilers of the Color Out of Space experience is one part Tremors, one part Cabin Fever, two parts Annihilation, and the rest of the cup a constant overflowing pour of one hundred and eighty proof enigmatic Richard Stanley genius.

As someone behind me walking out of the theater said, “it takes a whole lot of skill to have an HP Lovecraft story not be racist.” Stanley erases that part of the writer’s history with this adaption. No one is the villain, no one lacks value, and every single character is screwed the moment what they mistake for a meteor lands in their backyard. Lovecraft may have had the vilest beliefs channeled through his work—without a doubt, he would have championed Donald Trump for the exact same reasons he championed Hitler. What a conundrum a director faces when bringing the uniquely creative mind into our evolving place and time. It no longer is acceptable to circle around the faults of someone without staring square in the face of the issue and dealing with it. Passivity is acceptance after all. Stanley goes at it square-shouldered with a Brainwashing of My Dad finger in the chest not only at Lovecraft himself but at all suffering from the illness of the same kind here in the present as well. Tastefully with humor, tact, and the almighty Nicholas Cage he deals with the hardest immediate threat you and I face; the portion of our aging society falling deeper and deeper under the sway of inundated propaganda.  Stanley brings it into focus with such dramatic over the top fashion the theater erupted with laughter. As the effects caused by the strange object landing in the yard begin taking hold of Cage he spirals between the good-hearted character he is before the event and the insanity of which it brings upon him in waves. We see a rash develop he constantly scratches at. By the time it is a disgusting problem, his mind so far gone, he remains in denial of accepting it as a symptom of something more menacing. This is where choosing Cage—one of the most-willing-to-take-risks-in-front-of-a-camera actors—becomes the appropriate tool for Stanley’s vision. When the illness absorbed shows brief flashes of completely taking over his mind he breaks into an out-of-left-field Trump impersonation. It is unmistakable. While the rest of the theater broke again and again in laughter, a smile lit my face beyond control. There, in that moment, all of the risk-taking and willingness to do what none of his peers have dared be brave enough to do, Nicholas Cage shows us why he remains considered one of the greatest despite the eight or nine forgotten mediocre films he takes on each year to climb out of debt. No one should be sympathetic in witnessing the rock bottom landing of his career brought on by tax evasion, alleged negligence and fraud on the part of his manager, being the sort of person who builds a nine-foot-tall pyramid in St. Louis Cemetary No.1, owns two albino king cobras, and at the mere cost of three hundred thousand dollars outbid Leonardo DiCaprio for a dinosaur skull. Let us not forget what allowed him to dig that hole in the first place and it was not safe coloring within the lines acting.

Not that Color Out of Space will speak to refined tastes the way Paul Thomas Anderson films do but somewhere between the ethos of Anderson films and the weirdness of Terrence Malick’s more recent work seems a place on the shelf reserved for the void Stanley’s hopefully someday volume of work seems destined to sit. Being in his fifty’s now, with so much dead space caused by the catastrophe of The Island of Dr. Moreau, it is possible we only get another great film or two out of him. Then again Scorcese is seventy-seven and we just had our hair pushed back by The Irishman. Stanley’s got time. There remains such unrealized potential which progresses drastically on each film he creates. To think, this second chance might not have ever happened had it not been for the David Gregory documentary Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau with its wild glimpse into the reclusive distant director’s life in a moment of absolute turmoil. How can we have anything short of and awe and respect for Stanley after witnessing the humor and fatalistic doom which defined his early b-cinema masterpieces—Hardware and Dust Devil—magnified beyond imagination in the director’s real-life rise and fall over the progress of filming a single feature? It is rumored that Cage believes a curse brought on him since birth has shrouded his life. If true, he has found himself working hand in hand with someone of an equally ominous overhanging darkness as an ally to walk momentarily through it with. If one were to subscribe to such beliefs; watching the end credits come up, feeling as though time has been suspended to the point you are unsure if forty-five minutes or six hours have passed. This film feels as though it has been preordained for existence since The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari or at the very least since Bringing Out the Dead.

Stanley’s love/suspicion for the outsider rejecting society as they buffer between insanity and prophetic understanding reaches new heights. This we get through the character of Tommy Chong playing an off the grid conspiracy nut. Chong works well in the same way Nicholas Cage does; neither will ever be seen as anything other than themselves regardless of who the character they play is supposed to be; it is fair to assume neither is going to be the next Daniel Day-Lewis—then again neither is Jared Leto so not exactly a poor choice not trying on their part. Chong plays the role of a conspiracy theorist but sells it with his usual jovial charisma. He is the lighthearted calm in the middle of a back building storm.

Where most films fail to reference the occult without giving an impression the director has anything beyond a faint grasp at understanding the captivating mysticism of pagan witchcraft. Stanley having grown up under the weight of it brings about symbols and incantations with knowledgable delicate respect. Carl Jung would have had a field day watching Color Out of Space with its aesthetic power flowing seamlessly through the film of Kubrickian detail. Stanley sets motion our subconscious from moment one and continues casting his spell over us until the very last letter scrolls across the screen. This use of symbols and shapes harkening to the old forgotten gods too will draw further the comparison to Mandy. Wicca shaped much of his life experience well into adulthood yet now we get a Stanley who has a very powerful and pointed message of a mature bystander who obviously rejects—at least in theory—any form of idolatry be it religious or mere immersion in something which we feel gives our lives meaning or some sense of power over the forces bearing down on our will and the aspirations we direct it towards. We remember the mysticism he believes brought The Island of Dr. Moreau into being and the tragic way it all fell from his hands. One gets the sense throughout this film that Stanley does not actually believe each of our chosen totems of meaning lack worldly benefits, just he has come out on the other side through the use of his totem with the sense no matter how we build up ourselves to shape our path through existence, in the end, what is going to happen is going to happen. Each of us has a belief system we cling to for comfort through what might otherwise feel random and meaningless; Cage’s character attempting a self-sustained lifestyle, the daughter with her passion for incantations, the son into gaming, the mother into her work. These activities allow for continual focus felt rewarding in our striving towards goals and progress. Stanley believes these escapists belief systems blind us to the inevitable, that the safety we feel within them is futile, that the sense we are outside in any way is an illusion. As with his early films he tells us we must run, hide, avoid, and wait-out if survival is the aim. Trust only science. You can save yourself alone. The future is fucked. Adapt or be destroyed. Exactly this is what long-standing fans have loved since first discovering him, it has maturely, gloriously, evolved during our time apart.

While the tone of individual escapes against the inevitable is being set, somehow Color Out of Space sells a bigger idea about this exact moment we exist as a society. The message being how even in our modern isolated and alienated experience our attachment to technology connecting us to the world pacifies us from noticing the warning signs of impending doom. Once an event escalates to dramatically breaking the connection to our virtual lives we are in too deep to do anything about it. We may have had a chance at escaping early on but we did not act swift enough. Now we must witness the terror we can be nothing but victims of. Each turn of the film the characters hold tighter to their distraction, edging deeper and deeper into the spider web. We want to scream out for them to run. If they could hear and heed our advice would it make a difference?

Nicholas Cage slow burns his way into the spotlight. His casting allows the film humor few others could have pulled off. No doubt he can be hit or miss—you know this—I know this—but when he crosses paths with a director willing to use his ability to turn things to eleven without self-awareness or hesitation we get genius. It is not like he came out of a vacuum after all—being the nephew of Francis Ford Coppola, being the son of a literature scholar—those are two insane forces to guide ones growing steps into life. Undoubtedly such a perfect storm is responsible for one of the more unique actors in the history of cinema. Few know what to do with it. Lesser directors want him as part of their films simply from name recognition while they fear how asking him to go beyond delivering a monotone performance might sink their film—I’m looking directly at you Left Behind. Cage will take every risk asked of him, he won’t take a risk if not. Given the right caliber of director we get Face/Off, we get Moonstruck, we get Leaving Las Vegas. Given the wrong one, well, we wind up with the other seventy-five or eighty films we barely remember the names of he graces the cover of. Someone, maybe even Richard Stanley himself, said Cage is the next Vincent Price. A fitting comparison. We now sit with bated breath with fingers crossed for SpectraVision to remake Madhouse with him in it.

Watching this film it is all about the experience. Not for a single second does one think of anything beyond, “what the hell is happening” and “why do I feel so tense.” Only on the car ride home after, talking it over with friends the next day, having it bounce around your mind throughout the week at work, does the true autobiographical nature of what Stanley wrote and directed start to decipher itself. Color Out of Space is a personal film. He seems to be shouting directly at New Line Cinema, Universal, Warner Brothers and every other major budget studio that blackballed him the way they always do after taking a loss. Every scene sees a resurfaced classic moment of horror done with fresh conviction. It is as though he is standing outside the studio window slashing their tires screaming, “I could have done anything you wanted, better than you could ever want it, and you tried to ruin me!” This is not something one may or may not read into the film. It defines it. Just before things turn for the worst and the daughter starts cutting symbols into her skin to ward off evil, while Nicholas Cage goes full Bruce “this is my boomstick” Campbell, Stanley steadies his camera on a television set for a moment too long, a scene featuring a young Marlon Brando chews both screens. You tell me what Stanley’s therapist will conclude from that! Only a handful of films are so awful they can never be forgotten. What happened with Stanley’s baby is something most had written him off as never being able to get beyond (he is now pushing production on an Island of Dr. Moreau television show, one could argue he personally never will). Color Out of Space is the reawakening moment as he heads into his third act prepared to reverse his atrophied career in establishing himself definitively as one of the more prolific of directors ever to touch the Sci-fi realm.

Color Out of Space will not be for everyone. No film ever is. I found myself in a sold-out theater sitting front-row dead-center reminded of the stacks of horror films my parents let me at ten-years-old rent. I would create a makeshift tent pinning one end of a blanket to the top of the television set, the other end draped over three chairs that surrounded me on the floor as I rotated out of numbing feet crossed-leg-sitting to aching shoulders stomach laying from dusk until dawn absorbing even the mundane and repetitive tropes with a thirsting more more more which still today cannot be quenched. Some will be floored, some will not. I personally left the theater feeling as though I had been waiting all my life for this film to come along.

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