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Nonfiction

Media Review: April 2020

Color Out of Space
Directed by Richard Stanley
Produced by SpectreVision, ACE Pictures Entertainment, BRO Cinema
January 26, 2020

The Alpacas out of Space

By far the most interesting motion picture connected with the talented Richard Stanley is not one he made, but one that was made about his most famous misstep: the last feature film he worked on even briefly as director, the 1996 version of The Island of Doctor Moreau. (That’s a quarter of a century ago to you and me; a substantial layoff.) The subsequent documentary Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Doctor Moreau (2014) details how that film spiraled wildly out of control, in part due to difficulties on location, and in part because of the dueling egos of the two stars, Marlon Brando and Val Kilmer. You don’t need to know all the details here, as they are available if you want them, but essentially those two formidable egos existed in an apparent direct competition over which of the two could make Richard Stanley’s life difficult; he ended up being fired only days into production, and instead of returning to civilization from the remote location fled into the surrounding jungle, living off the grid until ultimately returning to the set in disguise. This is not the sort of thing any director wants happening on a dream project. Lost Soul relates the chaos in jaw-dropping detail, which renders it a highlight in the sub-sub-sub-genre of documentary making-of movies as good as or sometimes even better than the disaster-prone productions they’re about—a ridiculously narrow category that includes Burden of Dreams (1982), Heart of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse (1991), Lost in La Mancha (2002), and Overnight (2003, a movie that can be described as the study of a guy who worked with Harvey Weinstein and easily managed to beat him for the title of biggest asshole in the room.)

In any event, Richard Stanley had that career catastrophe behind him, and so it is difficult to not wish him well as he comes out with a new film, in this case Color out of Space, based on the H.P. Lovecraft story. (The on-screen title is actually Color out Of Space, not The Color Out Of Space, or even H.P. Lovecraft’s The Color Out Of Space, which have been alternatively reported). And this caveat needs to be reported right away. Your humble correspondent is not a Lovecraft fan. He has read the story, but it made no real impression on him and he only barely remembers it, recognizing a couple of the plot elements as they flitted by, but not having any cause to expend his critical faculties on open-mouthedly expostulating on the degree to which the film honored the master, or defiled him. For that kind of commentary you must go somewhere else, and I write these words with every possible confidence that you will not have to go far. Suffice it to say that what exposure to Lovecraft your correspondent has leads him to the suspicion that there must be reasons why faithful adaptations to the letter of that bard must be thin on the ground. Legend says that with Dashiell Hammett, John Huston was able to write his Maltese Falcon script by instructing a secretary to go through the novel and type up all the dialogue; the same instruction given some secretary asked to transcribe a Lovecraft story would in most cases result in almost nothing. Written for film, the work was not.

So what we have instead of the Lovecraft original is a contemporary story about a well-to-do family that happens to live in an isolated farmhouse, where they are living their human-scaled if eccentric lives when a meteorite lands and starts subjecting the local flora and fauna to various horrific transformations. But before that starts happening, we have the family dynamic, centering on Lavinia Gardner (the terrific Madeleine Arthur), whose tinkering with witchcraft is here treated as that typical teenage-girl complaint, the eye-rolling mortification at a family too embarrassing to be borne. Before the horrors begin, she barely says anything to her financial-advisor mom, her stoner brother, her younger brother, and especially her father, that does not reflect snotty disapproval of some sort, and it’s one of the lesser grace notes of the movie that this largely goes unremarked by anybody else. It’s just her being her, and Dad Nathan (Nicolas Cage), the object of much of her adolescent embarrassment, is among the best at just letting it all slide off him, as if he doesn’t hear it.

This much needs to be said about Cage, in particular. The man is known as an enthusiastic over-actor. This means that he is sometimes mistaken for a bad actor, an easy mistake to make given how often he flails about in fringe indies made for the paycheck; and it is certainly true that he is the go-to guy when you have a character who is meant to melt down, or freak out, at some point, as he will inevitably do here, once his character is deranged by the titular alien forces. But the man who made Leaving Las Vegas, Birdy and Adaptation is capable of modulation, of providing the relative normality that such meltdowns depart from, and so I must report that in the early going he is exactly the geeky, corny, and apparently out-of-touch Dad that girls like Lavinia hate in their teens but love madly the rest of their lives. In this film he raises alpacas, despite apparently not knowing that they’re raised for their wool and not their meat, and he is given time to dote on them, and you know what? To the extent that this movie functions as comedy, it does because of Cage’s reactions. His obsession with his alpacas becomes a running gag, to the point that the word itself becomes funny long before terrible things happen to the beasts in question. Certainly there has been no more gaga line delivery this year, in any genre production, more funny than Cage’s “‘They’re alpacas!’ (Wild gesturing) ‘ALPACAS!’” Nor has there been a scene as instantly sympathetic as the one where Nathan is humiliated by a TV news crew which has come to interview him about the meteor but is intent on painting him as a drunk who has made a false report about UFOs. Later, watching the report on television, he does not realize that he has bigger problems.

Ultimately, the alien forces start to wreak their havoc, some of it quite gory, some of it just weird, some of it seen more clearly than the family by a local squatter named Ezra (Tommy Chong). It is the dark comedy about the destruction of a family that never really had a chance once that rock fell on their land; and I cannot testify whether it’s scary, as that is a visceral reaction I cannot predict. Nor can I tell you that it ends in a satisfactory manner, as the weirdness builds to an apocalyptic crescendo and then, seemingly, just stops; as if the alien forces wanted this family gone, and were forever satisfied with that. It worked for me, but will frustrate the hell out of many others. I can tell you that with these elements taken into account, the result is certainly chilling and frequently beautiful; that the reaction in this household was as split as it will likely will be in yours; and that I ultimately loved it, hoping what we should hope, that there will not be another twenty-four-year gap before the release of Stanley’s next project: another Lovecraft, The Dunwich Horror.

Adam-Troy Castro

Adam-Troy Castro

Adam-Troy Castro made his first non-fiction sale to Spy magazine in 1987. His twenty-six books to date include four Spider-Man novels, three novels about his profoundly damaged far-future murder investigator Andrea Cort, and six middle-grade novels about the dimension-spanning adventures of young Gustav Gloom. Adam’s darker short fiction for grownups is highlighted by his most recent collection, Her Husband’s Hands And Other Stories. Adam’s works have won the Philip K. Dick Award and the Seiun (Japan), and have been nominated for eight Nebulas, three Stokers, two Hugos, and, internationally, the Ignotus (Spain), the Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire (France), and the Kurd-Laßwitz Preis (Germany). His latest release was the audio collection, And Other Stories (Skyboat Media), which features thirteen hours of his fiction, including the new stories “The Hour In Between” and “Big Stupe and the Buried Big Glowing Booger.” Adam lives in Florida with his wife Judi and a trio of revolutionary cats.