The Magenta Menace: Thoughts on “The Color Out of Space”

“It’s some eldritch nonsense with Nicholas Cage,” my partner told me eagerly as we drove to the theater, a single-screen cinema located on Capitol Hill in Seattle. “It’s going to be wild.”

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Other than that brief description, I didn’t know much else about the film, except that it was based off of an H.P. Lovecraft story I’d never read. I find Lovecraft exhausting as a reader, and as a human being, I find him contemptible. But I have no objections to other artists cannibalizing his work and making it their own. And I’ve got a soft spot for the antics of Nicholas Cage.

This is your last chance to escape spoilers, btw.

As we both suspected, Nicholas Cage wasn’t as big of a character as the advertising had led audiences to believe. That being said, The Color Out of Space didn’t seem to know who the primary protagonist was, if the film even had one. The story mostly revolved around the Gardners, a family who had, in the great tradition of most horror movie families, recently moved from the city to the country. Nathan Gardner (Nicholas Cage) seems to be going through a midlife crisis, embracing the life of a gardener and alpaca rancher while his wife Theresa (Joely Richardson) continues her work as a financial adviser remotely. Their daughter Lavinia (Madeleine Arthur) is a temperamental Wiccan, their oldest son Benny (Brendan Meyer) is a good-natured pothead, and Jack (Julian Hillard) is the creepy baby of the clan. With the exception of Benny and Jack, all of the Gardners share the film’s spotlight at one point or another.

The move was triggered by Theresa’s recent mastectomy. During one of Lavinia’s rituals where she’s attempting to restore her mother’s health, she’s interrupted by the arrival of Ward (Elliott Knight), a hydrologist sent from Miskatonic Univerity (haha) to test the area’s water. The area, of course, is another made-up New England feature created by Lovecraft himself: Arkham, Massachusetts. After Ward’s arrival, a meteor shrouded in the now iconic pink mist falls into the Gardner’s lawn, only to mysteriously disappear a day later.

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After the meteor vanishes, things go predictably bad for the Gardners. The water becomes contaminated with the alien entity, mutating the wildlife and driving humans into madness. Some family members get fused together, and in the end, the entire Gardner clan dies in a final, cataclysmic wave of dire pink. Ward survives and delivers the film’s final monologue.

Richard Stanley’s The Color Out of Space had some very enjoyable high points. There were the anticipated Nicholas Cage “freak outs,” which had the entire theater roaring. Portions of the script seemed to be channeling Tommy Wiseau, writer and director of the cult favorite The Room, with dialogue that paid homage to the midnight movie phenomenon of the 70’s and 80’s. It was impossible to tell if this was on purpose, however. And the body horror effects were honestly not bad. They weren’t on par with John Carpenter’s practical effects, but they were effective nonetheless.

My biggest gripe with the film was the Gardners themselves. Their family dynamic was uncomfortable even before the eldritch shit hit the fan. Featuring slut shaming and the dehumanization of indigenous people, I wasn’t even a little upset when tragedy fell at their feet.

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The Color Out of Space isn’t what you would call “a good movie.” The plot meanders, the script does a poor job of explaining itself, and the dialogue is often wild. It takes a long time for anything noteworthy to happen, and longer still for the characters to react in a believable way. The film waffles between its cast of characters, never really finding its primary protagonist; at first, it seems like Ward is our hero, then Lavinia, then Nathan and Theresa (but mostly Nathan), then back to Ward again by the end of the movie.

Even as it struggles to find its narrative footing, I can’t help but enjoy it. Stanley’s take on the Lovecraftian tale is pulp of the highest order, only enhanced by the presence of Nicholas Cage and (surprise!) Tommy Chong. Coupled with a visually satisfying backdrop, The Color Out of Space is reminiscent of cult classics like Phantasm or Return of the Living Dead.

Delightfully strange, if a little ham-handed, and the perfect movie to quote to your friends, Richard Stanley says he’s planning on making a Lovecraftian trilogy, with The Dunwich Horror following The Color Out of Space. I am eager for more of his brand of eldritch nonsense, and can’t wait for more 21st century pulp.

Queerdo. Writer. Gamer. Witchy. She/They.

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