Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Watch Nicolas Cage Lose His Shit in Richard Stanley's Lovecraft-Powered Color out of Space

Eat your heart out, Thomas Kinkade / RLJE Films
(Richard Stanley, 
USA, 2019, Not Rated, 110 mins)

"This is what you want… This is what you get."
--Public Image Ltd, "The Order of Death" (1984)

From the people who brought you Ana Lily Amirpour's Iranian vampire noir A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night and Panos Cosmatos's psilocybin-laced revenge thriller Mandy, comes South African filmmaker Richard Stanley's first feature in 27 years, Color out of Space. Not only is Elijah Wood's SpectreVision presenting the film as a special theatrical event before it appears on streaming platforms, but it stars Mandy's Nicolas Cage. And Stanley adapted it from a 1927 short story by H.P. Lovecraft,
so those are the primary selling points. Either you're in or you're out.

Stanley starts by introducing us to the Gardners. After an unsuccessful sojourn in the city, they've moved back to father Nathan's family farm in Arkham, Mass. (Stanley shot the film in Portugal, though you'd never know it). The extended clan includes a dog, alpacas and horses, stoner teen son Benny, Wiccan teen daughter Lavinia, grade-school, Coke-bottle glasses-sporting son Jack, and squatter Ezra (Tommy Chong). According to Lavinia (Madeleine Arthur), Nathan (Cage) did too much acid back in the day and Theresa (Joely Richardson) is recovering from cancer. Lavinia wants her mom to get healthy; then she hopes to get the fuck out this podunk town.

Theresa and Nathan dreaming of Italy / RLJE Films
One night, a weird, glowing magenta object lands in their front yard. Ward (Elliot Knight, Merlin from ABC's Once Upon a Time), a handsome hydrologist in town to test the groundwater, says it looks like a meteorite (Ward also narrates; Lovecraft's story features an unnamed narrator). The Black hydrologist's full name, Ward Phillips, is a bit of a poke in the eye at Howard Phillips Lovecraft, horror/sci-fi master and known white supremacist.

Strange things start to happen. Headlights flash on and off, TVs and computers display Poltergeist-like imagery, freaky insects appear on the scene, Lavinia hears odd voices coming from her cell phone, Jack communicates telepathically with "the man" in the well, Theresa has a bloody freak-out, and otherworldly colors pulsate in the forest. As Iggy Pop's DJ Angry Bob exclaimed in Stanley’s technology-goes-berserk predecessor Hardware (1990), "Nature never knew colors like that!"

So, it's weird, except Nathan acts relatively normally, and anyone watching this movie is going to be anticipating the sort of Bizarre Cage Behavior on display in, say, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans or Vampire's Kiss, the film that convinced Stanley to cast him here (not least because he previously tried to cast Cage in 1992's Dust Devil, but it didn't work out). Aside from a few eccentric line readings, Cage doesn’t lose his shit and embrace BCB until about an hour into this thing--I'll just note that it has to do with alien-infected produce--and then there's no going back. That's the point at which the scenario segues into the disturbing, body horror realm of The Thing, Altered States, and Annihilation.

Jack (Julian Hilliard) loses his shit, too / RLJE Films
In the end, I couldn't say whether Stanley and co-writer Scarlett Amaris were trying to make a statement about the nuclear family or not. The alien influence drives each family member insane in different ways, and they spend more time turning against each other than joining forces to fight the evil. Further, technology can't save them. When this isolated farm family needs them the most, their transportation and communications devices fail.

Although it may disappoint some viewers, the biggest surprise for me is that Cage, the marquee name, isn't really the star of Color out of Space. It's Arthur (ABC's The Family, Netflix's To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before), and she's quite good. Similarly, Dylan McDermott isn't really the star of Hardware; it's Stacey Travis, another plucky woman with long, wavy hair.

Colin Stetson, who scored Hereditary, also brings the menace with his fine score...and Stanley makes the interesting decision to include an aptly-titled track, "Feeble Screams from Forests Unknown," from Norway's Burzum, black metal project of convicted neo-Nazi murderer and arsonist Varg Vikernes. That said, he adds a track from fellow black metallists Mayhem, "Watchers," and that's significant, because Vikernes's victim was their guitarist (Øystein "Euronymous"Aarseth). I'm not sure what to do with this information, but to quote Al Pacino in The Irishman, "It is what it is."   

Despite the surface similarities to Mandy, Stanley's cinematic return doesn't measure up to those lofty standards, but it's worth seeing if any of the factors that went into its making appeal to you. Especially with a well-lubricated audience hyped for the weird, the strange, and the disturbing.


Color out of Space plays the Egyptian on Jan 22 and 24-30. Click here for more information. Free Full Tilt ice cream for the first 100 people on Wed.

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