Rated: 3 / 5 (maybe 3.5 if I was feeling generous)
“West of Arkham the hills rise wild, and there are valleys with deep woods that no axe has ever cut. There are dark narrow glens where the trees slope fantastically, and where thin brooklets trickle without ever having caught the glint of sunlight.
When I went into the hills and vales to survey for the new reservoir they told me the place was evil. They told me this in Arkham, and because that is a very old town full of witch legends I thought the evil must be something which grandams had whispered to children through centuries.
Then I saw that dark westward tangle of glens and slopes for myself, and ceased to wonder at anything besides its own elder mystery.”
Introduction (before the review)
I read the short story the film was based on before watching this film. I have a “complete collection” of H.P. Lovecraft stories that I keep shelved for occasions like these, whether I read them just because I get the urge, or because some new adaptation is coming out. It was a bit of both, as The Colour Out of Space is considered to be one of his best stories alongside Call of Cthulhu, Dunwitch Horror, At the Mountains of Madness, and Dagon (though others may have their own favorite that isn’t one of those listed). My experience with the Cthulhu Lovecraftian mythos really began in 2008 when I acquired the board game Arkham Horror, and expanded from there with the Call of Cthulhu LCG (living card game, as opposed to CCG collectible card game). And, eventually, it expanded to the films, and to the actual stories themselves when I acquired a Barnes & Noble compendium of his stories.
H.P. Lovecraft’s stories are quite imaginative, especially for back then. But if you read more than one, you’ll pick up on his pattern of writing very quickly. His stories do get rather monotonous for the most part (with some exceptions), sort of like Stephen King. They usually start off with some guy who is in the present and finding a way to narrate in the past-tense by coming across old writings, interviewing others, or writing his own diary about his own dreaded past. And Lovecraft’s choice of words can become expected after a few reads, like listening to the lyrics in a Slayer album. It can get monotonous.
Despite the monotony of his tales, there are plenty that stand out and become noteworthy reads. Though I can’t say any of them ever really gave me the creeps, though I say that having only read a few of them; all the aforementioned ones, plus Herbert West–Reanimator (the story sucks, the movie version is much better even if it strays very far from the source material), and The Lurking Fear (that one almost gave me the creeps). The Colour out of Space though, that story actually managed to creep me out once or twice. Probably makes it my favorite work of his so far.
This made me eager to see the film, and how well it would do as an adaptation. And as far as H.P. Lovecraft adaptations go, which mostly tend to fail to truly capture the essence and nature of the story (let alone being faithful to the story and characters), it’s a cut above the average. It exceeded my expectations a tad. But I do have caveats, in spite of my overall enjoyment.
Let me start with a problem I had with the film right off the bat. The intro narration, which I quoted above. Quotes taken straight out of the original story. Now don’t get me wrong, this was a terrific way to open the film. Quoting direct from the source, the opening image of a forest with a lack of color, making it appear somewhat lifeless. The atmospheric music. That was all great stuff. Until I realized what the film was doing narration-wise. You see, in the short story, this is being said in the context of a man who is visiting the town well/years after the events of horror actually took place. It all makes sense in that context, as he witnesses the scenery of the devastation well after it has happened, and becomes horror stricken at it even after so much time has past from those events. In the film, that’s not the case. He’s arriving into the location before any weird shit has gone down. Which makes this narration make no sense at all. I mean, it doesn’t even look all that creepy once he comes upon the regular scenery outside of color “correction” via the editing room. That’s one strike against the film right there, and this is a problem the film on its own, not relating to the accuracy of being an adaptation. In fact, this is a problem that occurs precisely because it’s an instance of being accurate to the source material that inevitably clashes with other aspects that aren’t faithful to it at all. Such as the timing of the narrator’s arrival, and setting this in modern day (the late 2010s).
These were not haunted woods, and their fantastic dusk was never terrible till the strange days.
— quote from the short story
If there’s anything I’ve learned when it comes to adaptations, films should be focused more on being a good film inspired by a story or event rather than trying to be faithful recreations of a story told in another medium (games-movies-novels; interactive-visual-text). Just ask Stanley Kubrick when he made his adaptation of The Shining. Though to be fair, there are exceptions, such as the other Stanley Kubrick film A Clockwork Orange. Guess it depends on how much material you have to work with, and how much can be expected to reasonably fit within a movie expected to run at a standard 90-120 minutes. Short stories, you would think, would be the easiest to adapt in terms of fitting all of it into one film with a respectable runtime. For something like The Colour out of Space, I would expect it to be more on the slow-paced and brooding side, where you have to wait a considerable amount of time before the more horrific/tense/terrifying aspects come into play.
The film opted not to center on the opening narrator too much, whose name is Ward (some reference to Charles Dexter Ward?). Rather, it focuses where I would’ve expected any adaptation of the story to focus, on the family at the farm. Though this isn’t too much of a farm. Sure, they raise animals and have a garden to grow fruits and vegetables they can sustain themselves on. But they don’t exactly make a profit off their animals and crops, unlike the family in the short story (which took place in the late 1800s to the early 1900s) who were bona-fide farmers. Anyway, each family member is given much more characterization to work with.
You have Nicholas Cage as the father who wants to make an honest living raising honest crops and honest animals, cook an honest meal, and have honest alpacas, and forget his abusive daddy issues (and yes, he does Nic-Cage-out a few times during the film’s second half). You have Joely Richardson as the mother who has recently had some medical operation regarding cancer, who just wants to assist with selling stocks (hell of a place to be doing that, out in the middle of nowhere where the Internet connection is guaranteed to be spotty). You have Madeleine Arthur as the daughter who practices witchcraft (this wasn’t in the short story; she’s a good witch for the most part, not doing any intentional curses, though I do blame her for all this; you’ll see why). Brendan Meyer plays the eldest son, and he smokes joints given out by Tommy Chong (yes, seriously; and no, this isn’t in the short story either). Lastly, Julian Hilliard as the youngest son, who is highly susceptible to psychic (I guess) messaging from the ancient ones (like the dog; this was sort of in the short story, I guess; it’s left open to interpretation). A bit different from the short story, where the mother and father had three sons instead of 2 sons and a daughter. And none of them had names that matched their names in the short story, save for the last name Gardner.
Their lives are typical and somewhat dull (dull enough for the witch to want to leave, and thus go through the motions of spell casting or whatever you call it so that the pagan gods can grant her her request), until the meteor lands in their yard.
And they do what any reasonable family would do. They go out to take a closer look at it. When the Sheriff and some woman running for mayor whose lips are too big come out to see it the next day, they poke it with a stick. And it’s glowing purple (despite Nicholas Cage saying he’s not sure what color it is; it’s either pink or purple; one of the consequences of making a visual adaptation from a text source, being required to show something visually that was once left up to the reader’s imagination). I kept expecting the blob to pop out of that thing.
Naturally, the “narrator” Ward shows up again to take a look at the rock, and then meets up with Tommy Chong’s character Ezra, spends some time with him, before going off to test the water. The latter being his main purpose for coming to this place in the first place. Naturally, a colored guy testing the water after the strange colored meteor landed, which produces a color in the test that indicates the water is bad, he concludes no one in the area should be drinking the water (I’m sorry, this film is making it too easy to say the word color when they insert a person of color in this movie that is literally about colour from space).
It’s at this point I had to stop and think about things for a moment. Why exactly is this guy here, now, testing the water? At whose behest? Is it just for some college study or something? In the short story, the narrator arrived at this place because officials planned on flooding it to make a water reservoir. Now this isn’t the case currently. There’s implications the (wannabe) mayor wanted to buy the land off of the family so that she could flood it to make a reservoir, but it seems pointless to have some guy out there doing the testing if this isn’t a near-future plan. Once again a case of being faithful to the source material clashing with the fact that they’re utilizing it in an unfaithful manner. In fact, now that I think about it, the character Ward doesn’t seem to serve any real narrative purpose except for the very end of the film, which is dumb writing in my opinion (more on that later).
There is a character in the short story named Ammi Pierce, who was basically the closest thing to a neighbor the Gardner family had. You would think he would be the optimal choice for narration if they were to do a film adaptation. But there is no Ammi Pierce in the film, save for the Sheriff whose last name is Pierce, which I guess just acts as an acknowledgement of, “We know of the existence of Pierce in the original story,” which also seems kind of dumb to me. I mean, Ammi Pierce is the guy who tells all to the narrator about what happened. If nothing else, I would think Tommy Chong would be the optimal choice to take this name, but they just call him Ezra instead for some reason that I can’t fathom. Quite baffling as to why they had this character Ward when considering all that.
After a while, weird stuff starts to happen as a result of this meteor. The mother decides it’s a good idea to chop her fingers off. The youngest starts to whistle at the well. The eldest son loses track of time (though that could just be a result of smoking too much Chong Weed). The witch daughter starts to see puberty hitting the kitchen sink. Nicholas Cage start to curse and act a little nutty (I guess that’s not too abnormal for him). Some strange goopy shit shows up in the shower. Among a few other things.
It’s at this point I should mention the differences in pacing between the short story and the film. In the short story, there’s actual scientific studies done on the meteorite, and months pass between when the meteor hit and when strange stuff slowly but surely starts to happen. What happens over the course of months the film opts to have take place over the course of days. It keeps the pace up to a decent level. But this also calls for the film adding in extra bits that weren’t in the short story for the sake of momentum. I mean, the first weird thing to happen in the short story, outside of the meteor hitting and the strange colors, is how the fruit grows to a large and colorful size, while tasting bitter and nasty; it then proceeded to mention how the animals became strange, and how not just the Gardners, but the local hunters began to take notice and became fearful, and spread word of this in the town. In the film, the first weird thing is the mother chopping her fingers off. I mean, that kind of sets the bar a bit on the high side in terms of how you can escalate things from there. So they add in stuff that wasn’t in the short story, like the bloody sink, the goopy shit in the shower, making the animals in the wild quickly mutate into something more freakish-looking, elements of messing with how time works, what happens to the alpacas, and how aggressive the trees become, among other things.
I understand why the film added this stuff. It kept up a momentum of increasing dread, of one horrifying thing after another happening to up the ante until the finale. Strictly for pacing and momentum issues. But it comes at the expense of having some events happen just for the sake of having a freakish event occurring, without much reason behind it. Ok, that’s a poor choice of a word. Some of the events seem a bit too random and strange, without fitting an established (or continually growing) pattern that connects to the color out of space. In the short story, the events act as a sort of allegory for nuclear radiation (prior to atomic bombs and whatnot), and how they mutate things and ultimately cause them to decay and fall apart, and drive people mad. Here, the madness and somewhat sensible progression is downplayed in favor of the more visually shocking. It’s difficult to explain clearly without going into great detail and providing more in-depth spoilers than I care to do for this movie, but let’s just say it doesn’t follow the nature of what the color does in the short story all that well in several regards. On the other hand, it does make for an interesting viewing, so you may not view it as a con, especially if you haven’t read the short story (so short you could finish it within 3-4 days, tops).
But I know what you’re wondering. Among all this weird shit, does Nicholas Cage go into fun all-out berserk Cage-mode? Along the same lines as Face-Off, Vampire’s Kiss, Wicker Man, and Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance? Unfortunately, not quite up to those levels, but he does ramp it up to an acceptable notch once he starts getting pissed off about his son leaving the alpacas out during the night (changes his tone of voice too). I think this is supposed to represent him becoming more like his asshole dad he tries not to be like, but honestly who is really going to give a shit? The character and backstory aren’t interesting enough for that. We want to see Nic Cage being Nic Cage, not Nic Cage being this mediocre father figure.
To my surprise, Tommy Chong ended up being a great addition to this film. If for no other reason than the recorded speech he gives during the film’s finale. It honestly made me wish he was the narrator of this film, because his voice was fucking great for what he was describing.
What it is, only God knows. [It] obeyed laws that are not of our cosmos. This was no fruit of such worlds and suns as shine on the telescopes and photographic plates of our observatories. This was no breath from the skies whose motions and dimensions our astronomers measure or deem too vast to measure. It was just a colour out of space—a frightful messenger from unformed realms of infinity beyond all Nature as we know it; from realms whose mere existence stuns the brain and numbs us with the black extra-cosmic gulfs it throws open before our frenzied eyes.
— quote from the short story
Add in a couple decent moment of body horror, and all of it adds up to a relatively solid viewing experience that I can recommend.
However, there is that one small caveat I have. And yes, it’s with the Ward character. One of those things that scores a 2/5 on the SJW meter (1 = negligible to any reasonable-minded individual; 2 = having it just for the sake of having it but not preaching about it; 3 = they have it and they preach about it a bit, even if subtly; 4 = you can’t possibly watch this movie without thinking it’s trying to shove an SJW agenda down your throat; 5 = CW’s Batwoman). So it probably won’t bother you all that much. But let’s face it, he’s the one colored guy in the entire film, who was a potential love interest for who is basically the main character of the movie (witch girl, who cursed herself and her entire family by trying to bless them with protection and good fortune), ends up being the one of greatest intelligence and scientific mind, whose purpose in the film doesn’t make much sense, and ends up surviving the finale in a way that shouldn’t be possible, especially if you read the short story.
That caveat aside, and this more heavily implied message about the water being untrustworthy to drink (they play it up a bit more than they do in the short story, for reasons that seem to be a fear-mongering allegory for how unsanitary today’s water is; it’s on the subtle side though), the film is entertaining enough to be a worthy horror viewing. It’s no masterpiece, but like I said, it’s still a cut above the average Lovecraft adaptations.
Still though, the best Lovecraft films, whether direct adaptations of or heavily inspired by the mythos, still go to Reanimator (loose adaptation), Dagon (also loose), John Carpenter’s The Thing (inspired mythos), In the Mouth of Madness (inspired mythos), Cast a Deadly Spell (inspired mythos), and The Call of Cthulhu (modern silent film adaptation that is about as true to the source material as you can get). Still need to see Whisperer in the Darkness though.
PS: You can read the short story online for free here: http://www.hplovecraft.com/writings/texts/fiction/cs.aspx