I was first introduced to South African writer / director Richard Stanley’s work back in the early 90’s, when I came across his first feature length film on VHS, 1990’s sci fi / horror flick Hardware. Previous to that, he’d been cutting his teeth on risky documentaries and edgy music videos. Hardware made quite the impression on lil ole me when I first had it sear its grimy way across my peepers, with Stanley milking the most he could out of a meagre $1.5 million budget, to terrific effect, in my opinion.
Hardware is a simple horror story (in the slasher mold…only with a killer robot on a rampage), backdropped by some impressively nightmarish world-building depicting the rotting remains of a ruined society. It’s grim, nihilistic, violent-as-hell, and surreal, with hints of sleaze…and I love it! It’s SUCH an ugly film…in a beautifully ‘grindhouse’ kind of way. After the trauma of my first viewing wore off, it was replaced by curiosity over where this ‘Richard Stanley’ person might go, career-wise (I had the same reaction with David Fincher after I walked out of Alien 3).
Two years later, Richard Stanley reared his strange head again, this time with Dust Devil, a trippy African-set tale about a demon walking the desert wasteland as a man, driven on a path of lust and murder, who’s destined to cross paths with a battered house-wife fleeing her abusive husband and a haunted detective hot on a serial killers trail. Where Hardware was dark and claustrophobic, Dust Devil boasts a vast, expansive backdrop of gorgeously bleak deserts, and the primitive towns scattered over them, and it looks beautiful. The story isn’t as engaging as Hardware‘s, at times more trippy and incoherent than it should be, but it’s still a damn fine genre entry that I will always have a certain fondness for. Again, my appetite for more ‘Stanley’ was stoked!
As the mid-90’s unspooled, I remember following the news of Richard Stanley’s next project, a mid-budgeted, Big Studio adaptation of HG Well’s infamous novel ‘The Island of Doctor Moreau’, and I was hyped. Given what he’d given with Hardware and Dust Devil, visually-speaking, I was jazzed to see his weird, creepy vision bolstered by a budget, being used to breath fresh (and probably disturbing) life into a very familiar story in classic literature. But then disaster struck. Only a few days into Production, Stanley was unceremoniously fired by the studio and quickly replaced by veteran director John Frankenheimer (Ronin), who took what Stanley had started and completed it in a bare-bones, journeyman fashion. It’s certainly not terrible (as MANY people claim), but it lacks the bite I’m sure Stanley would’ve given it, had things gone differently. The bits and bytes of the whole sordid Behind-the Scenes drama was well-documented in the recent documentary Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey Behind Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau (2014). It’s a fascinating look at how the studio-system fucked Stanley over, but it’s also an interesting window into who Richard Stanley is…and he’s a weird fuckin dude! Highly eccentric but quite bright, the man is refreshingly open about his passion for, and interest in, fringe subjects, such hallucinogens and witchcraft, and these also carry over creatively, at times blatantly. I highly recommend checking it out.
So, after the shit-show debacle of Moreau, Stanley sank out of view, in many ways reminding me of what happened to early ‘oo’s up n coming director Stephen Norrington (Blade), when his first Big Studio Picture, an ill-fated adaptation of Alan Moore’s graphic novel series, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003), was maimed, both critically and commercially. Norrington’s experience was so bad that he abruptly retired from the industry (come back, Stephen!). Luckily, Stanley’s post-Studio career merely downshifted, with him popping up from time to time with odd short films or documentaries. But the chances of another feature were far from certain.
Then THIS happened.
Stanley’s name suddenly popped back onto my radar when I found out that he was green-lit to helm a $6-7 million adaptation of HP Lovecraft’s short story ‘The Colour Out of Space’ (written 1927). As horror authors go, Lovecraft is one of my favorites (along with Robert E Howard and James Herbert) so the marriage of the renowned source material and Richard Stanley’s long-awaited return to ‘features’ had me salivating in anticipation. My hopes were high, I wanted this to be his 2nd chance at The Big Time, as I genuinely feel that he has undeniable talent and an often-gorgeous visual language that I feel could be effectively lent to many a different story.
I was unable to catch Color Out of Space during it’s very limited theatrical release, which ended up being 81 theatres in the US only (sitting comfortably up here in Canada thankfully got in the way of that). But I vowed to catch it, either streaming or Blu ray.
I went with Blu ray.
So last night, my lovely fiancé and I peeled open the brand-new disk, plopped our asses onto the couch after several sips and tokes, and hit PLAY.
Before we kick off, Color Out of Space follows the ‘Gardner Family’, ‘Nathan’ (Nicolas Cage) and ‘Theresa’ (Joely Richardson), and their 3 kids, practicing Wiccan ‘Lavinia’ (Madeleine Arthur), practicing stoner ‘Benny’ (Brendan Meyer) and practicing little kid ‘Jack’ (Julian Hilliard). They live on a large, beautiful property in Arkham County, USA (though filmed in Portugal, interestingly enough) with ‘Theresa’ working the stock market from home while ‘Nathan’ dreams of an alpaca farm. Life is pretty good. One night, an ominously glowing mass descends from the night sky and settles on their land, almost instantly kicking off strange and eerie events that affect the land…and those living on it. Soon things spiral into insanity and bloodshed as the unknown entity spreads it’s nefarious influence among the family members and any pesky interlopers.
Here lie my notes…
–Slick cinematography right off the bat. Eerie forest shots. As previously mentioned, I admire Stanley’s visual panache and was elated to see it front and center, right from the get-go. And these were just atmospheric establishing shots, all fog and trees!
–‘Richard Stanley’ touches evident right away. Witchcraft, director credit shown over a compass (ala Hardware). But I also think that he may have done it with Dust Devil too…I’ll have to check. But if you’re familiar with the man, you can definitely see the ‘Stanley’isms right away.
–Love the 80’s inspired synthwave score. Which is why I’m listening to it now, as I write this. It’s menacing and melodic all at once and definitely bolstered the creep factor as it rose, effectively adding tension when needed.
–Good set-up for the family dynamic. They seem to get along. It was nice to see that this was a relatively normal family, who bickered but clearly didn’t hate one another. It made them relatable, which in turn got me invested. And when the shit hits the fan…yep, that investment paid off.
–Easter Egg Alert! ‘No flesh shall be spared’. Again, if you’re familiar with Stanley’s previous two films, you may recognize that quote from Hardware.
–Strange shit starts almost right away. Once the magenta meteor touches down, disconcerting activity almost immediately kicks off around the farm and with the family. It got to the point, after letting the family introduction breath.
–I like the slow tracking shots. Reminds of James Cameron. Cameron is bar none one of my favorite directors EVER and going back to the very beginning of his career, he has clearly established himself as a fan of the Tracking Shot (camera slides along with the action at a predetermined speed, in this case, usually moodily slow). Stanley makes ample and effective use of them here.
–Whoopsies! Two fingers down…in close up. A key character has a comically gory brush with a butcher’s knife. The scene walks at tight rope between absurd and disturbing, capably navigating both.
–Odd accent from Cage in a couple ‘losing his shit’ scenes. My Better Half turned to me during the first of these scenes and asked if it sounded like his accent changed…or was it just her? It wasn’t just her. I’d heard it too…and would again, as it happens at least one more time before the movie ends. It was a weird oddity in the character’s progressing bat-shit craziness. *shrugs*
–Some scenes are pure Cage insanity. Fruit / veggie scene. You can’t have Cage…without getting a little ‘Cage’ along the way. The scene in question has Cage’s ‘Nathan’ character gnawing big bites out of the suspiciously large peppers and peaches that his alien infected garden is yielding, only to freak out as they taste like shit. He takes to hurling them into the garbage while babbling away angrily…before going back to acting like nothing’s happening.
–Love the hints of invading magenta. Ominous. Richard Stanley is smart in how he conveys the strange invasion of the alien color in tiny ways. This scribble came from a tight shot of water flowing from a faucet, and the hint of pink just visible within. There’s another scene that demonstrates the same thing again, only with ice cubes.
–Lack of explanation helps maintain the unsettling vibe. Sometimes less is more…and Color Out of Space follows that motto well, in more ways than one. Not knowing gets the imagination going…and I found it lent nicely to the eeriness of the events as they unfold.
–Weird, fucked-up body horror elements reminiscent of The Thing or Leviathan. Surprising fate for 2 characters. When shit starts to go off the rails, it really goes off the rails. Without spoiling it, let’s just say that two people, with help from the alien entity, demonstrate how NOT to hug. It’s ugly and unsettling. And unexplained.
–Reminds me of The Prince of Darkness, the growing influence of the alien evil. I love me some John Carpenter’s under-rated 1987 Satan-in-a-jar flick and couldn’t help but to make the connection as the entity’s influence started fucking with everything.
–Cage’s insanity inconsistent. Deliberate? There are times when he goes batshit nuts, only to reel it back in moments later, then…nuts again. It didn’t feel, organically, like a steady descent into madness.
–Interesting ‘cameo’ from Tommy Chong. That’s right….stoner guru extraordinaire Tommy Chong, of Cheech and Chong fame, turns up as….drumroll please….as….a hippie stoner hermit in the woods, surrounded by surveillance gear! Betcha didn’t see THAT coming! Chong ain’t down with typecasting, yo!!!
–Batshit crazy ending. I like!! Kinda says it all right there, yeah?
And thus ends my notes on Richard Stanley’s Color Out of Space!
There’ve been numerous attempts to do Lovecraft’s work justice in the past, many of them directed by the late Stuart Gordon (for better or worse), but none of them, in my humble opinion, have REALLY gotten the Lovecraftian brew just right.
Color Out of Space definitely comes close.
All in all, I’m glad that this newest genre offering from Richard Stanley is as good as I hoped it would be. As scattershot and spread out as Stanley’s filmography is, here he shows he hasn’t missed a beat and can still craft a compelling and edgy narrative that takes the viewer into some dark places, while keeping them enthralled and repulsed simultaneously. I genuinely hope that this is the beginning of another shot for Stanley, as I think his bullshit experience on Moreau unfairly derailed things for him. As for the movie itself, it looks beautiful, well cast, the pacing is surprisingly viewer friendly, there are some gnarly visuals and solid performances, along with a decent splash of gore and horror. And alpacas!!! Richard Stanley is back, baby!! I just wish he could’ve been given a wider release and the chance for this one to net something resembling a profit, which it didn’t do. Though, there is still talk of this being the first in a trilogy of Lovecraft adaptations to be helmed by Stanley. If that’s the case…I’m all for it.
To fans of mind-bending horror or sci-fi, I can easily recommend Color Out of Space, likewise fans of Nicolas Cage or those like myself, who had been waiting for Richard Stanley to FINALLY get the chance to helm another feature film. Here’s hoping there are more Directed By Richard Stanley‘s in our future!