Like a Flower: Richard Stanley’s Color Out of Space

This particular specimen is the result of another detour on my part. Not the creation of the 2019 film by Richard Stanley, obviously, or the story it was derived from “The Colour Out of Space” by H.P. Lovecraft, but rather that I was going to talk about more vampires, or perhaps even The Evil Dead, until a friend of mine reminded me that this film exists, and I wanted to watch it.

So after watching The Evil Dead, and rewatching Tales From the Crypt: Demon Knight as preparation for an endeavour upon which I want to detail in Works in Progress and twist into life within my Reanimation Station, I finally got to sit down and see this latest cinematic adaptation of Lovecraft’s story.

I will try to include as much detail as I can, but I am not as scholarly as the writers of Facts in the Case of Alan Moore’s Providence, so you will need to settle for my enthusiasm instead.

I read the original short story, or novella, a long time ago and I recall it feeling more like a science-fiction narrative instead of Lovecraft’s usual occultic Cthulhu Mythos stories, to be outdone only by “At the Mountains of Madness” that I would read later. As others have pointed out, “The Colour Out of Space” was also unique in that it detailed, in full, the effects of the colour entity itself on the farming family — the Gardners — that lived in the area where the meteor strikes. These aren’t scholars, or scientists, or specialists. They are just people trying to make a living, and maintain their land before something beyond their comprehension, and their control slowly and utterly destroys their lives.

Stanley’s film itself takes the narrative of Lovecraft’s short story and uses it as a framing device to introduce the plot: beginning with a voice-over from the perspective of the surveyor to start off the film. It is a throwback to the short story which is told from the first person. The surveyor himself is actually, in the movie, a hydrologist and graduate from Miskatonic University Ward Phillips: whose name is a combination of the surname of Lovecraft’s Charles Dexter Ward from his own “Case” story, and Lovecraft’s own middle name.

However, this isn’t Ward’s story. And unlike his unnamed counterpart in the short story, he isn’t relating to us the story of Ammi Pierce who finds the Gardners and the corruption of their property. This is no pedestal narrative — the story of another told by a protagonist — even if it’s all framed to have happened in retrospect: which is funny, when you consider the temporal implications that occur in the film as it progresses. No, Ward is actually the hydrologist sent by the authorities to the land of the Gardners to survey it so they can build a bridge there. He is there in a great deal of the plot and he directly interacts with the Gardners without a middle man, so to speak.

The small details, the introductory visuals, are what grab me. As Ward enters the heavily forested land of the Gardners we see Barbie Doll limbs arranged on the branches in strange shapes not unlike Swastikas, which in turn have been depicted as Elder Signs of the Lovecraft variety or, in this case, they could have been in a flower petal arrangement. The best thing about symbolism is that one object can mean multiple things, or dimensions, at once as opposed to simply a one and/or the other allegory arrangement.

This is where we meet our first member of the Gardner family. You see, unlike the short story where they all seem to have archaic or Biblical-sounding names such as Nahum, Thaddeus, Merwin, and Zenas — and an unnamed Mrs. Gardner, the patriarch of the family is Nathan, his wife is Theresa, and their sons are Benny and Jack. In fact, the only one with a standout first name is the daughter of the family: Lavinia. She is the first person that Ward meets.

Now here is where the Cthulhu Mythos lore does unfold a bit. It’s a great example of Mythos retelling, or reinterpretation of Mythos parts. Lavinia’s name comes from poor Lavinia Whateley in Lovecraft’s “The Dunwich Horror”: the daughter of a warlock forced to bear the children — Wilbur Whateley and his invisible, monstrous sibling — from the extra-dimensional being Yog-Sothoth. That Lavinia is driven mad by the experience, and killed by her own unseen child, the aforementioned Dunwich Horror, later on in the story.

The Lavinia in Color Out of Space, however, is a young woman with occult background: or at least has ties to New Age magical practices and mysticism. Of course, if anything she seems more like an eclectic solo practitioner of witchcraft because Ward himself asks if she is in the Wiccan or Alexandrian traditions, and doesn’t seem to know the difference: even when Ward “guesses wrong.” I mean, the man did study at Miskatonic U and what is the paraphrase? Never go against a Miskatonic University graduate when the occult is on the line? Here is an interesting part of that discussion: Ward actually thinks she is an Alexandrian Wiccan: and while the Alexandrian tradition had been created by Alex and Maxine Sanders in 1960s Great Britain, it was Gerald Gardner in 1954 who first gathered and established the principles that would lead to Wicca. So of the two choices, Ward would have been wrong in considering Lavinia an Alexandrian.

But that clever tongue and cheek reference by Stanley aside, it’s through Lavinia, this young woman forced to live on this old farm that belonged to her late grandfather, now raising fruits and vegetables, and alpacas for their milk, that are introduced to the rest of her family, and their situation. Nathan Gardner has moved his family to his father’s old farm because his wife Theresa is recovering from breast cancer. The city of Arkham, of which this land is a part, wants to buy the property to create a reservoir. Theresa herself is attempting to heal, and also recover her property business while losing clients because of terrible Internet connection and communication.

The interplay between the family members, all of whom aren’t particularly pleased to be living in this area, feels real. It isn’t set in the 1800s, as their counterparts had been in the short story, and it feels like they are in twenty-first century. You can see Nathan, played by Nicolas Cage, attempting to maintain order and cohesion in the family, and even though he is a bit overbearing, you can tell it is because he is worried about his wife, and the future of his family.

And there are so many Lovecraftian themes and resonances in the film already. Nathan, and to some extent Theresa, are afraid of becoming like their parents — with Nathan fighting against some of the legacy his father left behind through disapproval and the latter’s own death by cancer — so you have that hereditary curse or doom trope tweaked ever so lightly. You have Benny Gardner and his fascination with satellites and space as well as the resident old man hermit’s Ezra’s eccentric electronic and monitoring equipment: both of which are very reminiscent of Crawford Tillinghast’s experiments in Lovecraft’s story “From Beyond.” Ezra himself seems like a throwback to Ammi Pierce who is apparently mentally unsound as he tells the narrator his story in Lovecraft’s short story, though like him he knows a lot more about what is going on than he would seem. And in addition to Lavinia’s literary resonance, among her magical tools she has a copy of what seems to be the Simon Necronomicon: a book released by Schlangekraft, Inc. in 1977 and republished in paperback form by Avon Books. This is an attempt to combine Aleister Crowley, and Sumerian mythology into the Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos in the form of a grimoire. And no, it is not the Sumerian version of the Book of the Dead, definitely not the Naturom Demonto or the Necronomicon Libre Ex-Mortis, and probably one of the reasons I believe Lavinia is an eclectic practitioner. Trust me.

But even Lavinia’s mystical leanings are a call back to the Mythos, even if they are treated as something of a red herring, or a fond Lovecraftian in-joke. When the meteor does come down, everyone thinks it’s something like a mystical summoning, or an alien plague. All the Lovecraft trope references get honourable mentions in this film.

I am a Lovecraft fanatic, and while all the easter-eggs — especially locations mentioned in passing such as Arkham, Aylesbury, Dunwich, and Kingsport — are fantastic little winks, I think the strength of Color Out of Space comes with its effects, and the interpersonal horror — family horror — that we get to see unfold.

One of the major issues in adapting “The Colour Out of Space” into a visual medium is the fact that the “Colour” is by its very nature something that can’t be described. The phenomenon or entity is beyond the third dimension, and its hues are supposed to defy anything that the human eye can perceive. The contrasts of colour are used well too, especially in the ending where there is only white, and then no colour at all.

So how do you create a visual effect of that? How do you creatively interpret it? There is of course CGI, and it does get used in the film, but it is done sparingly and I appreciate the decision to make the Colour itself something of a rainbow spectrum. Sometimes it is almost a recognizable colour, before it shifts into another, and many besides. It is deceptively beautiful and it fits well with the initial effect that it has on the land around it. It reminds me of The Wizard of Oz taken to an alien and horrific place where it’s reversed and the twisted fantasy background becomes painfully vibrant, and the resulting reality and aftermath is a dull, dead black and white world. The flying mantises in the interim also seem to match this idea, and so do the flowers.

The flowers are an excellent touch. I’m not sure if they exist in the short story, but they are small, beautiful, pink-red petals that grow like cherry-blossoms until, eventually, they dominate everything. There is a point towards the end of the film where you see the farm property resemble a depiction of an alien atmosphere like Yuggoth. That is another excellent idea that they added as well from the Mythos. Stanley illustrates the meteor and its impact has caused some space-time issues, especially with regards to how the spectrums of light affect human perceptions and senses of reality. A nice little wink towards Lovecraft, again, is when Nathan keeps smelling something strange that no one else can perceive, much like how Lovecraft in his own works would have his characters know something eldritch was afoot when they began to smell a “strange foetor” from an object or subject.

So you can imagine that once the meteor lands, and it disintegrates after attracting lightning from the atmosphere (most likely turning into invasive dust particles into the surrounding environment) that the mutations begin. The prostheses and the fusion nightmares they depict are excellent and something of a rainbow-coated Re-Animator level form of art. There is definitely a ton of body horror after a while, which combined with some minor but striking psychedelic effects on space-time makes the themes of this film pretty clear.

Even the cat isn’t immune. Sorry H.P., though I have to say that the name “G-Spot” is a far better name for a feline than what you, or your mother, have called your cats in your time.

But talking about the flowers is an excellent metaphor for what happens in this film. It has a slow pacing. It sets a story of a troubled family that nevertheless still loves each other and attempts to make things work, even repair things between them, and adds that eldritch horror from the stars — the uncaring, inhuman element from cosmicism that shows how small and arbitrary human comfort is — and begins to erode everything they are away. It’s like the cancer that Theresa Gardner has tried to beat, or that her family has attempted to help guide her through by sacrificing their old normal to make a new normal that will never, ever be normal again.

And the cracks, that were already there before but could have been dealt with, show with extreme prejudice after a while. I don’t want to go into too many spoilers, as I think you should definitely watch this one on your own, but I will say that there is a perversity in the fact that the film begins with Lavinia attempting a magical ritual to “make things better” for her mother and family, and that Nathan is attempting to make a living — and failing to do so — from milking alpacas (even calling the organs that he is milking “breasts”) when his wife has had a mastectomy: a detail I’d missed the first time I saw this film. You see all of the dysfunction and miscommunication, the resentment, and even the love hit critical mass along with the mutated growth from the Colour. I think it’s effective because you really empathize with this family and you want the Gardners to succeed, or to survive: and you know that based on this being a Lovecraftian story — a Mythos reinterpretation — that this just won’t happen.

It’s a far cry from an unnamed mad wife being locked in an attic, along with one of her sons. And it’s actually kind of heartbreaking that this all happens right when some reconciliation and healing seems to occur, pretending desperately at normalcy during a time of sickness — an illness that can neither be understood nor cured — while falling towards the inevitable.

I think the weakest part of the film is Phillip Ward being integrated into the plot towards the end, but I see why he is there to be able to tell the story, as much of it as he knows anyway. He does bring a human face to the story as well. The thing is, what really affected me from Lovecraft’s “The Colour Out of Space” is the fact that after the farm becomes unnaturally fertile, it turns into a wasteland that seems to grow over time even under a new reservoir that will consume the world: after the light or the Colour leaves it. In Stanley’s cinematic version, it is the mutation itself and watching it happen, observing how it destroys human lives — but also brings them together and changes them — with an outside like Ward attempting to understand the whole thing after the fact that really hits home.

I think that what is so effective is that while the story and the film are different, the latter pays homage to the former and has its spirit. I think it translates it well. A funny thing, too: “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” — with part of Phillip Ward’s namesake — was the story Lovecraft wrote right before “The Colour Out of Space,” while “The Dunwich Horror” — which Stanley wants to adapt after this film — features Lavinia’s literary namesake. And as he wrote “The Colour Out of Space” Lovecraft penned an essay on “Supernatural Horror in Literature”: taking his own steps to attempting to further define the genre from his lens or perspective. It is much like how Stanley, through the love he and his late mother who died of cancer had for Lovecraft’s stories, attempted to always go back to “the well” — the mutated, poisoned well featured in the film to capture the soul of the Mythos while also making his own story, and having his crew carrying it on through their captivating performances.

Color Out of Space Well
From Richard Stanley’s Color Out of Space.

Was Color Out of Space perfect? No, but it’s a case of having the letter of the law be skewed a bit, but the spirit of it coming through like the unbearable, poignant light of an alien flower blooming, unfurling, and leaving a stark greyness that you will remember forever.

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