Christopher Machell Toronto

Toronto 2019: Color Out of Space review

★★★☆☆

An adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s short story The Colour Out of Space, filmmaker Richard Stanley’s latest is a richly textured, if not entirely coherent, descent into madness, body horror and technological anxiety. After a meteorite crashes in the Gardner family farm, their well is poisoned. One would be well-advised not to drink the sparkling waters.

Too bad, then, for the Gardner father Nathan (Nicolas Cage) who likes ice in his bourbon. On the night in question, the farm is illuminated by a blinding pink – or as Nathan puts it, “No colour I’ve ever seen before” – light, before the itinerant space rock destroys the family’s front garden, leaving a foul stench in its wake. Was it drawn to the house by the Wiccan ritual daughter Lavinia (Madeleine Arthur) performed earlier in the day, or the radio waves emitted from the house’s satellite dish? Or is it a manifestation of mother Theresa’s (Joely Richardson) in-remission breast cancer?

All these explanations are proffered, though nothing quite fits. Perhaps it is simply that the monstrous phenomena emanating from the meteorite are drawn to these points of bodily corruption and atmospheric disruption: liminal tendrils reaching in and widening the fault lines that were already present. Certainly, the crashed meteorite carrying with it strange radiation or a malevolent alien entity is a premise that’s been done to death in science fiction and horror cinema, all the way from Night of the Living Dead to Evolution.

Given that Color Out of Space comes from the writer to which virtually the whole genre is indebted, we can give the derivative nature of the concept a pass; especially given how imaginatively rendered it is. The villain here is not a creature, but prismatic, fluid light – like Prometheus’ monstrously formless black goo but prettier. Indeed, as with so many adaptations of seminal genre fiction, the references always seem to come full circle.

Stanley duly plays tribute to the works of John Carpenter – explicitly so in at least one visual allusion – and David Cronenberg, while the film as a whole plays like a scrappier, Troma-adjacent Annihilation.  If there is any real complaint to be levelled at Color Out of Space, it’s that it has more ideas than it knows what to do with. Virtually every concept in the sci-fi/horror filmmaker’s cookbook is thrown into the pot, from temporal distortions, paternal madness, bodily transformation and the Greek chorus of a mad old hermit in the woods. The result is a conceptual melange that is heavy on flavour but light on cohesiveness.

Late on in the game, Richardson gives great body horror – with one particularly gasp-inducing moment involving her son. As always, Cage is perfectly at home in this kind of role. Following recent turns in Mom and Dad and Mandy, it’s wonderful to see him moving away from the slump of his early 2000s D-list action dreck to find his home with equally trashy but altogether richer and more satisfying fayre such as this.

The 44th Toronto International Film Festival takes place from 5-15 September.

Christopher Machell | @Dr_Machell