Lovecraft binge-watch: Colors out of Space

This post is #2 of a series.

In H.P. Lovecraft’s short story “The Colour out of Space,” a meteorite lands on the Gardner farm in the wooded hills west of Arkham, Massachusetts. The meteor is carrying some sort of alien life form encased in globules of a strange and indescribable color. The color contaminates the farm’s groundwater and mutates the local plants and wildlife; as the corruption advances, every living thing in the vicinity, including the unfortunate Gardner family, begins to decay and die. In the end, the color launches itself back into space, leaving behind a “blasted heath” of gray desolation where nothing will grow. The story’s narrator fears that something else might be left behind too. Referring to a reservoir that will soon cover the blasted heath, he writes, “Nothing could bribe me to drink the new city water of Arkham.”

“Colour” was reportedly Lovecraft’s favorite of his own works, and it’s a favorite of filmmakers as well: IMDb lists a half dozen adaptations, beginning with the 1965 Boris Karloff film Die Monster Die! More recent versions include the 2008 Colour From the Dark, which sets the story in fascist Italy, and a low budget Spanish film, Blasted Heath (original title: Erial), which despite the name is really more of a Night of the Living Dead knockoff.

The latest take, 2019’s Color out of Space, is by South African director Richard Stanley. I’m a fan of Stanley’s two previous films, Hardware and Dust Devil, so I was really looking forward to this one, but ultimately it just didn’t work for me.

My main complaint about the film is that it can’t seem to decide what tone it’s going for. This is a tale of cosmic horror in which Nicholas Cage plays an alpaca farmer. I’d describe his character arc as Goofball Dad into Cranky Goofball Dad into Psychotically Angry Goofball Dad Slaughtering Mutant Llamas With a Shotgun. Which would be fine if the whole movie were an absurdist comedy, but if that was the intention, Cage is the only actor who got the memo. Joely Richardson as Mrs. Gardner plays her own descent into madness straight, and delivers most of the film’s truly horrific moments. But the tonal inconsistency undercuts this, and I found the result neither scary nor funny. It’s just weird.

There were things I liked. Visually the film is gorgeous. Tommy Chong turns in a good low-key performance as an aging hippie squatting on the Gardner’s land, demonstrating how comedy can work in a horror film. The Gardners’ daughter, Livinia (Madeleine Arthur), has a nice meet-cute scene with hydrologist Ward Phillips (Elliot Knight), though their relationship doesn’t go anywhere. And of course I was grateful for the excuse to make bad puns about the Necro-llama-con.

Color is currently streaming on Hoopla if you’d like to check it out for yourself.

My own pick for best “Colour” adaptation is the 2015 German film Die Farbe, by director Huan Vu. It relocates the doomed farm to the Swabian-Franconian Forest but is otherwise very faithful to Lovecraft’s story. Die Farbe is shot in black and white, except for the alien color, which, as in the Stanley film, appears as a pinkish purple. It’s currently streaming on Amazon Prime, Tubi (free, with ads), and Kanopy (free with a public library card).

I also want to namecheck two other films. The first is Creepshow, the 1982 horror anthology by George Romero and Stephen King, whose second vignette, “The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill” (based on King’s short story “Weeds”), is clearly an homage to “Colour.” In this case, the meteorite is filled with an alien version of the goop you smear on Chia pets. Farmer Verrill (played by King) gets some on his fingers and soon has space moss growing all over his body. This one’s definitely a comedy, but everybody involved knows that, and it’s short enough that the joke doesn’t wear out its welcome.

My other recommendation is Alex Garland’s Annihilation, based on the Jeff Vandermeer novel of the same name. A meteor strikes a lighthouse on a remote stretch of coastline and creates an expanding zone called “the shimmer” that mutates everything inside it. The shimmer’s boundary blocks radio transmissions and knocks out drones. Human investigators sent inside don’t return, with the exception of a Green Beret played by Oscar Isaac, who shows up at his home a year after his disappearance, suffering from amnesia. Federal agents arrive shortly thereafter; they scoop up Isaac and his wife, a biologist and ex-soldier played by Natalie Portman. With Isaac now on life support and fading fast, Portman volunteers to join a team of four other women (Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez, and Tuva Novotny) on an expedition into the shimmer.

Though I haven’t read Vandermeer’s novel, the film feels like a cross between “Colour” and J.G. Ballard’s The Crystal World. Like Stanley’s Color, it’s a visual feast, but the tone is consistent and the characters are a lot more interesting. Currently streaming on Epix and DirecTV.

2 thoughts on “Lovecraft binge-watch: Colors out of Space”

  1. I agree that Huan Vu’s DIE FARBE is the best of the lot. Check out the films THE MONOLITH MONSTERS and THE INVISIBLE RAY, too — I really suspect they have COLOUR at their core. And not every “meteor movie” does.

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