Welcome back to the Lovecraft reread, in which two modern Mythos writers get girl cooties all over old Howard’s sandbox, from those who inspired him to those who were inspired in turn.
This week, we took a break from reading to watch the new movie of Color Out of Space, released January 2020 – screenplay by Scarlett Amaris and Richard Stanley, directed by Richard Stanley, and starring Nicolas Cage and Joely Richardson. Spoilers ahead.
“West of Arkham, the hills rise wild.”
Ward Phillips (Elliott Knight), a hydrologist from Miskatonic University, is surveying the site of a prospective reservoir west of Arkham, where “the hills rise wild.” People have told him the place is evil—not good for the imagination or conducive to restful dreams. So far the scariest thing Ward’s seen is Lavinia Gardner (Madeleine Arthur) performing a ritual under the trees, meant to help her mother recover from breast cancer and, with teen goth angst, adding a plea to “please, get me out of here.” Actually, their encounter’s not so much scary as meeting-cute. Interrupted, Lavinia shoos Ward off the Gardner property, but hey, she’s a cute teenage witch and he’s a cute young scientist, so sparks must inevitably fly.
The Gardner family have inherited the family farm, featuring a big Victorian residence and ship-shape horse barn. Also included is the ancestral well and “squatter” Ezra (Tommy Chong), an antediluvian hippie living in a funky cottage in the woods. Besides Lavinia there’s teenage Benny (Brendan Meyer), fond of astronomy and sharing joints with Ezra. Bespectacled kid brother Jack-Jack (Julian Hillard) cuddles a plush T-Rex and looks for stars at the bottom of the well. Dad Nathan (Cage) plans to raise alpacas for meat and milk. Mom Teresa (Richardson) works from the attic as a financial advisor. Despite parent-child frictions and sibling squabbles, the Gardners seem a more-or-less functional domestic unit, slightly-quirky subtype.
That night a meteorite crashes near the Gardner well. Family dog Sam goes bonkers; Jack-Jack lapses into unresponsive shock; the meteorite glows a weird fuchsia. Sam and Jack-Jack have recovered by morning, when Ward, the sheriff, and the reservoir-pushing mayor come to look at the space rock. A TV crew from Arkham doesn’t arrive until the next day. Too bad, since the rock has vanished, destroyed by volleys of lightning in an overnight storm.
The meteorite may be gone, but weird shit’s just getting started. Fuchsia flowers spread across the property. Jack-Jack watches a deformed praying mantis emerge from the well. Phone calls are garbled; Theresa complains she’s going to lose clients if Nathan doesn’t fix their satellite dish. Buzzing noises at the threshold of perception bug everyone. Alpacas keep getting out of the barn and eating the flowers. Oh, and Theresa zones out while chopping carrots, cutting off the tips of two fingers. Exit Dad and Mom to the hospital, leaving the kids to fend for themselves.
Noises intensify. Ezra hears voices underground, which he records on reel-to-reel tape: otherwise no one will believe the meteorite brought aliens with it. Ward tests the water and discovers it’s contaminated with—something. He warns Lavinia and Ezra to stick with bottled water. Jack-Jack hangs out by the well, listening to the “man” who lives in it now. Lavinia, finding a paperback Necronomicon among her grimoires, performs a protection ritual, cutting arcane symbols into her own flesh.
Coming home from the hospital, Theresa’s fingers sewn back on, Nathan almost runs over a flayed-looking animal (probably Ezra’s missing cat G-spot.) The dog is missing, Jack-Jack’s hanging around the well at all hours, and Benny hasn’t put the damn alpacas in the barn for the night. Nathan’s shower is ruined by jellyfish-looking things clogging the drain. He’s also getting a freaky rash on his forearms. He drinks bourbon and screams at everyone to cope.
In town, the sheriff shows Ward mutilated animal corpses; Ward thinks it looks like radiation exposure. At the Gardner place, the alpacas have merged into a heap of multi-headed raw flesh with glowing eyes. As Jack-Jack flees into Theresa’s arms, the well belches forth a stream of energy that envelopes the two and leaves them welded together.
Phones and wifi have stopped working entirely, ditto the SUV. Nathan, Lavinia, and Benny haul the squalling pair to the attic, where they continue to deteriorate. Nathan shotgun-euthanizes the alpacas but can’t pull the trigger on his wife and son. He goes back to the bourbon. Lavinia and Benny plan escape aboard Lavinia’s horse, but it bolts, eyes glowing. Benny thinks he hears Sam in the well and climbs down to be engulfed by a fuchsia eruption. Nathan locks Lavinia in the attic (families stick together, right), and goes downstairs to watch TV interspersed with alien static.
Ward and the sheriff arrive—they’ve found Ezra listening to his own tapes in a sad state of decay. Ward, sheriff and Nathan respond to Lavinia’s frantic screams and find her under attack by the now-spidery mom-brother monster. Nathan dispatches Theresa and Jack-Jack. Later, as Nathan aims to shoot everyone else, the sheriff shoots Nathan. What a mess. We forget what happens to the sheriff, but Nathan persists zombie-like in front of the TV, watching alien static along with the ghosts of his family—can the Color be warping time as well as space?
Lavinia teeters at the edge of the well, with Ward urging her away. But she says she lives here. She, Ward, or both gaze on alien dimensions in which a fuchsia Thing reigns supreme. Then she disintegrates. Ward runs inside, encounters zombie Nathan and ghost family, and escapes Nathan’s last-ditch attack amid swirling color by locking himself in the wine cellar.
The Color now goes full-scale eruption and pours from the well back into space. All it has touched collapses into a “blasted heath” of gray-white dust. Ward is the only survivor.
Some months later he overlooks the new Arkham reservoir, from which he will never drink. He hopes the “strange days” are drowned under the water, but who knows?
As he walks away, a weirdly deformed praying mantis flits across the screen….
What’s Cyclopean: We’re in unnamable territory: the color “wasn’t like any color I’d ever seen before.”
The Degenerate Dutch: Kind of embarrassing for a Neopagan to think Mayans “went extinct” rather than being a common ethnic group. There’s also a cat with an unfortunate name—no, not that one, this one is misogynist instead of racist.
Mythos Making: We see a weather report for the entirety of Lovecraft County, where whippoorwills still sing ominously.
Libronomicon: Lavinia’s room is strewn with the detritus of occult-shop clearance racks, including The Book of the Law and an extremely dubious edition of the Necronomicon. Ward, meanwhile, is enjoying Algernon Blackwood’s The Willows.
Madness Takes Its Toll: Nicolas Cage does the Nicolas Cage thing.
The ticket taker was deeply amused by my choice of art house flick. “Well. If you thought the genre of Nicolas Cage as an alpaca farmer was all played out…”
Up to that point, the entirety of my expectation for the movie was that there would be facial expressions. I’m faceblind and picking actors out of a lineup is a dead loss for me, but I can recognize Cage as long as he’s emoting. Now my expectations were increased: there would be facial expressions, and alpacas. Friends, I was not disappointed.
Actually, I was pleasantly surprised. This is a good modern adaptation of Lovecraft’s story, building on the spirit of the original but adding character development, women with personalities, and an African-American pre-reservoir surveyor who gets directly involved with events instead of hearing about them years later (and who alone survives to tell the tale). I’m not actually a big fan of visual horror and spent a couple of slimy, bloody scenes looking carefully at my wife’s shoulder, but if you like that sort of thing there’s a lot of that sort of thing here to like. Some of the slimy, bloody things are even alpacas!
But what about the color? The one that Anne described a few years ago as “top contender for most difficult illustration assignment in history”? That does seem a wee bit challenging to film. The movie’s answer is (1) mostly psychedelic pink, (2) ultrasonic and subsonic sound effects all over the place, making everything feel creepily and subtly wrong, and (3) leaning away from the whole “too terrifyingly alien to comprehend” and toward “under enough stress, we’re all monsters.”
It’s the 21st century, after all, and we’re used to incomprehensible problems forcing themselves into our lives—often several a week. We strain, we crack, we try to pull ourselves together, we make life harder for each other and try to do better the next day, and sometimes we hear words coming out of our mouths that we swore we’d never say. One more goddamn thing…may be the worst horror imaginable.
The Gardners have inherited their farm from Nathan’s abusive father, west of Arkham where the hills rise wild. (Note: The role of New England is played, unconvincingly but gorgeously, by the mountains of Portugal.) The kids seek solace in weed and Neopagan ritual, and Theresa feels undesirable after her mastectomy and stressed trying to broker stocks with a terrible internet connection, and Nathan’s convinced that alpacas are the meat and/or milk source of the future. They’re barely holding it together, and the color slips into all the cracks. We know things are never going back to normal when Nathan screams at his daughter the same insults he recalls his own father using. After that, possession and slimy stuck-together families are just the inevitable denouement.
Along with all this tension and the realization that every time I snap at my kids for the next month I’ll be terrified of alien possession, I enjoyed the film’s fun with the source material. There are whippoorwills, Lavinia Not-Whateley, and Ward reading The Willows while camping (which can’t help his mood but maybe gave him a heads-up). My favorite, though, may be squatter Ezra’s cat G-spot (who is, wait for it, sometimes hard to find). The apparently random addition of a cat with an unfortunate name may be the subtlest, and sharpest, Lovecraft shoutout/callout in the whole movie.
Director Richard Stanley said in an interview with the Austin Chronicle that it was his mother, anthropologist Penny Miller, who introduced him to Lovecraft. She read him “lighter material” like Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath when he was a young child, and he recalls reading “The Color Out of Space” himself at around twelve or thirteen. Later Stanley read Lovecraft to his mother as she was dying of cancer. So, as he concludes, “making [Color] was a way of joining all those dots.”
What eldritch shape, I wonder, did joining those dots yield? Doubtless Jack-Jack would come up with something suitably semi-morphous. Like many horror-movie kids, Jack-Jack interprets his preternatural experiences through the media of crayons and tales about “imaginary friends.” Actor Julian Hilliard, similarly equipped with Coke-bottle glasses, did the same things in Netflix’s Haunting of Hill House, playing the juvenile Luke Crain. In real life, I hope he won’t be forever prejudiced against Victorian manses in the woods.
Also like Hill House, Color updates its source material by substituting a more or less contemporary family for the original imperiled protagonists. It’s a winning strategy in both cases. But while Hill House plays lovingly with the source, it ultimately comes to a conclusion opposed to Shirley Jackson’s. Stanley, time frame and dramatis personae aside, sticks close to the spirit of Lovecraft’s story. While he isn’t “quite ready to cave in to Lovecraft’s dark nihilism,” he acknowledges that “Lovecraft, in all of his work, was essentially about trying to evoke the mood of cosmic horror, of cosmosism, of mankind’s terrible position in the universe.” Meaning that confronted with entities from really Beyond, there’s no giving the Gardners a happy ending.
True, but I was still sorry to see them fatally Colorized, one by one. I was hoping Lavinia would make it out alive, given she’d self-applied a protective spell from the Necronomicon. That’s what you get from consulting bastardized grimoires. Oh well, even our teen witch’s namesake Lavinia Whateley had only an incomplete Necronomicon. Speaking of the Whateleys, I’m interested to read that Stanley hopes to make a “Dunwich Horror” movie.
“Dunwich Horror,” though more complex than “Color,” must in one crucial way be easier to render cinematic—Lovecraft describes its monsters in great detail, and Wilbur Whateley’s alien anatomy mostly comes in Earthly hues. Wilbur’s twin is even more obliging, being invisible most of the time—no problem saving Twin’s big reveal for the climax. Whereas the Color is—just a color beyond human comprehension, and that’s bad—humans are good at color perception and differentiation. So how can a visual artist depict a color that doesn’t exist in our ken? Could even Pickman pull this off?
Forget Pickman. Through his Dreamlands connections, he probably had access to transPlutonian and ultradimensional pigments. Non-ghoul artists must make do with terrestrial palettes. Obviously, the Color isn’t any old shade of red or yellow or blue—it’s a primary color unto itself. How about a sickly green? Hmm, green’s too common a pick for all things alien. A sickly yellow was good enough for Chambers’s King, but that means the King has dibs on it. Orange? Not eldritch enough. Black? Brown? Gray? White? A pearlescent mixture? How about—purple?
No, how about fuchsia? An ungodly mix of purple and pink! Light—energy—that color couldn’t be healthy.
Problem is, fuchsia’s a fairly common color on Earth. One garden book calls it Mother Nature’s favorite, the color flowers often sport in the wild or when they revert from cultivated varieties to original tint. It’s also a principal player in our sunrises and sunsets—I saw a fine fuchsia flush in the western sky coming home from this movie. Quick, some moisturizer!
I guess fuchsia is as good a Color stand-in as any. We can pretend it’s out of Space, and given our perceptive limitations, pretending’s necessary. And possible. Stanley had me flinching every time Fuchsia crept onto his palette, along with the occasional dash of cousin Magenta. Besides, the Color’s real terror is what it does to organic matter, especially animal and human flesh.
The “Thing”-like mutation of the alpacas was bad, but far worse is Stanley’s take on Lovecraft’s Nabby and Thaddeus Gardner, who end up in adjacent attic rooms, screaming and crumbling through the nights. Stanley goes Lovecraft one better by reuniting mother and child into one shuddering mass of tortured flesh. The dark humor of the situation is Nathan screaming at Benny to call 911. The sheer darkness is how the family struggles to take care of the merged ones, toxin-ridden and radiation-blasted and cancers on each other though they’ve become.
It’s nearly impossible to watch. Which must be the point, one of the dots Stanley is connecting from his earliest experience with Lovecraft to his present.
Yet he doesn’t quite give in to dark nihilism, and in the same way Lovecraft doesn’t. Lavinia’s last words are about the beauty of her Color-expanded vision of the universe. We share it with her, a terrible and gorgeous flight across organic black expanses to the fuchsia Center of it all. Repulsion and attraction, fear and wonder.
Hello, old friends. Have a drink. Just maybe not the water.
Next week, join us for Nadia Bulkin’s riff on the events at the Gardner farm: “Violet is the Color of Your Energy.” You can find it in She Walks in Shadows.
Ruthanna Emrys is the author of the Innsmouth Legacy series, including Winter Tide and Deep Roots. Her short story collection, Imperfect Commentaries, is now available from Lethe Press. You can find some of her fiction, neo-Lovecraftian and otherwise, on Tor.com, most recently “The Word of Flesh and Soul.” Ruthanna is online on Twitter and Patreon, and offline in a mysterious manor house with her large, chaotic household—mostly mammalian—outside Washington DC.
Anne M. Pillsworth’s short story “The Madonna of the Abattoir” appears on Tor.com. Her young adult Mythos novel, Summoned, is available from Tor Teen along with sequel Fathomless. She lives in Edgewood, a Victorian trolley car suburb of Providence, Rhode Island, uncomfortably near Joseph Curwen’s underground laboratory.