“West of Arkham the hills rise wild,” begins H.P. Lovecraft’s famous short story “Color Out of Space” and the 2020 film adaptation of the same name. The movie starts off with the story’s entrancing opening passage in which its main character, a water surveyor, details a particularly creepy woodland in Massachusetts. The new film sets this monologue to shots of a dark, nearly otherworldly forest which seems almost normal, if not for certain patches of strange trees and some deep shadows. This scene captures what makes Lovecraft’s work so haunting. His terrors typically remain unseen, but are always felt, lurking in the dark.
The movie departs from all of this pretty quickly. From the second scene on, “Color Out of Space” becomes a mess. Essentially, the story is this: a meteorite lands on a family’s farm and carries with it a life force that mutates the flora and fauna around it and grows like a cancer. While this sounds like an intriguing premise (and makes for an amazing short story), the movie wastes it. Highbrow, literary sci-fi horror is shredded into B-movie carnage and camp. Basically, it’s as if the team behind “The Room” made “Annihilation.” The dialogue is atrocious, the characters and their decisions are nonsensical and, along with some terrible CGI, frequently threaten to derail the entire movie.
Yet Nicholas Cage (“Mandy”), who plays the father, does what he does best and raises this seemingly destined-to-be forgotten schlock to another sublime level. He gives the most Nicholas Cage performance possible, filling every one of his scenes with (often unintentional) hilarity. His wild-eyed, screaming, lisping, expletive-hurling, alpaca-milking persona is so extreme that it will live in one’s brain long after the plot and all its details have disappeared.
Sadly, however, when Cage isn’t on screen, no one else can carry his manic weight. The scenes without Nicholas Cage in “Color Out of Space” mostly drag, with characters exchanging abysmal dialogue and making exaggerated facial expressions to match. The screenwriters also must have determined that a modern audience would have difficulty following the relatively simple story, so multiple characters spell out what exactly is happening multiple times, draining the situation of any kind of Lovecraftian mystery. Even if certain images still retain some shocking, cosmic horror, they’re frequently deflated by overused CGI and bad acting. When a hippie character played by Tommy Chong (“Cheech and Chong”) tells another character in painstaking detail what the alien inside the meteorite is doing, one can almost feel Lovecraft turning in his grave.
Yet somehow, again and again, Nicholas Cage shows up to remind us to keep watching. His insanity frequently and impossibly eclipses itself in each progressive scene. He seems to be in an entirely different film, though what kind is impossible to tell. His personas change on a dime, and he flits between conserative farmer, drunken dope, psycho murderer and tragic hero over the course of the story. If anything’s from an alien planet, it’s definitely this deranged shapeshifter.
“Color Out of Space” would be a great movie for late on Halloween night, after a party or two, when one can just sit back, half asleep, to watch the wild, blood-soaked hilarity. It’s pretty terrible but, thanks to Nicholas Cage’s heroic efforts, pretty terrible in all the best ways.