Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Purple prose


Directed by Richard Stanley
Written by Scarlett Amaris and Richard Stanley (based on the short story "The Colour Out of Space" by H.P. Lovecraft)

Spoiler alert: moderate

For all that Lovecraft fans and the Lovecraftian mode have been the generative force behind so many of the greatest horror movies ever made, and they undeniably have been, it's at least as undeniable that most of the stories Lovecraft actually wrote don't exactly scream out for a screen adaptation.  How could they?  They are driven as much by the images he does not describe, or even cannot describe, as the ones he can and does, and his 1927 short story, "The Colour Out of Space," is almost certainly the zenith of the author's baroque tendency to talk around his horrors.  It's a fine story, that ambitiously asks you to imagine the unimaginable—it bears maybe the most Lovecraftian of all Lovecraftian conceits—but it verges on unintentional self-parody constantly throughout its pages, with the number of unthinkables and unknowables and (of course) indescribables each running into the double digits, and, hell, it's not even that long.

Its central premise is the descent to the earthly realm of a meteorite that, amongst other things, exudes a certain color that can be neither named nor defined, and the color brings with it madness and death.  It's possible to read the color as but the first sign of the changes heralded by the meteorite's fall, a subtle alteration of the way the human brain works, followed soon by vastly less subtle alterations of everything else.  Soon, the power within the meteorite manifests itself; it becomes a cancer upon the world.  Inevitably, "Colour" has long seen Lovecraft fans pondering just how much the author could have known about the effects of radiation when he wrote it in 1927, and it can hardly be read today without our own awareness of the horrors of the atomic age yet to come.  He probably did indeed have an inkling; but, in either case, it's maybe the most perfectly chosen (if not the most perfectly executed) of Lovecraft's representations of the terrors of his age.  For despite his contemporary unpopularity, he captured as well as anyone could the low animal fear of men confronted with new discoveries about a universe that had turned out to be so much bigger, older, stranger, and more unholy than their primitive philosophies had taught.

It's cool, then.  It's also pretty defiantly unadaptable to a visual medium, and yet there are five avowed film adaptations of it, plus who knows how many unacknowledged ones (cough, Annihilation).  Go figure.  In fact, I believe it's the single most frequently adapted piece of Lovecraft, despite the enormous reason not to adapt it, present right there in the title.  Which in turn explains why most of those adaptations don't use the title.

But Richard Stanley took up the challenge anyway, and, armed with the passion to make an impossible movie, he finally made his escape from The Island of Dr. Moreau after spending twenty-three years in what is less aptly described as director's jail than a director's oubliette.  The premise is domesticated in very expected ways, not least by updating it to the present (why Lovecraft adaptations do this confounds me, except that literally all of them are contemptibly cheap, and period pieces cost money), and it also abandons the thirdhand, uncertain, decades-distant account of its narrator.  Nevertheless, Lovecraft's prose, and something of the oral history conceit of the original short story, are given their nod through the film's narrator, Ward Phillips (Elliot Knight), a hydrologist who suggests that something very bad has happened out in the woods outside the rural community of Arkham, particularly to a family who made a home out there.  They number five—father Nathan Gardner (Nicolas Cage), mother Theresa (Joely Richardson), daughter Lavinia (Madeleine Arthur), elder son Benny (Brendan Meyer), and younger son Jack (Julian Hilliard)—and they're reasonably normal in function and dysfunction alike, with Ward's first encounter with the family being Lavinia's Wiccan rite out by the river, which is not, in any event, abnormal.  (It's also a reference to "The Dunwich Horror," which I'm sure impresses somebody.)

It's made clear that the decision to decamp from the city to the forest (along with the small, presumably unsuccessful alpaca farm they maintain) was Nathan's project, quite possibly born of a recent family trauma, specifically Theresa's cancer, lately in remission.  Happily, they don't outright resent it, and seem to be willing to humor the experiment—though the unreliability of the satellite Internet plays havoc with Theresa's job as a finance guru, and Benny has taken to smoking copious amounts of pot with a tolerated squatter named Ezra (Tommy Chong, natch), and nobody likes taking care of alpacas, even if they are, as Nathan says, "the animal of the future."

The meteorite falls at night, and brings with it the strange color; it dissipates in a violent lightning storm it seems to have drawn.  Ward takes an interest in the case, partly in pursuit of his duties as a public servant, and partly, one suspects, in pursuit of Lavinia, and all the while increasingly strange things happen to the Gardners, first to their minds, then to their land and livestock, and—at last—to their bodies, in some cases leaving them only barely recognizable as the humans they were.

Color Out of Space does a serviceable job of "The Colour Out of Space," despite the decision to basically make Cronenberg's Amblin movie out of it.  The color itself takes center stage, the hue chosen as a stand-in being a sickly neon magenta, which is far from the worst idea (purple, of course, being a color that exists nowhere outside the human brain), and it plays incongruously—indeed, hideously—against the natural greenery of the Gardners' forest.  (But then, purple's not even Stanley's innovation.  In fact, the mostly—but only mostly—black-and-white German adaptation from 2010 probably had an even better idea about how to visually render Lovecraft's impossible color, if sadly none of the execution.  Die Farbe is a great example of how the slavish adaptation of literature can breed some impressively bad cinema; on the other hand, it's also basically a fan film, so while it's quite awful, maybe I don't need to be a jerk about it.)

Anyway, between that star (Cage) and this scenario (Cage faces crazy evil in the woods), and even if you had no idea that Color was itself also a SpectreVision production, the comparisons to a particular Cage vehicle from 2018 would be extremely hard to avoid.  As it happens, it hangs over Color like a phantom, shaped like executive producer Elijah Wood and whispering urgently in Stanley's ear, "Make me another Mandy, Stanley."  And you can't blame him for that.  Maybe the most interesting thing to think about in context with Mandy, however, is that both films are using gonzo horror as an excuse to perform offbeat experiments in psychotically unmotivated lighting and digital videography, though each film takes their respective experiment to the opposite extreme.  So while Mandy pushed digital toward an uncanny approximation of celluloid that looks more like 70s exploitation cinema than actual 70s exploitation cinema, Color pushes it toward razor-sharp documentary clarity, but with as much searingly wrong color correction as it can get away with while still maintaining some tenuous connection to reality.  That is, at least until it really gets going, at which point it becomes a pink hellstorm roiling away on your screen.  Mandy is more successful at being an excuse for an aesthetic, which is almost needless to say, and Stanley and cinematographer Steve Annis could have benefited from leaning into Color's Mandiness even more: the very best parts of the film are entirely interstitial, when it's disconnected from its characters and soaking up the eeriness of curtains of purple draped across a forest, and trees that are swaying in what may or may not be the wind, though Colin Stetson's lurking, angry score is always on hand to suggest that it isn't the wind that's moving them.

Color is maybe always better when it's smaller and more esoteric, in fact; its most frightening piece of horror qua horror is one of its first, not so much the injury that results as the manic editing that builds up to it and the terrible disconnect between the actor's response and the blood gushing out of her hand.  It is, at least in part, the adaptation problem again: Color is obliged to dramatize events that "Colour" needed only elliptically allude to, and obviously the result was going to be wholesale invention.  At a certain point, Color just falls into a grind, and in its passion to realize imagery that cannot be seen, it winds up offering very little that you haven't seen before, and often seen done better.  It can only speak to a great hunger for cosmic horror and body horror that Color has gained as much traction as it has; it makes me wonder if anybody talking this up as some novel and unprecedented event has actually seen The Thing or Society or The Blob (or, for that matter, From Beyond) even when they specifically reference them as influences.  Which of course they would have to, inasmuch as Color steals back all their Lovecraft-inspired ideas, then presents them as its own in ways that don't remotely do them justice, especially when it takes recourse to some surpassingly bad, late 90s-caliber CGI to get them onto the screen.

Middlingly-accomplished body horror is still watchable, though, and it tends to work as the flavor for what amounts to a haunted house movie with a well-realized family unit placed in supernatural peril.  But again the Lovecraft source material tends to undermine the Lovecraft movie, and the ethereal influence of the color demands personality and plot contortions which wind up extremely muddled before it's over.  Basically, everyone has to go mad, and they do, but they do so in inconsistent ways that, at best, lack strong roots in their characters.  (It's some kind of anti-miracle that Theresa's cancer and the world's feel like they have nothing to do with one another.)

It ultimately winds up with everyone acting in their own individual movie, particularly Nic Cage, who (naturally) is acting in a Nic Cage Movie, given a patriarchal figure who's been sharply bifurcated into pre-meteor and post-meteor versions.  The first is what I might identify as Cage's leftover auditions for Clark Kent, dweebish and earnest and hammily nice.  The second is the more archetypically Cagey notion, mostly a delivery device for hateful non sequiturs, wrapped up in an accent best described as "Martian snake."  (With Lavinia taking on the second most important role in the film and Ward probably the third, Color points at an ugly, almost incestuous brand of sexual proprietorship, but only points, and doesn't conjure up much connection between this rupture in the Gardner family and the rupture in reality, and it's "about" it only to the very, very minimal extent that Lovecraft would be incredibly incensed to have his work brought even this close to an interracial relationship.  It's meta in an interesting way, but it's airless and effectively irrelevant.)  Anyway, Cage can be fun, but he occupies a register the movie doesn't much know what to do with, whereas every other character is simply abandoned, one by one, to the infecting arbitrariness of the color.  This tends to turn the whole back half into an exercise in extraordinarily vignettish horror, and raises questions about why the film spent its first hour idling with its pleasantly-ordinary family dynamic, set against a much subtler backdrop of creepiness, if it was only going to throw out virtually all of the work its long first act performed.

It's too much to say that the turn toward incoherence signals the film's failure, given that incoherence was almost certainly the conscious goal, but it does start to grow tiresome before the visually overwhelming ending gets the film back on its rails—it's never terrifically imaginative even here, but it is, at last, scary and purposeful and visually punishing in the ways it needed to be, and in ways, e.g., purple CG mantises are not.

Score: 6/10

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