Color Out of Space (dir. Richard Stanley, 2019), adapting an H.P. Lovecraft story and starring an extraordinarily hammy Nicholas Cage as the paterfamilias of a rural Massachusetts farmhouse, is a satisfactory, somewhat frustrating genre picture that had the potential for much more which is now touring the independent film circuit nationwide. While the special effects are inventive and there are a few gasp-inducing scenes, it could have done better.
After a meteor crashes into the family plot, bringing with it an alien life-force that spreads out from the crater and poisons the family well, the family is terrorized by an elemental presence that colors the air with phosphorescent pink ambience that seems at some points to mimic a mid-1980s music video and, in other instances, to plagiarize a Windows 95 screensaver.
Almost any sane critic dealing with Lovecraft is compelled to acknowledge at the outset the author was a manic racist and xenophobe, loony enough that he had a prejudice against not only BIPOC people and Eastern Europeans (who in his day were excluded from the fold of whiteness) but also the Dutch. In Providence, the author’s hometown, there is a cottage industry of weird fiction and fan subculture that has sought to capitalize on the scribe’s persona as a tourism marker while (with sometimes buffoonish effect) avoiding his more unsavory personality quirks. The annual NecronomiCon has attracted the occasional crank speakers who end up spouting off blithering idiocy, as was the case in August 2015 with scholar Robert Price, who proclaimed unto the congregation at the moment Da’ish was flooding the headlines:
If we can manage to look past [Lovecraft’s] racism, we will manage to see something deeper and quite valid. Lovecraft envisioned not only the threat that science posed to our anthropomorphic smugness, but also the ineluctable advance of the hordes on non-western anti-rationalism to consume a decadent, euro-centric west. Superstition, barbarism and fanaticism would sooner or later devour us. It appears now that we’re in the midst of this very assault. The blood lust of jihadists threatens Western Civilization and the effete senescent West seems all too eager to go gently into that endless night. Our centers of learning have converted to power politics and an affirmative action epistemology cynically redefining truth as ideology. Logic is undermined by the new axiom of the ad hominem. If white males formulated logic, then logic must be regarded as an instrument of oppression. Lovecraft was wrong about many things, but not, I think, this one. It’s the real life horror of Red Hook.
Graphic novelist Alan Moore, previously an activist with the British Anti-Nazi League (1977-81), has authored several titles set in the Lovecraft universe. Rather than avoid or revel in these wretched worldviews, he grabbed Cthulhu by the tentacles. Speaking about his Neonomicon (2010), he explained:
I wanted to do a story that modernised Lovecraft – that didn’t rely upon that 1930s atmosphere – and that modernised him successfully, at least in my opinion… One [idea] was to actually put back some of the objectionable elements that Lovecraft himself censored, or that people since Lovecraft, who have been writing pastiches, have decided to leave out. Like the racism, the anti-Semitism, the sexism, the sexual phobias which are kind of apparent in all of Lovecraft’s slimy phallic or vaginal monsters… I thought, let’s put all of the unpleasant racial stuff back in, let’s put sex back in. Let’s come up with some genuinely ‘nameless rituals’- let’s give them a name. So those were the precepts that it started out from, and I decided to follow wherever the story lead. It is one of the most unpleasant stories I have ever written.
This critical lens seems quite fair to apply to this picture. The director angles towards addressing racial politics by having the heroic scientist Ward Phillips played by handsome Afro-British actor Elliot Knight. But this feels like a rather shallow effort after Jordan Peele’s Get Out demonstrated how powerful a horror film becomes when racism is added to the mix. Lavinia (played by Madeline Arthur) clearly has the hots for Ward, compelling Nathan (Cage) to some particularly porcine postures. Am I asking too much by suggesting that adding a full-throated paranoia from dad, sourced to Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks, might have made him a better character, especially given today’s political landscape? Horror films and the Romantic genre they sprang from have only succeeded when they refracted contemporaneous social concerns in a fashion that not only gave us a preliminary fright but also a lingering foreboding about the topic long after the story ended, be it Frankenstein’s critique of the dehumanizing Industrial Revolution, Dawn of the Dead‘s rebuttal to American consumerism, or, as was the case with Peele, the smugness of white liberal racism.
The casting is somewhat novel, particularly with Tommy Chong in his archetypical hippie role (good God he looks old). But something clearly is missing here that does not seem too absurd to consider. The film simply lacks a heart, rendering the proceedings into a rather standard haunted house in the woods pic.