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Nicolas Cage might be the only working actor who can do justice to the stories of horror writer H. P. Lovecraft. In works like The Call of Cthulhu and The Colour Out of Space, the writer conjures unfathomable terrors, with madness as the only logical recourse for the characters who encounter them. That is what Cage does in Color Out of Space, a modern update on Lovecraft’s short story, directed by Richard Stanley. There are some rough edges here, mostly due to the challenge in adapting borderline unfilmable material, but Stanley and Cage capture the disquieting wonder of the unknown.

After a brief prologue, Stanley and his co-screenwriter Scarlett Amaris introduce us to the Gardner family of Arkham, Massachusetts. Cage plays Nathan, a prickly man who left the city to live off the land, while his wife Theresa (Joely Richardson) is recovering from cancer. Together they attempt to raise produce and livestock, with Nathan turning most of his attention to alpacas because he thinks they are the future of American agriculture. That is not even close to the weirdest thing that happens: After a meteor lands near the couple’s property, everything around them starts to go haywire. The crops start to die, and the family starts to go wild.

Many horror films opt for a dark palette, as if to match the creepy subject matter, and Stanley has done the exact opposite, to intense and vivid effect. Hues of pink and purple oversaturate the screen, creating an unnerving depiction of psychedelia. By the time the body horror gets underway and characters transform into grotesque humanoids, Stanley wisely abandons any sense of decorum or good taste. 

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When Cats opened in theaters last month, movie-goers talked to The Washington Post about how they took drugs and saw the film. Color Out of Space also invites that experience, but the key difference between Cats and this film, of course, is that Stanley’s approach is intentional.

The deteriorating dynamics among the Gardner family are not nearly as frightening as the creatures they become. Cage is perhaps too fierce here, so his early scenes already have a mania to them. By the time his wife loses her humanity and ability to form words, there is nowhere for his performance to go. Tommy Chong is more plausible as Nathan’s burnout neighbor, Ezra, who accepts the consequences of the meteor with a mix of resignation and reverence. Nathan’s children are slightly saner than their father, although their performances end on blubbery tears and little else. That is the challenge in adapting Lovecraft: The nature of on-screen depiction makes literal things that are only teased on the page.

Color Out of Space is Stanley’s first feature since he attempted mainstream success with The Island of Dr. Moreau in 1996. That film was plagued by studio interference and a difficult cast: Marlon Brando played Dr. Moreau, although he had open contempt for the material and could not learn his lines. Now working with a smaller budget outside the studio system, Stanley can better explore the themes and ideas of writers like Lovecraft and H. G. Wells. There is an admirable lack of restraint in the grotesqueries that Stanley is able to depict. Like the most interesting horror filmmakers, he explores his own anxieties and hang-ups to allow us to see why they are so deeply frightening to him. 

Color Out of Space opens Friday at E Street Cinema. 

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