‘Color Out of Space’ loses soul amid sarcasm

Scott Powell

Watching the cast in Richard Stanley’s “Color Out of Space” trying to convince the audience that their characters are regular, relatable humans feels a little bit like watching a man covered in cotton balls trying to convince you he’s a cloud.

“Of course we’re a typical American family; we get mad at each other sometimes and also complain about our dad cooking pot roast.” 

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“Of course I’m a cloud; there are puffy white things all over me. What else could I be?”

A solid half of the scenes in this movie seem to be included for absolutely no reason apart from signaling to the audience that these people we are watching are indeed fun Americans just like us and not the dry, one-dimensional stock characters described in the short story upon which the film is based. We see them going to work, milking alpacas, getting in trouble for smoking weed in the barn and all those other activities that we standard humanoids engage in.

Honestly, if Stanley was so desperate to show the audience that these people were indeed people, he might as well have suspended neon signs above each actor with an arrow pointing down and the word “average Homo sapien” spelled out in flashing green light bulbs. This would have been much subtler and would give him more time to actually tell the story that he’s trying to tell. Instead, the audience is forced to sit through 8,000 different scenes showing the Gardner family acting normally.

But it’s not just the aggressive, contrived character development that makes “Color Out of Space” the cosmic, chromatic flop that it is. Rather, these scenes are demonstrative of a much greater failing: the film’s lack of understanding of its source material.

The original story by H.P. Lovecraft is not a character-driven piece. Lovecraft was not a character-driven writer, and it was not his characters or our concern for them as readers that made his stories so frightening. Rather, in his work, including “Color Out of Space,” Lovecraft’s characters were mere accessories to a much larger world that was, as a whole, terrifying.

There was no distinction between them and the unfeeling, uncaring horror that they faced, unlike in traditional horror movies. They were deliberately flat and soulless because that soullessness added to the all-encompassing, inescapable sense of dread that defined Lovecraft’s style.

The problem with “Color Out of Space” is that it equates Lovecraft’s distinct brand of horror with that of classic Hollywood then tries to flip it into a self-referential, over-the-top, trashy mockery of the latter. But the two styles are vastly different.

The horror flicks that came out of the Hollywood studio system centered around themes relating to the individual vs. the natural world. Their impact was derived from the audience’s empathy for the hero and fear of the extreme odds that hero was up against. They were far more mythic and folkloric in structure, driven by character and story rather than the atmosphere.

Lovecraft’s work, on the other hand, is not terrifying because of what its characters are up against, but rather the uncanny, inescapable strangeness and wrongness of the world they inhabit.

He took the sense of desperate insanity that traditional ghost stories and folk tales conveyed through narrative conflict and that Gothics such as Poe and Shelley conveyed through language and translated it into images, environments and visual landscapes. The horror did not arise as much from his characters’ conflicts with the worlds they inhabited, but his readers’ conflicts with that world and the creeping, squirming discomfort it instilled in them.

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The problem with “Color Out of Space” is that it equates Lovecraft’s distinct brand of horror with that of classic Hollywood, then tries to flip it into a self-referential, over-the-top, trashy mockery of the latter. But the two styles are vastly different.

While this “weird fiction” style caught on quickly in horror fiction, it took some time for it to be translated to the silver screen. The films that came to define the classic horror genre, though sometimes inspired by the work of writers like Poe and Lovecraft, were more oriented toward narrative over style. They were B-movies designed to inspire shock in their audience through well-made plots, not haunting visual spectacles.

It wasn’t until the ’60s-’80s, with films like “Rosemary’s Baby,” “The Exorcist,” “Psycho” and “The Shining,” that horror movies began experimenting with more enigmatic, introspective film techniques that evoked emotions more akin to those inspired by Lovecraft’s fiction.

“Color Out of Space,” however, doesn’t recognize, appreciate or respect this distinction. From a stylistic standpoint, the film is composed as a brazenly ironic quasi-parody of traditional horror movies and their all-too-familiar tropes: a movie in the vein of “Cabin in the Woods,” “Zombieland” or “Rubber.” The problem is that the original Lovecraft story doesn’t conform to these conventions in the first place, so the film’s irony doesn’t have any ground to stand on.

Humor comes from exposing the meaninglessness of the symbols and practices that we have come to consider sacred through years of repetition, but the atmospheric, expressionistic style that defines Lovecraft’s writing is relatively new to horror cinema. It’s a style that, when properly translated to the screen, is still very impactful and resonant with modern audiences — just look at Ari Aster’s “Hereditary” or “Midsommar.”

Like Lovecraft’s fiction, the terror of these movies is conveyed almost entirely through atmosphere rather than plot. The characters aren’t up against the traditional antagonists of conventional horror films, like zombies, werewolves or aliens. Instead, they are simply existing in a world that, for some undiagnosable reason, seems deeply, terrifyingly wrong or a world that is haunted by an aggressive, prying emptiness and silence that we simply can’t bear.

It’s this torturous, eternal calm that is captured in Lovecraft’s fiction, especially in “Color Out of Space.” The villain is literally the color pink. This is not your conventional jump scare-inducing baddie. It’s simply something that’s there, something that does nothing but lurk, but whose sheer unfamiliarity is nonetheless powerful enough to instill in us a deep sense of dread.

It makes us self-aware. The simple fact that there is something bigger than us, beyond our control and that can very easily kill us is enough to drive us insane, especially in today’s society where we have become so certain of our own autonomy and power over the forces of nature.

In the film, however, the sublime horror of this villain is dampened and recharacterized as nothing more than a flashier version of “The Blob,” a villain that terrorizes its victims with explosive ambushes rather than silent, foreboding psychological torment. Thus the weight of its power is replaced with cheap, gimmicky tricks, made all the more cheap and gimmicky by their awareness of their own cheap gimmickiness.

Despite its solid source material, “Color Out of Space” fails to effectively understand or capture the psychological dread of Lovecraft’s original story and relies instead on trite tongue-in-cheek antics to justify its existence. It could have been a captivating piece of cinema but is nothing more than a clunky, unambitious disappointment.

Scotty Powell can be reached at entertainment@collegian.com or on Twitter @scottysseus.