On Friday nights, IndieWire After Dark gives a feature-length performance to celebrate fringe cinema in the streaming age.
First, the spoiler-free pitch for an editor’s midnight movie – something weird and wonderful from every era of film that deserves our memory.
Then the spoiler-filled aftermath, as experienced by the unwitting editor attacked by this week’s recommendation.
The Playing Field: This is what you get when alpaca etiquette is ignored
Every time I watch Color Out of Space, I remind myself to celebrate the fact that none of my current roles involve caring for alpacas (either domestic or commercial). Despite alien llamas’ unofficial status as the Rolls Royce of even-toed ungulates, Richard Stanley’s 2019 horror film makes raising them seem an inconvenience that rivals the appearance of unspeakable cosmic evils. Who on earth has the time to test unpasteurized alpaca milk for fennel? While the majority of Nathan Gardner’s (Nicolas Cage) troubles in Color Out of Space stem from an asteroid crashing into his backyard and possessing his family with the pink essence of evil, it’s fair to wonder if he would have been able to get things under control better without the constant thorn in his side that his beloved alpacas caused him.
Color Out of Space fits squarely into the much-publicized Cage renaissance, which has seen the actor lend his talents to some of the strangest indie films of the last half-decade. From the arthouse horror of Mandy and the comic camp of Willy’s Wonderland to the meta-humor of The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, Cage created a legendary second act by being one of the few movie stars willing , taking risks on strange projects. An adaptation of an HP Lovecraft story – an author so unfilmable that even Guillermo del Toro had difficulty bringing his work to the screen – directed by a filmmaker who has been on the rise since being fired from The Island of Dr. Moreau” escaped the limelight, it definitely fits the bill.
Like so many Lovecraft stories, Color Out of Space is about the idea that the cosmos is full of profound evils that our feeble human minds cannot possibly visualize or understand. This often makes it impossible to adapt his work for the screen, because an artistic representation of his creatures would completely miss the point. But Color Out of Space is Lovecraft in easy mode, as the story is set on Earth and largely consists of a recognizable human family as confused as we are about their cosmic enemies. The film centers on the Gardners, a reasonably close-knit household who decide to give up city life and live on their late grandfather’s farm – only to find their lives turned upside down when a bright pink asteroid blows in Invades their water supply and changes their personality beyond detection.
“Color Out of Space” contains plenty of cage moments, including one of the wildest cinematic uses of heirloom tomatoes in recent memory. But unlike many of Cage’s recent midnight films, the film never gives the feeling that his existence is just an excuse for him to devour landscapes. His performance is initially quite reserved – even if it occasionally sounds as if his suburban dad schtick is the worst Donald Trump impression of all time. In a sea of wild Cage characters, Color Out of Space stands out because he simply plays a guy who has the weirdness happened.
But that doesn’t mean the film lacks “midnight movie” glory. From the trippy neon visuals to the presence of Tommy Chong as a hippie squatter named Ezra, Color Out of Space ticks a lot of counterculture boxes. While it’s destined to live on as one of Cage’s smaller cinematic experiments, it’s a fascinating look at the way filmmakers can portray complicated ideas that are theoretically impossible to visualize. Just as Lovecraft intended, it’s the kind of film that sticks with you, reminding us that truly unspeakable horrors could await us in the next life – and that one should never adopt an alpaca without the work that comes with it to understand correctly. —CZ
The consequences: Can someone please take the dog away from me?
As I watched Color Out of Space while my dog slept on my legs and my cat played with my hair, the corduroy couch that anchored my living room suddenly took on a gelatinous feel. “A dream you dream alone is a dream,” Nathan told his wife. “A dream dreamed together is a reality.” Let’s hope my pets and I don’t share nightmares.
It’s borderline annoying to reduce horror films to metaphors for generational trauma, existential dread, and/or existential fear exorcised by generational trauma. But this magenta misadventure in community-based Cronenberg-ing doesn’t so much confront these themes on the nose as stare them down the barrel of a shotgun. The idea that we are all connected is both comforting and frightening. Neighborhood help and family support are one thing; You scratch my nine-headed alpaca, I’ll scratch yours. But sharing the anger of our innermost demons is a consequence of this closeness.
Lavinia (Madeleine Arthur) pleads, “Dad, you’re hurting me,” to which Nathan replies, “Honey, that’s not me.” No, I’m not a monster. “I know I’m not my father” – while actively dragging his daughter up the stairs by her hair – was just as shocking as the revelation that Theresa (Joely Richardson*) and Jack (Julian Hilliard) had been drawn into a twisted state literal, biological interpretation of Paul Simon’s “Mother-Child Reunion” by Fallen Star.
(*It’s worth noting that Richardson also starred in Event Horizon, another epic Lovecraftian horror series that happened to be last week’s IndieWire After Dark favorite. Our compliments to the hella dedicated Scream Queen; long may she continue to mutate. )
Brilliantly structured, “Color Out of Space” uses the first act to create individual universes for each of its main characters: Nathan has his farm; Theresa has her job; Benny (Brendan Meyer) has his weed; Lavinia has her faith; and Jack has the innocence of childhood. At the same time, we learn about their shared struggles: ever-present emotions such as uncertainty, fear and sadness. Only when the self-protective worlds of these five family members begin to merge – first as combative psychological conflicts between relatives à la “Hereditary” and then as literally glowing connective tissue – does the horror of oneness with humanity emerge.
Just like it happened for the Gardners (such a biblical last name, don’t you think?), the pink asteroid of life happens for each of us who comes from no place or time that we can describe. One day you are enveloped in darkness. The next moment you will be ripped from that darkness and learn to fear it. Where do I come from? Where am I going? The terror of these two questions, one in fact, underlies almost everything that frightens genre fans and people who do great things. When we watch Michael Myers chasing Laurie Strode around with a butcher knife, we realize that getting stabbed would “hurt,” yes. But even the most scared cat can understand that the pain is only temporary if you survive it. Instead, it’s the question of what becomes of the horror victims once the light leaves their eyes, which truly freeze. Does the pain stop when you stop?
What makes “Color Out of Space” particularly frightening isn’t that it understands or represents our fear of death better than other films. It is that it elegantly mixes the unanswerable questions of death with the murderous mundanity of the clueless search for peace in life. Since we have no control over what came before us or what happens after we die, “trying to be happy” is the best coping mechanism anyone can offer. Go to the sticks and grow tomatoes. Hug the kids and get the bonus. Smoke your joint and make friends with the strange neighbor. Hell, read the Necronomicon, mark your hair purple, and hook up with the hot hydrologist. You just can’t think for a second that these earthly actions will save you from the pitch-black truth that, at least from Lovecraft’s perspective, we know nothing.
Countless horror films have derived similar horrors from depictions of loneliness. But we in the midnight movie room choose to find refuge in facing our fears together. So as you digest this spectacular film (a bloody fantastic choice, Zilko!), don’t be afraid to hug your loved ones and live in the moment. Seeing “Color Out of Space” as a light-hearted film about cosmic evolution is just a matter of perspective. We assume that there is suffering when the edges of one thing’s existence are irrevocably entangled with the existence of another thing. But we cannot and will never know for sure. What’s worse: being shot on the porch as unassimilated Nathan? Or like life, whatever has become of the fuchsia Lavinia? Nobody can tell. But whether dog, cat or writer, all things cry when they are born. —AF
Anyone brave enough to join in the fun can stream “Color Out of Space” on Shudder. IndieWire After Dark posts midnight movie recommendations every Friday at 11:59 p.m. ET. Read more about our crazy suggestions…