Although Color Out of Space is based on a 1927 short story by the shovel-faced horror writer H.P. Lovecraft, you might question that provenance when a group of woolly alpacas trots through an early scene. There are no alpacas in the Lovecraft story, nor is there any character on hand there to inform us that they are "the animal of the future." There is, however, just such a character in this movie: an urban refugee named Nathan Gardner, who is rusticating with his wife and three kids on an inherited farm outside of Arkham, Massachusetts—the fictional capital of Lovecraft country. It seems right somehow (or at least why not?) that Nathan should be played by Nicolas Cage. And while this is not Cage in his classic mode of feverish delirium, he nevertheless gives a performance of several passing batshit pleasures.
The picture marks a return to the b-movie scene by South African director Richard Stanley, who has adapted the Lovecraft story with his fellow supernaturalist Scarlett Amaris. Heretofore most favorably known for his 1990 sci-fi film Hardware (which featured Iggy Pop and Lemmy Kilmister), Stanley suffered a legendary implosion of his directorial career after the calamitous, end-over-end disaster of his 1996 H.G. Wells adaptation, The Island of Dr. Moreau. That movie starred Marlon Brando and Val Kilmer, both at their most difficult (Brando insisted on wearing an ice bucket on his head for one scene), and the astonishing story of its making is vividly related in a 2014 documentary called Lost Soul, which I commend to one and all.
Color Out of Space quickly situates us in its world with the introduction of a young man wearing a Miskatonic University sweatshirt (Miskatonic being the Harvard of Lovecraft country). The man's name is Ward (Elliot Knight) and he's doing some surveying for a big dam-building project. When he comes upon a cloaked young woman named Lavinia (Madeleine Arthur) conducting a Wicca ritual on the bank of a woodland river, she finds him cute. Lavinia is Nathan's daughter, and soon Ward is making the acquaintance of her mother, Theresa (Joely Richardson), her pothead brother Benny (Brendan Meyer), and her littlest sibling, Jack (Julian Hilliard). They seem like a normal bunch—or as normal as any bunch might be with Nic Cage at its helm. With a familiar pre-wacko gleam in his eyes, Nathan says, "We're livin' the dream."
Then some sort of meteorite comes screaming down from the heavens and buries itself in Nathan's front yard, right near the stone water well. Nathan has trouble describing the flaming arrival of this thing: "I don't even know what color it was," he tells the inquiring sheriff. (This is a small problem: Lovecraft could get away with pronouncing the color of his meteorite indescribable, but here we can see it, and it's not indescribable at all—it's a sort of psychedelic cranberry-pink.)
Nothing is the same after this. Strangely hued flowers start blossoming near the well, the garden fills up with giant produce (foul-tasting tomatoes the size of softballs), little Jack begins conversing with an unseen "man in the well," and an epidemic of very gnarly body horror breaks out. ("Something's happening to the alpacas!") The effects techniques in these latter scenes are clearly descended from John Carpenter's 1982 The Thing, but it's good to see them being put to use once more, and Stanley finds his own imaginative purposes for them. (Asked what's become of his cat, a local hermit named Ezra, played by Tommy Chong, says, "You might see her, but I don't think you'll recognize her." So true!)
Cage's trademark derangement is minimal for most of the movie. He has a strange smirky scene in which he milks an alpaca, and a queasy moment in which he's grabbed by a ball of alien goop. Mostly, though he's an onlooker, watching the rest of his family drifting away to their awful fates. Finally, though, he snaps into action, and as we watch his blood-slicked fingers dropping 12-gauge shells into the breech of his shotgun and a tide of obsession lapping at his face, it finally feels like old times.