Wednesday, 11 March 2020

Color out of Space

Richard Stanley, 2020, USA

Screenplay: Richard Stanley & Scarlet Amaris

As I was leaving the screening, a guy in the lobby was beseeching his friends “But didn’t you like the motif?”, as if imploring them to find something serious about the film to like. It’s true that the audience I saw it with seemed to have come for a Nicolas Cage comedy. Someone laughed inappropriately as soon as Cage first appeared as he projected Normal Paternal Love for all he’s worth from the porch, with more-or-less a post-it-note on his forehead saying: “Just Wait For The Crazy!” It’s true that as the film progressed, he could hardly utter anything without the audience being amused, even when I could detect nothing amusing. Anything to do with the alpacas was met with laughter, and the alpaca milking caused outright hysteria. Yet to be honest, that scene played as a comedy diversion to show Daddy Cage’s lovable ridiculousness. They certainly seemed to approach Cage as a performing seal.

But therein is the dilemma. I am not sure how much to judge any seriousness or comedy in the film because the audience response was too defining. It seems that Nicolas Cage can no longer be taken seriously as an actor because an audience just wants him to do the crazzee thing. You know: Nicolas Cage turned up to 11. Any of the film’s ideas and sincerity are left in the dust. I couldn’t help wondering what the experience would have been with a different lead? Maybe I am not just one who finds entertainment in Cage overacting for its own sake – arguably, ‘Mandy’ finds Cage finding a right balance – and I couldn’t help thinking it overbalances the film here. The peaches scene turns into a comedy routine when it might have been something chilling. And sometimes Cage’s line-readings just beg to be jokes.

But it’s not helped by Stanley and Scarlett Amaris’ script which offers a hilarious line “Like you dealt with the alpacas?” (this brought the house down) and that tired trope of formerly dedicated dad psychotically rampaging and shouting about family values (it’s not one that convinces me). Or that it descends into trite horror punchlines like “Feed your mother.” I couldn’t judge if the audience was misreading, or if the film was genuinely tongue-in-cheek, or just bad, or trying for tongue-in-cheek bad-it’s good. You see, I felt the body-merging, for example, very icky and truly horrible with the resonance of themes about becoming your parents and the generation conflict laid out earlier: when it has all that, I don’t worry so much about the quality of effects. Others just laughed, although I did hear an “Ugh!” of disgust or two.

Now, as far as absurdism goes, that's inherent in HP Lovecraft where you fully embrace it for the cosmic horror. But then I was surprised to read Lovecraft's Herbert West stories and found the outrageous humour of 'Re-Animator' fully inherent in the original stories. But some of the core dreadfulness of the 'Color out of Space' seems missing here. It makes one realise that the balance of cartoonishness and straight chills and domestic involvement of Kubrick's 'The Shining' is quite an achievement and something along those lines would have best served this material. Of course, Jack Nicholson gurns his way though that one too, but that performance isn't allowed to detract from the understatement and creepiness that pervades the film.

'Color out of Space' seemed to be a film of two halves, and every time I felt the audience was misinterpreting, the film would deliver a bad line or start riffing on a deliberately outrageous Cage freak-out. On the other side the rest of the cast seemed to be taking it seriously and going through the motions of the kind of colourful, entertaining, a little bland, but not necessarily good horror of the kind that went straight to video in the eighties.

Which is where Richard Stanley made a name for himself with an excellent, atmospheric low-budget genre flick called ‘Hardware’ that far exceeded its budget with inventiveness, brio and a distinctive soundtrack (a personal favourite). His follow-up ‘Dust Devil’ was somewhat sabotaged by the studio, it seems, but still has cult appeal. His attempt to make ‘The Island of Dr. Moreau’ is the stuff of legend* and, it would seem, this more-or-less broke him and his career. So his return was met with a lot of cult goodwill and expectation. I guess I expected ‘Color Out of Space’ to be something like HP Lovecraft via what Panos Cosmatos has been doing: certainly ‘Hardware’ and ‘Dust Devil’ were trippy and atmospheric at the very least. What I wasn’t expecting was something average and perhaps overbalanced into parody by its lead.

·       * Chronicled in the documentary ‘Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr Moreau’ (David Gregory, 2014 USA) available to stream on Shudder.

No comments: