Warning: if you haven’t seen Color Out of Space, this review is basically one big spoiler.
Colour Out of Space is an odd fit among H.P. Lovecraft’s works. It’s about ordinary people — farmers, to be precise — on whom something fell. They were just going about their business, herding sheep and sowing crops and whatever farmers do, when a meteorite landed on their farm and infected everything with an alien presence. They were driven insane and died and the land was barren from then on.
It’s an odd bit of Lovecraft, because the premise of most Lovecraft is that if you go looking too deeply into the nature of reality, you’re asking for trouble. At the very least, you’ll suffer insanity at your sheer insignificance. More likely you’ll suffer some horrible death by the indifferent cosmos to be recounted by another narrator. There’s a hint of this in the framing device for Colour Out of Space. A dude talks to another dude who has a bit of first-hand knowledge about what happened to the farmers 40 or 50 years ago. Like a lot of Lovecraft, the story itself is once-removed from the primary events, presumably because those events are too sanity-blasting for direct contact. But neither of the dudes in Colour Out of Space is too adversely affected. Instead, the real victims of this Lovecraftian yarn are the farmers.
The fate of the farmers — the family name is Gardner, which is a classic example of Lovecraft’s subtlety — is centered around the household well. The alien infection seeps from the meteorite into the well water. The concept of polluted water infecting the land and its people might imply Colour Out of Space is an early cautionary tale about pollution. A Shrieking Well to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. They’re about what gets into our water, and therefore our food, and therefore our bodies. We assimilate the environment. We are what we eat. So what happens when what we eat is perverted? In the case of Lovecraft, the perversion is an alien intelligence. But everyone knows that horror is a metaphor. I doubt Lovecraft knew or even cared about pollution — these days, such a quaint word, pollution — so it’s left to us to discern the metaphor (hence the currently fashionable objection that Lovecraft’s stories are racist).
And, really, I’m not sure Lovecraft’s usual metaphor applies to Colour Out of Space. Simple people crushed by the cosmos isn’t really his thing. He’s more a headmaster in the “if you gaze long into an abyss” school of horror. His victims asked for it by gazing long where they shouldn’t have gazed. The cosmic indifference we’ve learned from secular science is the flip side of enlightenment. Better to stay ignorant, Lovecraft implies. But Colour Out of Space is atypical because the blissfully incurious farmers didn’t do anything to deserve their fates. They were simple people who didn’t do anything to deserve madness or death. They were just collateral damage of the maddeningly indifferent cosmos.
Now consider Richard Stanley’s movie adaptation, released this year minus Lovecraft’s anglophile U in color. It takes liberties with Lovecraft’s Colour Out of Space in order to both update it to modern times and make it more immediate as a story. So it’s about the Gardners themselves instead of someone discovering the story of the Gardners a few decades later.
(This is part of what sets it apart from Huan Vu’s more straightforward 2010 movie adaptation. Vu’s parents were refugees from Vietnam, so it’s no surprise his adaptation includes the fallout of war as part of the story. Specifically, World War II. Vu was born, raised, and educated as a filmmaker in Germany. It’s an intriguing movie, and Vu’s raw talent is evident, but being faithful to Lovecraft is almost never a good idea for a movie. There are, perhaps, two exceptions.)
Stanley doesn’t entirely abandon the framing device, but the way he uses it gives the movie a subtext entirely different from the short story. The movie begins with a voiceover, accompanied by deliciously eerie footage of the woods. The text is directly from Lovecraft’s Colour Out of Space:
West of Arkham the hills rise wild. There are valleys with deep woods no axe has ever cut. There are dark narrow glens where the trees slope fantastically, where thin brooklets trickle without ever having caught the glimpse of sunlight. When I went into the hills and vales to survey for the new reservoir, they told me the place was evil. They told me this in Arkham, and because that is a very old town, full of witch legends, I thought the evil must be something which grandams had whispered to children through centuries. Then I saw the dark westward tangle of glens and slopes for myself and ceased to wonder at anything besides its own elder mystery.
Note that these lines predate any meteorite falling or any farmers being killed. When the narrator begins his survey, he hears the local legends before any of the story’s events have happened. According to the movie, there’s already something evil in the hills and valleys. There’s no disputing that the evil has been whispered to children through centuries. The “then” in the next line is simply a timing adverb. The narrator hears about the evil, then he sees it himself. The movie itself is the transition.
But in the short story, the local legends about the hills and valleys are a direct result of the events of a few decades ago, when the meteorite fell, killed the Gardners, and created a “blasted heath.” The narrator says he thought the stories were centuries old, but as he comes to find out, they’re relatively recent. It’s worth noting a line omitted in the movie, in which the narrator is puzzled at the term “blasted heath.”
…I thought the evil must be something which grandams had whispered to children through centuries. The name “blasted heath” seems to me very odd and theatrical, and I wondered how it had come into the folklore of a Puritan people. Then I saw the dark westward tangle of glens and slopes for myself and ceased to wonder at anything besides its own elder mystery.
The narrator hears about the evil, he’s curious about the phrase “blasted heath”, then he sees the heath himself and is no longer curious about the phrase. The use of “then” isn’t a timing adverb so much as a conjunction. Furthermore, the “blasted heath” in the movie is never called a “blasted heath”. It’s a powerful visual at the end of the movie, but it doesn’t exist when the narrator opens the movie, so we’re left with legends about evil that are centuries old. Stanley’s Color Out of Space establishes that something is already wrong in the hills west of Arkham, long before any alien intelligence has arrived. The grandams have been telling their children about it for centuries.
After this voiceover, the movie shifts perspective to the Gardners. In the opening scene, Lavinia is performing a Wiccan ritual with two requests. The first is to purge her mother’s cancer. The second is to take her away.
“And last but not least, get me out of here,” she implores.
Lavinia is no farmer. She’s a city girl who hates that her family has moved into the country. As a recent arrival, she hasn’t been told by any grandams that these woods are evil.
When the meteorite actually lands, it’s not your classic meteorite, streaking laterally across the sky and slamming into the ground. Instead, it descends vertically from a hole in the sky, more akin to a UFO than a falling rock. As this happens, Stanley includes shots of Lavinia sleeping among the trappings of her ritual, such as burnt herbs, pentagrams, and a paperback copy of the Necronomicon. Is this her prayer being answered?
“Think this is the result of your little ritual yesterday?” Ward asks the next day as everyone considers the weird rock in the front yard.
She laughs and replies, “If only.”
Cause and effect is clearly implied. The movie has already established that there’s something evil about these woods. It then directly transitions into Lavinia’s ritual in the middle of those woods. She is arguably the occult equivalent of a Lovecraftian protagonist stumbling onto secret knowledge. But she knew the risk. When her brother glibly refers to her rituals as curses, a flicker of doubt crosses her face as she explains that she doesn’t do curses because they come back on you.
As things go from bad to worse to full-blown horror movie, Lavinia attempts another ceremony, ritually scarring herself. Among the scars is a shape in the middle of her forehead, where you might find a mystical third eye. The reveal at the end of the movie, immediately before Lavinia is presumably transported to an alien world, is that this shape is the exact shape as a ruined altar presiding over the alien world. In her scarring ritual, we might assume Lavinia has seen that altar and carved it into her forehead. Whatever the case, she is directly linked to the alien world. There’s no reason her first ritual wouldn’t also have a connection, especially when performed someplace that’s been evil for centuries. Is it a coincidence that she named her horse Comet? Or a literary device?
Consider, too, Lavinia’s requests. The first is to save her mother from cancer. Technically, this happens. Theresa Gardner is not afflicted with cancer. She is, however, afflicted with a horrific analog to cancer, in which her son is assimilated into her like a tumor. It’s a grotesque reverse birth.
As for Lavinia’s request to leave this place, boy, does she leave it. But, tragically, only after realizing that she belongs here.
“I’m not going with you,” she tells Ward when he tries to rescue her.
“You can’t stay here,” he insists.
“I live here,” she tells him, cradling her dead father’s body. From “get me out of here” to “I live here.” In a moment, her third eye will open, reveal the alien world, and pull her along a cosmic umbilical connection light years and impossible aeons from this home. Not only has she invoked this alien presence, but it grants her wishes on its own horrific and perverted terms. Lavinia Gardner has been punished for gazing unwittingly into an abyss. That’s far more Lovecraftian than simple farmers who happen to be standing under a meteorite.
The overall message of Stanley’s Color Out of Space is consummately Lovecraftian. Be careful what well you drink from, Lovecraft and Stanley note. But Stanley’s Color Out of Space specifically admonishes us to be careful what we ask for. Be careful what we invoke. Be careful what dark powers we call upon to deliver us. I wonder if there’s a specific segment of the population in America for whom that might be a relevant message?
For a coda, completing the framing device, Richard Stanley combines his own writing with a smartly edited snippet of Lovecraft’s text. The Gardners are gone, the dam has been surveyed, and the waters have flooded the valley and the blasted heath. Ward Phillips considers the new lake.
I hope the dam water that covers this place will be very deep. But even then, I’ll never drink it. There are only a few of us that remember the strange days now. What touched this place cannot be quantified or understood by human science. It was just a color out of space. A messenger from realms whose existence stuns the brain and numbs us with the gulfs that it throws open before our frenzied eyes.
There aren’t many movies that can get away with that last line.
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Color Out of Space