Color Out of Space review: Nicolas Cage's alpaca-farming sci-fi horror is subtler than you might expect

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A glowing meteorite transforms the homestead of Cage's alpaca farmer - null
A glowing meteorite transforms the homestead of Cage's alpaca farmer - null

In his latest film, Nicolas Cage shares a considerable amount of screen time with alpacas. This peculiar beast has always exuded a kind of absurdist magnetism on camera: it’s there in the eyes’ plaintive gleam, the muzzle’s melancholic slope, the tendency to bark and spit when agitated. Yet to his credit, he never upstages the alpacas. Cage, the star of Leaving Las Vegas and Wild at Heart, carries an acting toolkit few of his contemporaries would dare pry open, and Color Out of Space is the kind of project that finds a use for every last utensil in the box.

The director is Richard Stanley, a rising sci-fi/horror star of the early Nineties whose career went down with the disaster-ridden 1996 adaptation of The Island of Dr Moreau. It took SpectreVision, the boutique horror studio co-founded by the Lord of the Rings star Elijah Wood, to bring Stanley back – and the two are such a perfect fit, I hope they sign him to a 50-film contract. Because there could hardly be a better way for the director of Hardware and Dust Devil to return than with this extravagantly weird, luxuriously grisly blast of cosmic horror, deftly adapted from a 1927 short story by HP Lovecraft.

The cosmic horror genre was effectively founded by Lovecraft himself, whose writings fused an early 20th-century paranoia about ever-broadening scientific horizons with the mysticism of Arthur Machen and creaky-floorboard gothic of Edgar Allan Poe. But cinema has rarely done it justice, least of all in adaptations of Lovecraft’s own work, and the exceptions – films like John Carpenter’s The Thing, Frank Darabont’s The Mist and Alex Garland’s Annihilation – tend to be Lovecraftian only in spirit.

It’s surely no coincidence that Color Out of Space cherry-picks elements from all three. The "thing" in this scenario is a glowing meteorite which lands one night outside a New England farmhouse – the home of Cage’s alpaca farmer Nathan Gardner, his wife Theresa (Joely Richardson), their three children, and the alpacas. The following morning, the light from the rock has subsided, and soon after the rock itself seems to have melted away into the earth. Yet whatever it brought down with it is working its magic: strange flowers bloom on the lawn, mobile phone signals frizzle and squawk, and the couple’s youngest son Jack (Julian Hillard) spends a lot of time on the porch, talking and whistling to “the man down the well”. 

Of course everything turns odd and revolting, but not before Stanley and his cast take time to make the Gardners stand for something more than victims-in-waiting. The early family scenes are sincerely and tenderly played, with a fine breakout performance from Madeleine Arthur as the couple’s Wiccan teenage daughter Lavinia – the credits include an "occult, witchcraft and ritual advisor" – and Cage operating in an unexpectedly subdued register before flying off the handle in the second half. (Connoisseurs will also savour the return of the actor’s distinctive sarcastic whine from his 1989 film Vampire’s Kiss.) We also learn early on that Theresa has recently undergone surgery for breast cancer: a blunt play for viewer sympathy, perhaps, but one that also darkly foreshadows the effects of the meteorite, which causes reality itself to swell up and turn malignant.

The ensuing mayhem entails a mix of crackly psychedelia and impressive, gloop-laden creature effects that some might consider a little too self-consciously retro for its own good. But I found the results authentically nightmarish, perhaps especially thanks to the film’s unusual rhythm for horror: not a panicky staccato but a fuzzy-edged, narcotic throb. That alone makes Color Out of Space easy to recommend to fans of Panos Cosmatos’s Mandy, another SpectreVision-Cage collaboration that had its crazy cake and ate it with gusto. Stanley’s film likewise revels in the lunacy of its convictions, and its laughs and shocks leave behind a delicious tingle of unease.

Color Out of Space is part of the 2019 BFI London Film Festival