'Color Out of Space' Director Richard Stanley Talks Dragging Lovecraft Into Modern Times

Lovecraftian isn't what it once was. Rather than cosmic horror, 21st century Lovecraftian is more often the domain of tabletop roleplaying gamers, faux old-timey radio show podcasts and video games with tommy guns and tentacles. While throbbing, otherworldly beings can still be found in horror/sci-fi movies like Annihilation and Prometheus, cinematic adaptations of the actual novellas and short stories of Howard Phillips Lovecraft have become rare. Over the past century, his terrors have been digested and reconstituted, leaving only 1920s pastiche still attached to his name. Director Richard Stanley wants to change that, beginning with his adaptation of the short story Lovecraft himself loved best, "The Colour Out of Space."

"As a lifelong Lovecraft fan I've always been distressed by the lack of decent screen adaptations of his work. It seems like these movies should be made and remade every generation. So why isn't there a Color, or The Shadow Over Innsmouth, or Mountains of Madness, or Dunwich?" Stanley said to Newsweek, in an interview leading up to the release of the South African director's new movie, Color Out of Space, in theaters Friday.

The cult director of 1990's Hardware and 1992's Dust Devil, Stanley more than makes up for lost time in his Color, creating both a relatively faithful adaptation of Lovecraft's original, as well as a modern celebration of the kind of excretion-splattering body horror not seen since the Lovecraftian renaissance of the 1980s. His approach relies first on making Lovecraft contemporary enough for its horrors to touch on the awfulness of our current moment.

"I tried at every turn to be faithful and bring out the strongest points of the original story. Sometimes that means having to take quite a big step away from the text. In this case, the biggest liberty I've taken is by moving it into modern times, or possibly the very near future," Stanley said. "It was a way to try and reclaim Lovecraft from the roleplaying game community and from so much of the material which makes it seem kind of quaint, or if not quaint, even cute. I've got a plush Cthulhu I curl up with when I go to sleep, but I wouldn't want an on-screen Cthulhu to be cuddly. It needs to be Old Ones and Lovecraft's completely unfathomable lunatic universe, so it needed to be a clear and present danger to us now, and reconnect to issues we're all feeling uncomfortable with now, like what exactly is the chemical composition of the tap water we're drinking?"

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'Color Out of Space' modernizes Lovecraft's short story by teasing out environmental and political dimensions to the extraplanetary threat. RLJE Films

In "The Colour Out of Space," a farmer and his family are slowly driven mad and transformed by emanations from bursting "globules of color" embedded in a meteorite. Outside of anything on the normally visible spectrum, the color is more than a hue: it's an alien intelligence beyond the Gardner family's comprehension, which "sucks the life out" of everything around it.

Sporting more modern names—Nahum is now Nathan, played by Nicolas Cage—Color Out of Space follows from Lovecraft's story, but fills the author's famously indeterminate descriptions with religious, medical, environmental and political anxieties. Some would have been familiar to Lovecraft, such as the religious doubt and terror wrapped up in his pantheon of "Great Old Ones."

"In the 21st century there's a growing sense that the orthodox religions simply don't work," Stanley said. "There are very few folks who can believe that everything that happened here is the product of a benevolent, all-kind, all-wise creator deity."

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In 'Color Out of Space' Tommy Chong plays a modern day version of the original short story's eccentric recluse, Ammi Pierce, renamed Ezra for the movie. RLJE Films

Similar to the cosmic doubt suffusing Color Out of Space is its approach to more intimate traumas, like the genuine pain found in Stanley's version of the Gardner family, who find themselves literally and metaphorically melting into each other—the color breaking down nuclear family barriers and forcing a confrontation with both intimacy and alienation.

Stanley was particularly informed by the death of his mother, describing to Newsweek "the experience of having to nurse a loved one that is metamorphosing into something distinctly unloveable"—an experience expressed directly in Color Out of Space when Cage's Nathan, succumbing to the effects of the color, is tormented by a "cancer smell" pervading his home.

"Before this film got made, I had to deal with her rather lingering and unpleasant death to cancer: lymphoma from epoxy resin on the marionettes she made," Stanley said. "She physically and psychologically transformed and became something unlike my mother."

In Lovecraft's short story, Nahum locks his wife—and later, his son—in the attic. Something terrible is happening to them: they lose the ability to speak human language (communicating instead "in some terrible language that was not of earth") and crawl on all fours. They die "in a way which could not be told," but when another character brings a heavy stick down from the attic we can only infer that Nahum beat them to death himself.

"Lovecraft typically reduces the most dramatic moments in his story to a single sentence, or a couple of words. He spends an awful lot of time describing the scenery, and then the huge, dramatic moments pass in half a sentence," Stanley said. "You have to assume what the hell happened."

Stanley fills out Lovecraft's characteristic indirectness with a practical effects monstrosity worthy of the gooey body horror largely left behind by his horror contemporaries. Better seen than described, we'll only hint at the ultimate fate of Theresa (Joely Richardson) and Jack Gardner (Julian Hilliard), which combines Stanley's fear of spiders with his unique take on the adolescent fear of failing to make the transition to adulthood. As Stanley puts it, "If you don't create a life of your own, you might be re-ingested."

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Madeleine Arthur as Lavinia in 'Color Out of Space.' RLJE Films

Awash in a shade of magenta not seen since Stuart Gordon's 1986 Lovecraft adaptation From Beyond, Stanley's Color Out of Space also captures the science fictional elements that made "Colour" stand out from other Lovecraft stories.

"It's all based on mad science," Stanley said. "It comes off the concept that an ultradimensional force entering our consciousness would have to enter through ultrasound, or infrared or ultraviolet. These are the outermost borders of our perception, so I imagined an infrared blur—a sort of 3D projection of a four-dimensional object. Magenta is a way to process those colors, or come up with a neural link between the two."

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The poster for 'Color Out of Space.' RLJE Films

Stanley agreed with a comparison to Philip K. Dick's VALIS beam—a pink bolt of light that struck the science fiction author in 1973, inducing a religious experience he struggled to understand for the rest of his life—further adding that he drew from UFO abductee reports and similar, real-world, reported experiences of ultradimensional intrusions on mundane reality.

By combining relatable trauma, science fiction and splattering gore, Color Out of Space finds its own version of Lovecraft's balance between inexpressible horrors and their more earthly consequences. The result is a movie as eccentric as its source material, where an out-there Cage performance is merely a footnote in comparison to the phantasmagoria of monsters and mutations dragging Lovecraft into the modern day.