Then The Island of Doctor Moreau happened.
What was meant to be Stanley’s big blockbuster debut – a studio-backed film starring the legendary Marlon Brando and then-heartthrob Val Kilmer – quickly turned into a disaster. Stanley was fired a few days into shooting and replaced with John Frankenheimer, who struggled to control a shoot derailed by its two uncooperative leads (Kilmer was a bully, Brando refused to learn his lines), harsh weather, and a general lack of enthusiasm for what was supposed to be Stanley’s passion project. Released in 1996, the H.G. Wells adaptation is still widely considered one of the worst flops in recent cinematic history. (For a more illuminating and occasionally jaw-dropping look behind the scenes, please watch the 2014 documentary Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau.)
Now, over 20 years after his failed shot at Hollywood fame, Stanley is back with his take on another public domain property, the short story The Colour Out of Space.
Written by sci-fi-horror master/virulent racist, H.P. Lovecraft, the original narrative follows a surveyor investigating the destruction of some farmlands and its connection to a strange meteorite. In Stanley’s version, Color Out of Space (minus the “u”) – playing at the Harris Theater now through Thu., Jan. 30 – those farmlands are overseen by a family led by Nathan (Nicolas Cage), an alpaca-obsessed hobby farmer, and his day-trading wife, Theresa (Joely Richardson in a role far beneath her talents). It’s revealed that the couple gave up the city for country life to raise their three children: Instagram witch, Lavinia (Madeleine Arthur); harmless pothead, Ben (Brendan Meyer); and adorable youngster, Jack (Julian Hilliard). At one point, Ben refers to their surroundings as “12 miles of ancient woodland,” which, I mean, who says that? But their former urban existence appears comparably better after an object crash-lands right in front of the house and soon begins transforming every living thing around it.
Color Out of Space begins promisingly enough with moody shots of a fog-drenched forest and an ominous voice-over by actor Elliot Knight, who appears as our intrepid surveyor, Ward. From there, it offers a refreshing throwback to the practical visual and makeup effects of 1980s sci-fi horror, with some truly grotesque creatures recalling John Carpenter’s The Thing and David Cronenberg’s The Fly. As the mysterious presence spreads, all the while changing the family and their animals in nightmarish ways, the film soon overindulges in the whole “color” aspect of the title – at some points, it appears as though the characters are trapped inside a plasma globe or in a Willy Wonka-esque environment dotted with DayGlo purple flowers and CGI bugs.
The cast performs well enough, including Tommy Chong, who plays an eccentric squatter Theresa refers to as a “hippie reprobate." Then, of course, there’s Cage, who does his Cage thing in a way that made me question if he delivers his signature freakouts because he wants to, or because it’s what’s expected of him now. Each time he rants in a snivelly voice or throws out a weird line of dialogue like, “Everybody loves ducks” or “It’s time to milk the alpacas,” it lacks that insane spark that usually makes him so watchable. His antics may have enhanced recent titles like the heavy metal fever dream, Mandy, but here, his performance adds nothing to what amounts to sensory overload. As the nearly two-hour runtime drags, he, like the over-stretched plot, seems to lose steam.
While Color Out of Space tries to inject its nearly century-old source material with topical environmental commentary (Ward believes the malevolent presence has contaminated the local water supply), it fails to make any real impact. As a result, the film awkwardly oscillates between eco-horror parable and bizarre sci-fi spectacle, never settling on whether or not it wants to be super weird or scathingly subversive. The winking Lovecraft Easter eggs certainly don't help – Ward wears a Miskatonic University t-shirt and there are off-hand mentions of Dunwich and Arkham – making this a pandering, underwhelming tribute to the glory days of sci-fi past.