Color Out of Space (2020)

Richard Stanley is back, baby. After decades of Film Industry exile (documented in the bizarre saga Lost Soul), the witchcraft-obsessed genre freak has re-emerged fully charged and ready to explode. It would be inaccurate to claim that Stanley’s comeback feature hadn’t missed a beat since his early-90s nightmares Hardware & Dust Devil. The director seemingly also hasn’t been keeping up with modern filmmaking trends & aesthetics either, though. If anything, Color Out of Space finds Stanley regressing back to the grotesque 1980s sci-fi creep-outs of horror legends like David Cronenberg, Brian Yuzna, and Stuart Gordon. His comeback’s practical gore effects, neon lighting, and ominous synth score all harken back to an era before Stanley’s own heyday. He even mines Stuart Gordon’s pet favorite source material to achieve the effect: public domain short stories penned by H.P. Lovecraft. The only blatant difference between Color Out of Space and its 1980s predecessors (beyond its casting of a post-memeified Nicolas Cage) is that Stanley appears to be a true believer in the spooky, occultist forces that his imagery conjures – opening the movie up to some genuinely heartfelt moments of supernatural familial trauma.

To oversimplify Lovecraft’s fifty-page short story, Color Out of Space is about a horrific, unearthly color that crashes to Earth via a meteor and puts all of humanity in potential peril. In classic Lovecraftian fashion, this unfathomable hue (represented onscreen as a searing neon purple) drives anyone who gazes upon it absolutely mad, representing a kind of forbidden, otherworldly knowledge the puny human mind cannot handle. This global-scale phenomenon is presented in Stanley’s adaptation as an intimate drama among a nuclear family unit, with an increasingly unhinged Nicolas Cage centered as its figurehead. Cage’s family lives on an isolated alpaca farm (a Mad Libs-style variation on the source material’s story template), driving each other into a sweaty, self-cannibalizing mania as the titular cosmic hue spreads from its meteoric landing pad to the plants, animals, and other wildlife who share the farm with them. The prologue before the meteor crash is a little creaky & awkward, recalling the tone of a VHS-era fantasy movie that never quite earned the forgiving lens of cult classic status. Once the horror of the Evil Color fully heats up, however, the movie is genuinely just as disturbing as anything Stanley accomplished in Hardware – if not more so.

Most audiences are going to treat Color Out of Space as an excuse for yet another memeable Nic Cage highlight reel to pass around via YouTube clips. The movie’s exponential mania setup provides more than enough fodder for that kind of ironic mockery, eagerly leaning into the humor of Cage’s patented freak-outs. If all you want from the film is some classic Nic Cage stunts, you’ll get what you paid for: Nic Cage milking alpacas, Nic Cage ferociously gnawing on vegetables, Nic Cage foaming at the mouth while repeatedly firing a shotgun. He even revives his classic Vampire’s Kiss accent fluctuations to update them with erratic backslides into Donald Trump parody. When his petrified children ask each other, “Dad’s acting weird, right?,” it’s a hilariously cautious understatement. This movie totally delivers on the Nic Cagian absurdity that ironic goofs recently searched for in the much more somber Mandy, only to find it in isolated scraps. I just think framing Stanley’s film as a pure indulgence in over-the-top buffoonery is selling its merits short. As consistently fun as the Nic Cage Freak-out is as a novelty from scene to scene, the movie at large registers as a genuine, heartfelt nightmare. The thing about Stanley’s 90s films is that they were always a little cheesy & over-the-top, but they were also legitimately scary. So is his decades-delayed comeback.

The Lovecraftian theme of forbidden, maddening knowledge can be (and has been) applied to a wide range of metaphors, from the philosophical to the psychosexual to the purely surreal. As I took it, Color Out of Space finds deeply personal resonance in the source material specifically as an illustrative metaphor for the spread of cancer. Mirroring Stanley’s mother’s death by lymphoma in real life (as well as bit player Tommy Chong’s real-life struggle with prostate cancer), the nuclear family unit at the film’s center immediately starts the story off in a grim mood, suffering the aftershocks of their mother figure’s battle with breast cancer. The supernatural, maddening growths that later mutate from the purple meteor crash site aren’t entirely contained to the plants & animals in the area. They also scramble the cells of the family’s cancer-survivor mother figure so that she’s an unrecognizable, difficult-to-stomach burden on her family. Meanwhile, her loved ones devolve into increasingly hostile maniacs, unable to maintain their cool as the mutinous growths resulting from the meteor tear their bonds to shreds. On the surface, Color Out of Space is a genre film throwback to Lovecraftian horrors of the 1980s like Society, Possession, and From Beyond. What really enables it to terrorize its audience, however, is that it’s also a fucked-up family drama about cancer wreaking havoc on a household. It’s just as heartbreakingly grim as it is colorful, Nic Cagian fun.

I was genuinely horrified by this film’s total nightmare of a third act; it’s the same lingering chill I picked up from Hardware, Stanley’s powerful debut. He may not know how to construct a recognizably human prologue before his supernatural plots take off. Nor does he know how to conduct a Normal conversation, if his recent interviews and past clashes with potential financiers are any indication. He sure does know how to deliver an upsetting, fucked-up horror show, though, and I hope it doesn’t take another two decades before he’s allowed to stage another one.

-Brandon Ledet

Hardware (1990)

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In last year’s fascinating film industry documentary Lost Soul, director Richard Stanley is made out to be something of a madman auteur. Over the course of the film Stanley watches his first major Hollywood production crumble both from behind the camera and as a masked extra snuck back onset after being unceremoniously removed from the project for his supposed ineptitude & lack of mental stability. It’s unclear whether or not Stanley’s very particular vision for The Island of Dr. Moreau would’ve been any more successful than the madhouse delivered after hothead actors Val Kilmer & Marlon Brando hijacked & derailed the production. It’s certainly true that Stanley did have a specific vision, though, and it was one steeped in his upbringing bent on his mother’s fascination with both anthropology & the occult. I can’t speak for the finalized version of The Island of Dr. Moreau eventually directed by John Frankenheimer, but looking through the documents of the film’s production throughout Lost Soul, I couldn’t help but be spooked by what was happening onset, as if I were witnessing a real life account of black magic gone horribly wrong, a verifiable case of a malicious curse backfiring.

I mention all this because it feels like it was a window into understanding the power of Richard Stanley’s debut feature, Hardware. Existing galaxies outside the typical live action comic book adaptation as we currently understand it, Hardware is far less interested in telling a story than it is in exploring its own Luddite philosophy as a source for horror. This is a film born of the same late 80s technophobia that made the rise of industrial rock & noise music such an era-specific success. Its plot is thin. The characters’ motivations can be unclear. However, this is undeniably powerful filmmaking that can chill & shatter your bones if you allow yourself to lock onto its wavelength. I can’t explain how, but Hardware seemingly casts a spell on its audience, a sentiment I mean quite literally.

If you’re going into Hardware expecting the black cinemagic I just promised you’re likely to be confused for at least the first fifteen minutes. In its opening jaunt of uneven worldbuilding the film feels like a dirt cheap amalgamation of Mad Max & The Terminator (and a boring one at that). Dylan McDermott stars as some kind of futuristic hardware scavenger that combs the desert either in search of roboparts or a site for the first Burning Man festival. I’m not entirely sure. He ends up returning to his longtime, distant girlfriend, having moved on somewhat emotionally, forming a newfound domesticity with their shared bestie/80s sidekick, Shades. Shades trips out on meditation & future-drugs as the couple attempt to rekindle their relationship (by boning). If you can’t tell by my flippant attitude, none of this matters in the least.

What is important is what happens after Dylan McDermott hits the road, somewhat romantically spurned. While smoking legal future-weed, his kinda-girlfriend works on her found object sculpture art and, after including a scavenged piece of robotics brought to her as a gift before the ceremonial boning, she mistakenly gives birth to an evil arachnid droid with a helmet in the shape of a human scull & a thirst for more, more, more blood & gore. This is when Richard Stanley’s evil spell takes hold. The onslaught of roboviolence that dominates the final 2/3rds of Hardware is a chilling glimpse into Cronenberg’s America. Hardware‘s basics are very simple: a damsel in distress is trapped by a scary monster (robot) and any attempt to rescue her leads to more bloodshed. As trashy & campy as these genre films can be, however, Stanley manages to make them uniquely terrifying & unnerving. Hardware is both exactly just like every other creature feature I’ve ever seen before & not at all like any of them. I don’t know what to say about the film’s particular brand of horror other than it subliminally dialed into a part of my mind I prefer to leave locked up & hidden away. Stanley’s debut feature is both a schlocky horror trifle & an unholy incantation that puts the ugliest aspects of modernity to disturbing, downright evil use.

A lot of Hardware is difficult to decipher as either a cliche or a trendsetter. The film’s monochromatic desertscape isn’t an exactly unique vision of the future, which tricks a modern audience into thinking it’s got the film figured out before it really gets rolling. All I know is that once you’re locked in that surveillance state fish tank apartment with that robotic spider monster the results are transcendent. If it weren’t for the trashiness of everything that surrounds that central quest for robosurvival, the film could almost match the fear of the unknowable mastered in John Carpenter’s The Thing. That’s not too shabby for a debut filmmaker the industry tossed off as disorganized & mentally unstable. Richard Stanley has very few feature films attached to his name, but with Hardware alone he deserves to be recognized as a powerful, destructive force. I enjoyed laughing at the film’s sillier flourishes just as much as I did being terrorized by its technological paranoia. This is well calibrated schlock and it’s a shame we don’t have more of it.

-Brandon Ledet

Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau (2015)

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I don’t really remember much about John Frankenheimer’s 1996 Island of Dr. Moreau. My parents rented it the summer it came to VHS, and, presumably ignorant of how mature it was, allowed me to watch it with them (of course, my father was and is the kind of person who really only objected to profanity and sex, while violence was ignored most of the time; it’s telling that they allowed me to watch this movie, but Miss Congeniality was banned in our house years later due to Sandra Bullock’s “foul” mouth). Most of what I remember is that Fairuza Balk, who I knew from Return to Oz, was in it, as was some hideous wheezing monster named Marlon Brando, whom my mother tried unsuccessfully to convince me was once a handsome movie star. This was a movie that had hyena monsters and a horribly graphic scene of a beast person giving birth, but I don’t remember those elements at all while Brando’s white-painted face haunted me for years.

But we’re not here to talk about that movie; we’re here to talk about what that movie could have been, or, more accurately, about the documentary about the movie that could have been, had original director Richard Stanley not been fired from the project, and all the myriad ways that fate conspired to destroy his vision. In Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau, director David Gregory delves into Stanley’s fascination with H.G. Wells’s novel from early childhood and his lifelong pursuit of giving the book a film adaptation that lived up to the story’s potential. Following the successes of his cyberpunk post-apocalypse horror flick Hardware and his sophomore follow up Dust Devil, Stanley found himself in talks with New Line about directing a film for them. Due to his lifelong love of Dr. Moreau, he successfully pitched the adaptation; it was all downhill from there.

Lost Soul covers a lot of ground, with interviews from sources as varied as Balk, Stanley, New Line founder and president Robert Shaye, Moreau animal behavioral consultant Peter Elliott, and actors Marco Hofschneider, Temuera Morrison, Neil Young (no, not that one), Fiona Mahl, and Rob Morrow (who took over for Val Kilmer in the Prendick role when Kilmer’s insistence on fewer shooting days meant that Kilmer was shifted into the role of Montgomery, initially filled by James Woods; Morrow would also eventually bow out and be replaced by David Thewlis). Beginning with Stanley’s upbringing as the child of a single mother who was fascinated by occultism both academically and personally and following through to Stanley’s current career (spoiler alert: it’s not pretty), the documentary details how Stanley, a young indie director whose pet project suddenly became a multi-million dollar picture when Brando expressed interest in the title role, was eventually fired from the production when he found himself in over his head and beset by problems. The literal hurricanes that destroyed many sets were nothing compared to the setback caused by Brando’s daughter’s suicide during pre-production, making it impossible to film significant portions of the film for several weeks. Worse still were the mind games that Kilmer used to undermine and belittle Stanley; the actor was going through a nasty divorce at the time, but that doesn’t begin to cover a fraction of the horror stories of intimidation tactics and threats the cast and crew recall from their time working on the film.

Stanley was ultimately fired as the result of many things that were outside of his control, and this story is a tragic one. It’s not the most engaging documentary I’ve seen, and lacks the warmth and nostalgia of, say, Best Worst Movie, which also tackled the making of a notoriously bad feature. Still, it’s a fascinating look behind the curtain of one of the biggest box office and critical flops of the 1990s, and it serves as a reminder of how an artist can be destroyed by concerns, commercial or otherwise, that are outside of his or her hands. Stanley was propelled far beyond what he was suited and prepared for too early in his career and his talent and drive weren’t enough to save him or Dr. Moreau.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond