The Colour Out of Space by H.P. Lovecraft (1927)
Color Out of Space directed by Richard Stanley (2019)
I recently mentioned Richard Stanley in my The Island of Doctor Moreau book vs movie video! He was originally the director for the ’96 version and put a lot of work into it before being replaced. Color Out of Space is actually his first movie since the Moreau debacle.
Both book and movie are about a meteor crashing on a man’s farm, bringing cosmic horror with it. Both are very creepy and disturbing. The movie was too much for me at times to be honest, I love reading cosmic horror and horror in general (with some exceptions); but seeing it played out on screen is sometimes too scary for me. This movie in particular didn’t have me scared in bed, but I did think of it when I woke up during the night and felt a bit creeped out before falling back to sleep. But if horror is your thing, you should check out this book and movie!
Lovecraft is an icon in the genre and there is even the term “Lovecraftian” which is used when something resembles something he would have written. He was a pioneer in the cosmic horror genre, and I really loved this story. This is actually only the second Lovecraft I have read, the first being Shadow Over Innsmouth which I also loved. He was a racist and xenophobe though and that sometimes comes through in his writing. Although in Color Out of Space there wasn’t any of that. Just good ol fashioned horror here.
From here on out there will be spoilers for book and movie!
Changes to characters
The book is told from the perspective of a surveyor who is checking out land where a dam or aquaduct or something is going to be built. He then hears that strange things happened in this area he is looking into and no one will speak about the history aside from an old man named Ammi Peirce. So, the surveyor goes to speak with him, and Ammi tells the man the story, which is then told to the reader.
The movie has the water surveyor named Ward, and he does have voiceover in the beginning and the end, but it isn’t from his perspective exactly. The events also happen while the surveyor is there, rather than him hearing about it a few decades later.
There is no Ammi in the movie (though there is a cop named Peirce), and in both the man whose farm the meteor lands on have slightly different names. In the book he is Nahum Gardner, and in the movie, he is Nathan. I am assuming Nathan is the modern version of Nahum.
In the book Nahum has a wife and three sons, but in the movie, he has a wife and one daughter (Lavinia) and two sons-Benny the older one and Jack the youngest.
In the movie Lavinia is into witchcraft, but there was no witchcraft in the book. In the movie we also get a backstory telling us that the wife had cancer and six months ago she had surgery for it. We also learn that Nathan had a verbally abusive dad, but we see that he loves his family and is a good father and husband. We also see that they have fairly recently moved to the country and it seems to have been Nathan’s dream to leave the city. Lavinia wants to go back to the city, and the wife seems to be a stockbroker of some sort and due to the bad internet connection, her business is struggling. It is unclear if Benny or Jack like the country or not.
At the start of the book the surveyor is saying of the area, “The place is not good for imagination, and does not bring restful dreams at night…Upon everything was a haze of restlessness and oppression; a touch of the unreal and the grotesque, as if some vital element of perspective…were awry.” He also says that after Ammi tells him of the meteor and the Gardner family, he rushes home because he doesn’t feel safe outside, “at least not when the sinister stars are out”. I love these descriptions and creates such an unsettling atmosphere. It is really priming the reader for the creepy story that is about to be told.
In both book and movie, a meteor lands on the Gardner property and it emits a color that is unlike any color on earth. “…it displayed shining bands unlike any known colours of the normal spectrum there was much breathless talk of new elements, bizarre optical properties, and other things which puzzled men of science are wont to say when faced by the unknown.”
In both, they have city officials come take a look the next day but in the movie the mayor and police seem to have no interest. In the movie, Nathan also can’t bear the smell coming from the meteor, yet he is the only one that smells anything. He says later it is the smell of his father’s hospital room-the smell of cancer and death.
In the book, people from science labs come in and take samples. The sample shrink and shrink, the meteor itself disappears in both.
The effects of the “color”
In the book the Gardner’s talk of weird things on their land, like animals that don’t look right, and trees moving like in the wind and yet there being no wind. Other people in town begin to shun the Gardner’s basically because they are superstitious and believe something is wrong. People in the city pay them no mind, because they think his claims are crazy and nonsense. Ammi is the only one that stays in some contact. In the movie we get a funny scene where he is on tv about the meteor but the news station is making him seem like a drunk farmer who is delusional. Which reflects the way the city folk laughed at Nahum in the book.
But everyone can see that Nahum’s land begins growing strange colored plants, and the snow melts fast and spring comes early on his property. His crops come early and are larger than usual but are inedible. We see this in the movie as well. In both, they are warned not to drink their water from the well, but in both versions, they still drink it anyway. The movie also has a scene with Nathan taking a shower and the water forms this strange thing.
We also see how the color drives the Gardner family crazy in both book and movie. The details are slightly different though so I will talk about them separately.
In the book, the color first starts to make Mrs. Gardner crazy. The way she is described is so unnerving, I want to share some of it (I highlighted so much of this book because I loved the writing so much),
In her raving there was not a single specific noun, but only verbs and pronouns. Things moved and changed and fluttered, and ears tingled to impulses which were not wholly sounds. Something was taken away — she was being drained of something — something was fastening itself on her that ought not to be… Nahum did not send her to the county asylum, but let her wander about the house as long as she was harmless to herself and others. Even when her expression changed he did nothing. But when the boys grew afraid of her, and Thaddeus nearly fainted at the way she made faces at him, he decided to keep her locked in the attic. By July she had ceased to speak and crawled on all fours, and before that month was over Nahum got the mad notion that she was slightly luminous in the dark, as he now clearly saw was the case with the nearby vegetation.
The son Thaddeus then also then goes crazy after a visit to the well. He is then locked in an attic room across from where the mom is. We then read, “…and then he shut him in an attic room across the hall from his mother’s. The way they screamed at each other from behind their locked doors was very terrible, especially to little Merwin, who fancied they talked in some terrible language that was not of earth.”
Thaddeus dies, though how he dies isn’t directly said. His other two son’s disappear, it is assumed the well is involved since that is what messed up Thaddeus.
Ammi comes over after a couple of weeks have passed with no word of the Gardner’s. He sees their farm has turned to grey ash and is crumbling and falling apart. He talks to Nahum, but he is crazy and is talking to him family as if they are there with him even though they are not.
Ammi goes into the attic and see what has become of Mrs. Gardner. It doesn’t get specific, but needless to say, she has become some sort of horrifying creature. The book reads, “There are things which cannot be mentioned, and what is done in common humanity is sometimes cruelly judged by the law. I gathered that no moving thing was left in that attic room, and that to leave anything capable of motion there would have been a deed so monstrous as to damn any accountable being to eternal torment.”
After this he goes downstairs and Nahum is beginning to fall apart like everything else. He speaks to Ammi of the color, “…it beats down your mind an’ then gets ye… burns ye up… in the well water… you was right about that… evil water… Zenas never come back from the well… can’t git away… draws ye… ye know summ’at’s comin’ but tain’t no use… I seen it time an’ agin senct Zenas was took… whar’s Nabby, Ammi?… my head’s no good… dun’t know how long sense I fed her… it’ll git her ef we ain’t keerful… jest a colour… her face is gittin’ to hev that colour sometimes towards night… an’ it burns an’ sucks… it come from some place whar things ain’t as they is here… one o’ them professors said so… he was right… look out, Ammi, it’ll do suthin’ more… sucks the life out…”
Nahum then crumbled away like the rest of the farm. Ammi leaves and gets people from town to come and see.
After looking at the remains of the Gardner family, Ammi then tells them of the well. They take out the water, while doing so they find the remains of the other two sons as well as different animals.
The men are later inside and see the color coming from the well and spiraling into the sky.
“It had a very queer colour, and as all the men clustered round the window Ammi gave a violent start. For this strange beam of ghastly miasma was to him of no unfamiliar hue. He had seen that colour before, and feared to think what it might mean. He had seen it in the nasty brittle globule in that aerolite two summers ago, had seen it in the crazy vegetation of the springtime, and had thought he had seen it for an instant that very morning against the small barred window of that terrible attic room where nameless things had happened…All the while the shaft of phosphorescence from the well was getting brighter and brighter, bringing to the minds of the huddled men, a sense of doom and abnormality which far outraced any image their conscious minds could form. It was no longer shining out; it was pouring out; and as the shapeless stream of unplaceable colour left the well it seemed to flow directly into the sky.”
As this is happening, Ammi’s horse suddenly dies and the men rush to leave the farm.
After that night, no one will speak of what they saw, aside from Ammi. Though even he didn’t talk about it for a long time after.
As is said in that quote, this takes place over a year or more, whereas in the movie it takes place over like a week or less.
The movie does such a great job at showing how out of their minds all of the characters are. Sometimes they act in a way you would expect and they can see something is wrong, but other times they are just too out of it and don’t realize what they are doing is crazy. Or maybe they do, but they can’t stop themselves which honestly is the scariest thing.
We do get some of the classic “Cage rage” in these scenes-throwing the tomatoes in the trash, getting mad when the car won’t start, yelling at his daughter in his Vampire’s Kiss voice (Stanley was a fan of that movie and asked Cage to bring some of that style of acting into this movie).
At times people don’t make sense with what they are doing, but it makes sense they don’t make sense because they are being influenced by the color!
But the farm starts to change and the animals on the area get weird as well. Then one night, the two sons walk to the barn to see what is happening and the alpacas are being changed, and when the color comes for the boys, they go running out. The younger son, Jack, is slower and at this point the mom has woken up and she runs to Jack. They reach each other right as the color reaches them and they become fused together.
They put the mom/Jack in the attic and Nathan goes and shoots the alpaca’s which have all blended together into this disgusting mess.
He then goes to the attic and tells the kids to leave so he can take care of the mom/Jack creature. Lavinia is upset that he intends to shoot them, but he makes her leave. Honestly, I was like yes please kill that thing it is gross and clearly there is no saving them. The mother is like reabsorbing Jack and they look so gross and make disgusting noises. But when Nathan is getting ready to shoot her, he suddenly can’t and instead kisses her.
From here, Lavinia and Benny have enough sanity to try and make a run for it. However, while getting things together, Benny suddenly thinks he needs to save their dog from the well. Of course, as he is climbing down there, the color comes out and gets him.
Nathan then comes up behind Lavinia and is dragging her inside. He is going to put her in the attic with her mother and she is begging him not to. He pushes her in there though and tells her to “feed your mother”.
Meanwhile, Ward is shown the weird disturbing creatures which Peirce has found and he knows they need to go to see the Gardner’s. They arrive there and Nathan is crazy, thinking his family is there in the room when they are not. He also tells them that Benny lives in the well now, which is something Nahum had said of one of his sons in the book too.
But they then go to the attic and see the mom creature going after Lavinia, however Nathan shows up and shoots it.
From here they go outside and see the color going crazy in the well. Nathan raises his gun, I’m not sure why, but Piece thinks he is going to shoot Ward and so Peirce shoots Nathan.
Lavinia is crying over her dead father and refuses to go with Piece and Ward, saying this is her home.
Peirce then ends up being killed by a tree and when Ward goes back to Lavinia, she has been infected with the color and we see the color shooting up to space and we seem to be given a vision of the world the color is from. Lavinia explodes, and Ward goes into the house where he sees the family inside, and the ghost/body of Nathan tries to attack him. He goes into the basement for safety and while in there, the whole farm burst into the grey ash.
Ezra is not in the book but he is a stoner guy played by Tommy Chong. He lives on a shack on the Gardner property and Ward goes to visit him three different times. The third time is with Peirce, and they see Ezra is dead, but he had recorded himself talking about the color, similar to what Nahum says near the end of the book, and the recording is weird and distorted.
This movie was reminiscent of The Shining book and movie at times. For one, when the meteor lands, jack is sitting in the hallway similar to Danny, and is doing a silent scream. His name is also Jack, which is the name of the dad in that movie.
Nathan also becomes like his abusive father who he doesn’t want to be, while under the influence of the color.
Book vs Movie
Even with the changes, I thought the movie was a great adaptation of the book. The beginning with the voice over wasn’t necessary and could have been changed, and the very ending with Ward talking yet again was pretty cheesy. Overall though I didn’t have an issue with the acting. Of course, I loved Cage, and the others I really had no complaint with. It stays true to the overall plot of the book and most importantly, I thought it stayed true to the atmosphere of the book and really captures that cosmic horror. As said earlier, it also captures that disturbing trippiness so well. And how the color changes their perceptions of time and space. While it isn’t a five star movie, it did nearly give me everything I wanted.
The book by Lovecraft was amazing and I was spellbound while reading it. There were times he wouldn’t offer any descriptions on what something looked like but would just say it was “…began to undergo loathsome changes which no one could explain.” Or, “that terrible attic room where nameless things had happened.” I don’t love when writers do this, because as King says in On Writing, as a writer it is your job to describe things! However, Lovecraft does such an excellent job creating such a visceral kind of horror, that he can get away with lack of description with certain things. There were so many other vivid passages that were so rich and I highlighted so many sections.
When it comes to book vs movie, I will say the book wins. I gave it five stars and would highly recommend it. If you really like the book, I would also recommend you watch the movie after. It may not be the best cosmic horror out there, but regardless I honestly thought it was well done. I have heard it compared to Mandy and people say Mandy is far better. But maybe it is for the best that I have not yet watched Mandy and therefore am not comparing the two together.