Normally a director adapting a popular genre author will slather on the praise, prove his or her geek credentials and talk in reverence about the sainted original creator. So it was quite a surprise to hear Richard Stanley be so open and honest about his complicated feelings toward one Howard Phillips Lovecraft as he approached an adaptation of one of his trippier stories, a descent into madness called Color Out of Space.
"I also wanted to address some of the issues I've got with HPL; his atheism, his misanthrope, his racism, his misogyny," Stanley said right at the top his interview with SYFY WIRE when the film debuted at Fantastic Fest last fall. "All these things needed to be checked and addressed one way or another and I've not had the opportunity to have an argument with him. I would love to have had him for dinner and try to bring some of those things out. To some extent, it's a matter of being faithful to him, but to another level, it was also to interrogate him. I had to drag some of those things out into the open."
Lest one think the director was actively hostile towards the material he was approaching, Stanley also spoke with reverence toward the controversial Lovecraft, who was Stanley's mother's favorite author and brought into his life at a very young age. The director considers Lovecraft to be one of the most important literary voices of the 20th century, which was one of the reasons why he wanted to hammer out his complicated feelings within the text of the adaption.
Color Out of Space, which stars Nicolas Cage, is about a meteorite that lands near an isolated farmhouse on the outskirts of fictional Arkham, Massachusetts, carrying with it a trippy extraterrestrial aura that seeps into the water supply and starts having a bizarre effect on the crops, wildlife and, ultimately, the troubled family that lives there.
The story is one of Lovecraft's more compelling tales, even if it doesn't involve giant tentacle-mouthed gods. Instead, the focus is more on the psychological horror of something alien infecting a family. Many people get caught up on the squirmy and slimy aspects of Lovecraft and ignore his real secret weapon: his depiction of madness.
"Lovecraft's probably the American Kafka," Stanley said. "Obsessing on the tentacles is a bit like seeing Kafka as solely being the cockroach guy. Obviously there's a lot more going on in there in terms of the mind-bending qualities of the thing."
Stanley, who is directing his first movie since being removed from the ill-fated The Island of Dr. Moreau, said his anchor for the story was the "flawed, incapable characters facing things they can't possibly deal with" at the center of the story. Crucial to that was bringing Lovecraft's mythos into the present day so it would remain a clear and present threat.
"I've got myself a plush Cthulhu back home that I cuddle up with at night," he admitted. "With the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying games and things, Lovecraft's become almost quaint and cozy. Some part of me wanted to stop that."
In order to make the cosmic threat implacable and terrifying, Stanley linked the idea of this alien aura infecting its surroundings to a family hit hard when a loved one is diagnosed with cancer. The way the color infects the natural surroundings also let Stanley comment on climate change. That, he believed, would hammer Lovecraft's particular brand of horror home in a way that other films haven't been able to do.
That's the psychological side of the movie, but Stanley knew all too well that he had to deliver on the monster front, too. The color itself is a visual evil, but then there's also the mutations that it causes, which is more grotesque and reminiscent of Rob Bottin's work on John Carpenter's The Thing.
On the titular "color," Stanley had a frame of reference in a piece of art by Virgil Finlay that was originally published with the short story, which he said was "as close to an author-approved image of the creature as we're liable to get." The monster, in this case, is simply a swirl of light and colors, but the art is dynamic and conveys the fear of the people seeing the light escape the well and the frenzy of the grass influenced by this alien thing.
As for the mutations side of things, Stanley also knew he had to deliver on that front, saying keeping the creature off-screen wasn't an option even when working on a tight budget. This is show business, after all.
"Even in Jaws the shark will eventually show up," he quipped. "We're still very much pushing the outer edges of the envelope with the budget we had, but most of the time what we were dealing with was augmenting physical effects. We were able to do things, for instance, by rod-puppeting them in real life and then digitally removing the rods that were secretly controlling the thing."
This is the first time Stanley has been able to play with modern effects. He mentioned working on a sort of proto-MoCap tech while he was developing Dr. Moreau. The modern VFX technology only served to underline his love for the old masters, like stop motion expert Ray Harryhausen.
"If Harryhausen was working now, I think he'd be able to perfect some of his work to the point that you'd no longer be able to tell how it was being done," Stanley said. "With optical compositing and visual blurring we could make stop motion now in a way that's pretty much flawless."
But, were imperfections part of Harryhausen's charm — or any similar special effect? In King Kong, for instance, which was animated by Harryhausen's mentor Willis O'Brien, Kong's fur seems alive, constantly shifting, and that's thanks to the literal hand of the creator. O'Brien subtly shifted the fur on the Kong puppet every time he repositioned it for the next shot.
Stanley's eyes lit up at the mention of Kong, which he proclaimed to be his favorite movie of all time.
"I saw it for the first time when I was four years old and I still burst into tears at the ending," he said. "It connects with me emotionally more strongly than the crucifixion, I think. Kong on the Empire State Building is one of the most powerful, iconic images that has ever been created by our culture. My heart is still there with the big ape."
Jumping off the talk of special effects fur, he admitted that was one area where they just didn't have the budget to make Color out of Space look realistic, either digitally or with practical effects. The Gardner family raises alpacas and as you can imagine those poor animals don't quite make it through the movie unscathed.
Knowing they were going to be portraying the mutated alpacas in some form, the decision was made to make the monster versions furless (or "naked" as Stanley put it). The end result is certainly disturbing and might be a case of budget restrictions ending up being a creative win.
The pressures of making an ambitious movie with a limited budget would weigh heavily on most directors. Stanley was not immune to that stress. In fact, working day in and day out in this headspace had an effect on the director's unconscious mind.
"I was haunted by dreams throughout the production and particularly into the post-production period because I wasn't getting nearly enough sleep," he recalled. "In these dreams the color would be actively showing up and telling me to try harder, to make it look more beautiful and do a better job of bringing it into the world. It was like, 'Make me beautiful, just like I look now while I'm taking you over. I remember in my dream looking at my hands and seeing the stuff burning its way out of my flesh. It started to exert an influence over us."
And that speaks to the power of H.P. Lovecraft. As problematic as the man might be, it's undeniable that his work still has the power to get under our skin and stay there.
Richard Stanley's Color Out of Space is now in theaters.