H.P. Lovecraft’s Color Out of Space

*contains spoilers

To quote from Revelations in the Bible at around Chapter VIII of John: “…there fell a great star from heaven burning as it were a lamp and it fell upon the third part of the rivers and upon the fountains of the waters… and many men died of the waters. Because they were made bitter.”

Author H.P. Lovecraft

This is probably the inspiration for H.P. Lovecraft’s (1890-1937 intestinal cancer) short story or novella entitled The Color Out of Space. It was written back in March 1927 and appeared in the September issue of Amazing Stories that year. Apparently, the magazine stiffed Lovecraft on the full payment of the article and so the writer heaped disdain upon the editor and publisher Hugo Gernsback (1884-1967).

Lovecraft claimed that his inspiration for The Color Out of Space was the Scituate Reservoir in Rhode Island which began operating the year before the story was published.

H.P. Lovecraft’s Color Out of Space (2019) poster. Note magenta’s the color.

There are three movies which I will look at based on this story and they are the British made Die, Monster, Die! (1965) – the commas in the title are apparently optional, The Curse (1987) and the latest version entitled H.P. Lovecraft’s Color Out of Space (2019).

There are a couple of other versions which I couldn’t get easy access to and they are Color from the Dark (2008) set in Italy and a German version called simply The Color which was made in 2010. Let’s also not forget a few plot elements in the film Annihilation (2018) are blended from Lovecraft’s story… including a meteorite which falls to Earth.

Die, Monster, Die! (1965) lobby card or quad poster

Those horror or sci-fi elements also include an unseen alien force which causes plant and animal life to mutate. Lovecraft would have also used the 1920s fascination with radium as the cause of such mutations for his story.

In the original story, which I recently reread, and in both the 2019 version and The Curse, the alien force, which falls outside the range of the visible spectrum, arrives on Earth in the form of a meteorite. This event isn’t shown in the story of the not so faithful to Lovecraft version – Die Monster Die!

The Curse (1987) poster

The latest version stars Nicolas Cage (1964-) and Joely Richardson (1965-) as parents with three children. It is this Cage version of the film which is probably the most faithful to Lovecraft and the best.

In the original story, as it was written, the narrator tells a tale told to him by a slightly demented man who had witnessed the events many decades earlier – a farming family in the 1880s being the subject, who were driven mad and died after a metallic object falls on their property.

The Necronomicon as it appears in The Evil Dead (1983)

The narrator is a part of the story in the Cage film as the story opens in terms of a straight by-the-numbers narrative with no flashback. The narrator in the story has no name but goes by the name of Ward in the film. Ward is short for Howard which was one of Lovecraft’s Christian names. It can also be seen as a homage to the Lovecraft novel The Case of Charles Dexter Ward which was written around the time of The Color Out of Space but remained unpublished during Lovecraft’s lifetime. That novel relates to the Cthulhu Mythos and the Necronomicon or the so-called Book of the Dead which was an invention of Lovecraft…

The slightly underrated Cthulhu Mansion (1990) trailer. It ain’t that bad!

In the film Cage’s daughter is reading a paperback of the Necronomicon. The story is changed from three sons in the book to two sons and a daughter in the Cage version. The daughter is also called Letitia which is taken from Lovecraft’s story The Dunwich Horror. Also, the mad man who tells the story to the narrator in the book has been changed into a stoner squatter in the 2019 movie who is played by comedian Tommy Chong (1938-).

Tommy Chong in dope smoking mode in H.P. Lovecraft’s Color Out of Space

Nicholas Cage has one of his better roles of late as he swears and gets to chew a bit of scenery as strange things start to happen after the meteorite has barely cooled. It seems to attract lightning when a storm passes, while mother Joely Richardson says: “Dinner’s ready!” after cutting off a couple of her fingers.

The point of the film is that the narrator is a water specialist who is investigating the local water table and supply and this alien presence seems to be living in the water after entering through the family well. Unfortunately, the family has drunk from the well and Tommy too has drunk the local water.

A tranquil moment for Joely Richardson and Nicolas Cage

Flowers and fruit on the property grow to an enormous size but they taste bad or are spoiled. This is show in The Curse version when the farming family cut open their fruit and cabbages only to find it festering inside or even full of maggots. This is obviously not a human force, nor even humanoid… I don’t even know if you could even call it intelligent life in terms of human intelligence. But this force alters what it touches and while it lives in the water, it has no need of plants or humans, except only to mutate or destroy. It is that sense of the unknown which is the scariest part of the story and movie.

Does anybody remember The Gate (1987)? More backyard antics.

Cage’s youngest son has a fascination with the well and says he is “playing with his friends” as he stares at the hole in the ground… In the book, mother and one of the sons go mad and are locked in the attic. In Cage’s movie, mother and youngest son get melded together in one major disturbing and colourful sequence where the force escapes from the ground and zaps them. They look like something out of The Thing which is probably the inspiration for the effects, especially when Cage’s small herd of alpacas are also melded into a slimy and living mass of slimy organs et cetera.

This slimy mass from The Thing is repeated in the Cage version of Color Out of Space

I opened this article with a Bible quote but the Cage film opens with an almost word for word opening spiel from Lovecraft’s story as told by the narrator. It sets the tone of a once peaceful countryside about to be turned upside down.

There is also a scene where Chong is listening to the ground. “You can hear them down there,” he says, using an amplifier with headphones. Ward calls it “magnetic distortions” and dismisses it. This scene is reminiscent of Battle Beneath the Earth (1967) where Peter Arne puts an ear to the ground for totally different reasons.

Battle Beneath the Earth (1967) trailer shows the scene with Peter Arne

The thing about the Lovecraft novella is that it doesn’t have any dialogue as it is a monologue told by the narrator. Thus, the novella has no really fleshed out characters like the movie versions. The novella and the story of the tainted fruit, the madness and death all lead up to a crescendo of a finale.

It is this ending in which Cage’s movie really shines or “colours” as the alien force makes it presence fully felt. What happens in the end of the Lovecraft story is that the earth around the farm is left decimated and sucked dry of life leaving only a grey dust…

Nick Adams and Suzan Farmer in Die, Monster, Die! (1965)

It is this area of grey dust which is used as a starting point for Die, Monster, Die! (1965), with Nick Adams (1931-68 drug overdose) as the hero visiting the Arkham area and in particular a manor house in the countryside. Arkham is, of course, the ubiquitous setting for many a Lovecraft concoction. It’s just the Arkham in the Adams version is in England and not Massachusetts. Adams is denied a ride to the Wildey place for some strange reason. Must be that grey area… and they won’t even rent him a bicycle!

Was Nick Adams a suicide or murder? He did lose his hair!

So, Adams walks until he comes across the dead and seemingly burnt part of the country. There is also signs that a large meteorite has struck the ground in this area. It turns out that Adams is there to visit his fiancée, played by Suzan Farmer (1942-2007 cancer), daughter of the Boris Karloff (1887-1969 pneumonia and emphysema) character.

The Adams film has no narrator and the story begins in reverse as Karloff has long kept the meteorite and the alien force captive – or so he thinks. Suzan’s mother is bedridden with a strange malady which could be caused by pieces of the rock and she tells voices that we can’t hear: “Yes. Yes.”

Karloff in Die, Monster, Die!

Lovecraft said The Color Out of Space was his favourite of his short stories. So why does it still resonate?

I remember as a child I touched a fairly large piece of meteorite which had been cut in half and kept at the Adelaide Museum. I wondered at how long this thing had travelled in space, perhaps since the formation of the universe, how far it had come and wondered if I touched it, it might contain some sort of power, perhaps to make me live longer… such are the wishes of kids!

A totally random Meteor (1979) poster. It’s not bad either.

That meteorites are real and there is a possibility they could carry something from beyond space which is possibly alive is something not beyond the realms of possibility and so we can leave our minds open to it… and the possible horrors such a ‘living’ thing could inflict…

For a fascinating aside to this, try and see The Monolith Monsters (1957). While the meteorites which fall to Earth are not an alien force, the pieces grow to enormous sizes and threaten to engulf the planet while also having the power to turn people who touch them to stone!

The Monolith Monsters (1957) trailer. I keep plugging this film!

Is there already an alien presence of the Lovecraft type on our planet? And is the ringing in our ears, hinted at in the Cage version and at the beginning of Annililation, not tinnitus but those who dwell here making their presence ever so subtly felt. Are they even The Great Old Ones of Lovecraft’s other literature? These Old Ones are restricted in their physical ability to contact humans but they are present nonetheless, whether beneath the earth or the ocean.

Director Daniel Haller

It is through the Old Ones that Lovecraft taps into our ultimate fear that man can be dominated by an unseen force. It is the anarchic, unrestrained, unclassifiable alien force at the end of the story of The Colour Out of Night and its resultant movies which is probably more terrifying than The Old Ones as it could arrive at any time and is possible of domination of our planet in any way.

Die, Monster, Die! was the first movie directed by Daniel Haller (1926-) who also directed the Lovecraft story The Dunwich Horror (1970). That story by Lovecraft is adapted rather faithfully compared to the adaptation of Die, Monster, Die!, a movie which has a bad case of the Corman Poe movie cycle to it, right down to the mansion conflagration. I guess it’s not surprising that Haller was an art director on several Poe adaptations.

The Dunwich Horror (1970) lobby card or quad poster

“That book is like a Bible,” says Dean Stockwell’s (1936-) character in the movie of The Dunwich Horror about the Necronomicon. And does he ever want the last remaining copy left on Earth!

The film has some nice directorial touches such as when Stockwell and Sandra Dee (1942-2005 kidney disease and alcoholism) head to Dunwich and stop at a Shell service station with the ‘s’ obscured reading ‘hell’.

Later they are at Stockwell’s house and Dee says: “When you were in the kitchen, I heard a strange sound” about the ringing in her ears, perhaps caused by the dissected stones on Stockwell’s coffee table. Again, there is the possible power of rocks which may have once been in touch with alien forms in the outer galaxies.

Dean Stockwell looking mesmerising in The Dunwich Horror (1970)

A similar, but more offensive sound, was caused by touching the meteorites in the movie They Came from Beyond Space (1967).

The Dunwich Horror is hardly classic Lovecraft with its psychedelic dream sequence and cheap effects near the end. But it’s nice to see Dee escape the domesticity of Imitation of Life (1959) and the soapiness of A Summer Place (1959). Both classics in another sense. Her omnisexual dream, if it was a dream at all, was “the weirdest dream I ever had”.

Sandra Dee on the ancient altar in The Dunwich Horror

“The Earth was inhabited by a species from another dimension,” Ed Begley (1901-70 heart attack) speculates about the Necronomicon as The Dunwich Horror spells out the first real stab at Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos. But it’s really just a low budget Roger Corman movie… “Legend has it, that it’s been here forever,” says Stockwell to Dee at some devilish religious site where fertility rites were practised… and thus just exploitation. But there is definitely a heavy Lovecraftian influence… and the story of the twins, one dead and one alive – one with such power – is delivered reasonably well. I haven’t read the story recently.

The Dunwich Horror (1970) trailer

It’s more sexual than Lovecraft, that’s for sure as Dee orgasms after Stockwell takes her… And later he has psychic sex with her on the altar at the religious site.

But for latter day followers of Lovecraft, nothing compares to Stuart Gordon’s (1947-2020 multiple organ failure) Re-Animator (1985) and From Beyond (1986), which are far more horrific and worthy of attention as horror movies and adaptations.

Director Stuart Gordon and friend

The ending of The Dunwich Horror is a bit haphazard as a giant unseen force of the dead twin tries to wreak havoc… but then the Old Ones appear… “It was caught between this world and the other,” says Begley. It’s okay, I guess. Worth a look if it pops up.

Back to Boris Karloff and Die, Monster, Die! and in the 1930s Karloff starred in The Invisible Ray (1936) with Bela Lugosi in one of the eight movies they made together. The forward of The Invisible Ray promises: “Tomorrow these theories may startle the universe as fact.” The fact being that The Invisible Ray is based on a meteorite which has come all the way from Andromeda as Karloff tells his audience at his astronomy laboratory: “What you saw tonight actually happened a few thousand million years ago”.

Die, Monster, Die! (1965) trailer

Anyway, what they saw was a meteorite about to hit Africa and an expedition is formed to collect this specimen which is called Radium X. And that’s where The Invisible Ray meets The Colour Out of Space.

Actress Frances Drake (1912-2000) is beautiful, stunningly so, and the story, which has Karloff poisoned by the meteorite, something which makes him glow and also gives him, literally, the touch of death, as anything he touches instantly dies.

Frances Drake still looks stunning when she’s terrified!

While not as good as the earlier Karloff-Lugosi features, it is obvious that Universal had faith in the pair in bankrolling this overbudget movie. It would be downhill from here, except perhaps when Lugosi stole the show in Son of Frankenstein (1940).

In Die, Monster, Die!, Karloff describes what happens to himself and his family as a “curse”.

And as for the title of The Curse (1987), it could all stem from the sin of adultery committed at the beginning of the film, when a widowed mother cheats on her Bible bashing second husband played by Claude Akins (1926-94 stomach cancer).

Something has landed on the farm in The Curse (1987)

It is Akins who quotes the Bible passage at the beginning of this article somewhere during The Curse. Again, a meteorite lands on a farm and gets into the water supply, sending the local population insane. And, again, it is an unseen force.

The Curse is better than its reputation and the fact that there are several unrelated sequels shows its popularity and influence. Star Wil Wheaton (1972-), who plays the young teenage hero in the film, quipped years later that the only good thing about the movie was that his younger sister got a prominent job in the cast.

The Curse (1987) trailer. Will you have a glass of water with that?!

The climax, which is always the key to Lovecraft’s novella The Colour Out of Space, has what is obviously a model farmhouse implode as a small bookended sequence has a madman in flashback cry out that it’s “in the water”. The film is directed pretty well by actor David Keith (1954-) and it is not just “based on” Lovecraft’s novella like Die Monster Die!… However, out of the three, it is the Nicolas Cage version which is the one to see.

Magenta again! Director Richard Stanley (right) directs his cast

The Cage version is the first feature by Richard Stanley (1966-) after the horror that was the production, rather than the film, of The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996), where stars Marlon Brando (1924-2004 respiratory and heart failure) sat in his trailer while Val Kilmer’s (1959-) ego ran riot and he behaved badly. Stanley was fired after the first few days of shooting. This led to the writer/director having a reported breakdown as he had spent years in the preproduction of Moreau.

H.P. Lovecraft’s Color Out of Space (2019) trailer

What is interesting about the 2019 version of Color Out of Space is the use of the colour magenta for the alien force. It is a colour which we don’t apparently see naturally on the colour spectrum of visible light! If you’re into physics, you probably know all this… It looks beautiful but deadly in computer imagery in the film though. Just don’t expect to see it next time there’s a rainbow as it should be between red and blue but those colours don’t connect on the R.O.Y.G.B.I.V. spectrum. There’s a lot to the colour of magenta than just a fuchsia flower. This colour maybe the final contributing element to Lovecraft’s novella unseen though it may be on the black and white page! Is it The Invisible Ray?

This Magenta is from the planet Transsexual in Rocky Horror Picture Show

As for men dying “because they were made bitter”, The Bible is of course talking about the water. But in the other sense, Lovecraft died a bitter man as he complained critics had sabotaged his career and the possible legacy of his imaginative literature during his lifetime. It would be half a century before the horror world would truly fall in love with the Necronomicon and H.P. Lovecraft would get the adulation he deserved.

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