Saturday, October 05, 2019

Movie Review: Color Out of Space

I got to see Color out of Space at the H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival & CthulhuCon last night. While I’m not a connoisseur of Lovecraft adaptations to film, this is the best I’ve ever seen. If you’re a fan of movies like The Thing, this is likely right up your alley. This is also the best Richard Stanley film I’ve seen, but again, not a connoisseur, so take both of those statements with a grain of salt.

Still, this has all the hallmarks of a solid film. The fx are good, the casting and acting are excellent across the board, and the writing is top notch. Note that this is not a scene-for-scene adaptation of Lovecraft’s story. Instead, Stanley puts the focus of the film on the Gardner’s, the family that owns the farm the Color lands in, and sets it in the modern day.

The result is something potent. The Gardner’s are a family with a surfeit of life happening to them. Mrs. Gardner, who appears to be a financial consultant who works out of the attic and is the family’s breadwinner, just survived a cancer scare. The movie version of the family has three kids: an elementary-school aged son named Jack, a teenage stoner son named Benny, and a gothy Wiccan daughter named Lavinia. Mr. Gardner is played by Nicolas Cage and, honestly, I’ve enjoyed him in so many movies, good and bad, but this may very well be the role he was born to play.

We first meet them through the eyes of the kinda-sorta narrator of the film, Ward Phillips, a hydrologist from Miskatonic U. doing surveys for a water reservoir project. He stumbles across Lavinia in the middle of a ritual, and it’s not creepy in the slightest. Instead, she comes off as almost the stereotypical nerdy girl teen, and the target audience is likely to fall in love with her from the start. And while the family has its issues (actually, likely because the family has its issues), you fall in love with the whole quirky bunch of them. Which is a bad idea, because this is based on the freakin’ Lovecraft story and…

And this movie doesn’t play by the traditional rules. It doesn’t show animals dying but it literally kills them by the truck-load. This is not Spielberg’s Poltergeist where everyone gets out scared and scarred but alive. This isn’t an ‘80s style horror film where people who have sex get killed while those taking noble risks survive. The Color is a Lovecraftian horror and doesn’t give two flips for human morality. The result is a brutal and disturbing horror flick that draws out the tension almost perfectly before punching you in the gut. It’s not shy about splattering even its youngest cast members with ropy splatters of blood.

It’s Nic Cage who really nails the Lovecraft feel, however. He’s the one we get to watch descend into madness. And he does it perfectly, going from a mild-mannered mildly neurotic middle-aged father trying to shepherd his family through modern life to a gibbering wreck of a human being. And the story supports his descent; near the end, events happen that make you question if some of his delusional ravings were really delusional, or if he was seeing things others couldn’t. He’s not Jack Nicholson chasing his family with an axe; he’s Joe Everyman watching something utterly horrible and alien warp and destroy the land he grew up on and his family.
The creature effects are excellent and disturbing and will draw comparisons to Carpenter’s The Thing. The soundtrack is subtle and broody, but does at times step on the Foley, especially when the Color is making whistling sounds. It’s hard to tell at times what’s the soundtrack and what’s a sound the characters can actually hear.

The writing gets a bit soft at the end, but that’s hard to avoid. The opening is so solid, and the events in the last 20 minutes come so fast and furious and bizarre that they couldn’t really keep up the quality. When the Color is resolved, we really don’t know how or why, and it certainly doesn’t appear to have anything to do with what our characters do. There’s a joke for the fans involving a Chekhov’s Gun that doesn’t go off, and because it doesn’t go off the timing is a bit off, but you’ll recognize it later when you’re thinking about the movie. And the movie is peppered with little nods to the Mythos, from the frequent calls of whippoorwills to the logo of the local TV station to Ward’s choice in reading material.

I’m glad this film got made. I appreciate all the work and craft that went into it. I don’t think I ever need to see it again. Can there be greater praise for a movie adaptation of a Lovecraft film than that?

Thursday, October 03, 2019

Book Review: Gideon the Ninth by Muir

I was really ready to adore this book. Humanity has spread through the universe and (at least part of it) is currently ruled by a necromantic god-emperor who apparently at some point resurrected humanity from extinction (or, at least, a sizeable portion of it?) The Emperor instituted Nine Houses, ruled by powerful necromancers, each with its own character and bailiwick. The empire is tottering, shot through with rot and decay (as you’d expect from an empire built upon necromancy) and most of the Emperor’s champions, super-powered necromancers called Lictors, have fallen over the myriads since the founding of the Empire.

And yes, “myriad” is the right word here, used frequently in the book in its archaic meaning of “a unit of ten thousand.” My inner word-geek squealed in delight at this.

And our heroine spends most of the book running around wearing an almost-kinda black trench coat, totally ‘80s mirrored shades, and a rapier. And she spurts ‘80s quips like a gay action-hero.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is Grade A Brian bait.


You knew there had to be a “but,” right? Brian only giving three stars to a story that looks like it was based on notes by Clark Ashton Smith but strained through ‘80s action and anime tropes? That blurs the line between sci-fi and fantasy? What gives?

What gives is the plot. It’s a mess. Our heroine is enslaved by a sadistic necromancer princess. Their relationship is… plot-convenient? It’s not so much that I didn’t buy it, but rather that I picked up the wrong signals. Our introduction to their relationship felt less like the opening to a romance/buddy cop thing and more like setting the stage of a nasty revenge. Rather than helping us to like both of these characters and straining at the antagonism that separates them, I started off hating the princess and never really warmed to her.

These two are summoned by the Emperor to a conclave of the scions of the Nine Houses (each accompanied by a body-guard/champion and no one else) to a decaying palace on a distant world. Once they get there and we’ve met the other scions and their attendant cavaliers, things devolve quickly into Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians.

Things are made worse by the antagonisms of the various scions. Instead of working together (something that should be the obvious move once you understand the rules of the game, since it’s nearly impossible for anyone to succeed without cooperation), they assume (for no good reason I could discern) that only a few can rise to Lictor in spite of being told outright that it’s the Empreror’s dearest hope that they all achieve that status.

But you can’t really blame the scions, because the Emperor himself set this up in an incredibly stupid way. Shuttles we are told are “valuable” are tossed into the ocean and sunk instead of merely being flown away. The rules are poorly explained and even more poorly enforced. Once the secret of attaining Lictorhood is understood, the most devout house of Emperor-worshippers declares that such a thing is blasphemy and does its best to prevent anyone from becoming a Lictor, to the point of actually attempting to murder the other scions.

It’s a neat premise described with excellent word-smithing that falls utterly apart if you poke at it at all.

Still, it’s a fun read for all that. Just understand that this is a romance/mystery/thriller sort of thing, much more Ten Little Indians meets Jane Eyre in space with skeletons than Dune. Also, it’s of the more prudish sort of romances, where things never get to the point where fade-to-black is necessary. Don’t let the frequent references to dirty magazines and the course language of our protagonist fool you on that point, either. This romance is headed towards a union that is purely symbolic and spiritual, so if you’re looking for torrid lesbian shenanigans, this ain’t your book. If you’re cool with all that, and turning off your brain to avoid “fridge logic,” there’s a fun little romp here for you.