Cult genre director Richard Stanley hasn't had a film unspool on cinema screens since 1992’s horror film Dust Devil. After being fired from the remake of The Island of Doctor Moreau in 1995 after only a week’s filming, Stanley took up residence in Director Jail for the better part of twenty-five years as told in the excellent documentary Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau (2014). The result of being fired from his first big Hollywood movie meant that the promise that was shown in his first film Hardware (1990),an ambitious low budget fusion of 2000AD-Esque cyberpunk and horror, was instead left to percolate in the interim, and one would hope, grow more potent.
Stanley has at last returned from the wilderness with his long-gestating adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s classic tale of cosmic horror bringing fellow maverick Nicolas Cage along for the ride. The film comes six years after being announced and twenty-seven years after his last narrative feature and cements the talent shown in his earlier films.
The original story concerned a family in the late 1800’s Massachusetts, whose lives are threatened when a meteor crashes into their land, infecting the earth and water with its otherworldly power. The infection brings about the mutation of first the flora and fauna on the farm, before moving onto the human inhabitants, with madness and death not far behind.
Stanley has updated the story to modern-day, with Cage playing Nathan Gardner, an artist who moves his family back to his childhood home with a dream of breeding alpacas and living a simpler life. The early stretch of the film shows the family settling into their new surroundings while hinting at a familial discord that the alien life-force will seek to twist and manipulate with its strange power. Body horror, madness and cosmic terror permeate the film as the unforgiving bleakness of Lovecraft’s original tale is brought to vivid life. Psychotropic visuals marry with the undulating sonics of Colin Stetson’s score, enhancing the feeling of an insidious, ever-growing doom.
The meteor crash itself is barely seen, but with Stanley’s use of crimson lighting, shaky camera and thunderous sound design, it becomes a visceral, earthshaking event. The film feels classic yet modern, a fusion of Lovecraft’s early 20th Century fears with ’80’s FX driven body horror and modern digital filmmaking techniques. Stanley’s camera constantly prowls through the Gardner family’s expansive rural farmhouse, creating the sense of a creeping, omnipotent eye surveying its doomed inhabitants. The farm and surrounding woods are imbued with a misty ambience, adding to the sense of unease, even before alien forces begin wreaking havoc on the area.
Despite being made on a small budget, the film feels expansive, with the production values punching well above their weight. Stanley creates a vibrant, sinister playground for his actors to inhabit, which also includes Tommy Chong (appropriately) as an older hippie, living off the grid and attuned to the sinister frequencies he hears emanating from beneath the infected ground.
The actors are uniformly good, with Cage turning in two distinct performances here, pre- and post-meteor, although the transition from goofy family man to full Jack Torrance mode is perhaps a little rushed. Once that happens, he is in full Rage-Cage mode which is always entertaining, bringing a knowing theatricality to the otherwise deadly serious proceedings, even if a less bombastic approach would’ve worked better. If anything the film needed a slightly longer second act to fully do justice to the gradual onset of madness in his character.
Joely Richardson is even better and more naturalistic, in her role as one of the first in the family to be affected by the sinister power of the meteor. She goes to some dark places, both physically and mentally as the film progresses, with its unforgiving depiction of metamorphosis and delirium on her and her family.
The film builds to a pulsing, doom-laden finale, full of apocalyptic visions at the hands of an ancient alien power that could easily destroy our humble planet if it so chose to. Stanley, who professed to reading Lovecraft as a child, is the perfect conduit through which to capture the sense of madness and futility in the face of unstoppable power and has created possibly the best straight adaptation of Lovecraft’s work yet to ooze and pulse across the screen.
4.5 mutant alpacas out of 5.