Friday, March 5, 2010

Movie Outlaw: COLOUR FROM THE DARK (2010)

Widely considered one of the seminal horror writers of all time, Howard Phillips Lovecraft was not especially appreciated in his own lifetime. While he achieved success in the pulps, particularly Weird Tales, and had a cadre of friends and pen pals who were also writers (Conan creator Robert E. Howard among them), Lovecraft’s work was considered by the mainstream to be esoteric and difficult. His ideas were vast and difficult to comprehend. The pulps were filled with stories of vigilantes, gangsters and “classic” monsters—vampires, werewolves, etc.—and Lovecraft’s mythology involving eldritch gods slumbering beneath the sea, waiting to be awoken to devour mankind, heady stuff for audiences. Add to that his dense and often purple prose describing a room down to the last detail but when it came to introducing readers to his beasties, they “defied comprehension”. So it’s no wonder that it took a while for his ideas to be appreciated.

Modern horror audiences are more familiar with his work via Stuart Gordon’s adaptations—Re-Animator, From Beyond, Dagon—and tributes from Mike Mignola and his Hellboy comic (and movie) series. Despite the strange themes—or maybe because of them—artists return to the Lovecraft well again and again, particularly on the indie side of horror. There are Lovecraft conventions and film festivals dedicated to short adaptations of his work. And as with any artist, there are fans who insist his work should be adapted to the letter and others who feel that a broader brushstroke is acceptable. The ironic thing about the sticklers, though, is that they somehow fail to realize, through their adoration, that Lovecraft actually enjoyed seeing other artists play in his sandbox. Howard, Fritz Leiber, August Derleth and many others included nods to H.P. in their work—and he, in turn, would include homages to them in his. His “C’thulu Mythos”, in particular, grew exponentially in the decades following his death. If you’re new to this and doubt my words, go watch Evil Dead and ask yourself where the “Necronomicon” came from.

Some of Lovecraft’s work lends itself better to adapation than others, of course, and his American Gothic close encounter, “The Colour Out of Space” is a particular favorite. One of his most-reprinted stories, the first-person narrative relays a legend about a meteor that lands on a rural farm, blighting not only the land, but the farmer and his family, driving them to madness and then, ultimately, decay. Even if you’ve never read the story, you may recognize it from such screen adaptations as Die, Monster, Die!, The Curse and the Creepshow segment “The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill”. And now there’s a new take on the story, one that’s both painstakingly close to the source and inventively removed. 

Set in rural Italy in 1943, just as it seemed that Europe would fall to the Fascists and the Nazis, Colour from the Dark introduces the viewer to Pietro and Lucia, who live on an isolated farm with Lucia's younger sister, Alice. Though in her twenties, Alice is a mute and still childlike, frightened by the world around her, using her hand-made doll as a periscope before she makes a move. Pietro toils in the fields and garden while awaiting news about his brother, Luigi, who has been fighting at the frontlines for months. Meanwhile, his neighbors, Anna and Giovanni, are harboring a Jewish friend, Teresa, knowing full well that they risk death themselves with the asylum.

While fetching water from the well, Alice clumsily drops the bucket. When Pietro fetches it out, he pulls something loose from the floor of the well. Foul smoke billows up, followed by a shimmering light that seems to skip past them. The water, however, seems safe to drink so the family goes about their business. The next day, their peppers and tomatoes have ripened overnight, and twice the size of any previous crop. Pietro’s crippled knee has miraculously healed. What’s more, Alice speaks for the first time in her life, ending the prayer of grace with “Amen”. That night, Pietro and Lucia make love, passionately, while Alice has a dream that Teresa is hunted down by soldiers in the cornfield.

Just as the crops have bloomed, they start to blight. As does Lucia. Her mood darkens in the morning; she becomes confrontational with both Pietro and Alice. She attacks her husband voraciously one moment, then violently the next. A shadow passes over her face, turning her eyes black. And the strange, electrical colour dances around her, darting into the corners. Escaping her older sister’s wrath, Alice wanders through the woods and comes across Teresa’s body, swarming with flies.

Lucia grows worse, mutilating herself, stabbing a knife through the back of her hand. Pietro calls for a priest, fearing she may be possessed by the devil. Things end badly for the priest. As the colour spreads from their farm to Giovanni’s, so does the blight, the rot and the violence. As Pietro observes, “it sucks the life away”.

Moody, beautiful and with a deliberate pace, Ivan Zuccon’s Colour from the Dark is at once pure Lovecraft and something unique unto itself. While purists may gripe that the colour doesn’t arrive in the form of a meteor but was something already existing, waiting to be unleashed, seems more appropriate but just as thematically alien. Lovecraft disdained the idea that aliens in science-horror were usually humanoid and understandable. Aliens would be alien, therefore their motives impossible to comprehend by the human mind. Taking that idea and merging it with the horror that was sweeping through Europe, corrupting normal, rational people with hatred and paranoia, is a tried-and-true trope that rarely fails and Zuccon pulls it off perfectly. The Fascist tactic of breaking people by destroying symbols of their faith is also utilized here—crucifixes melt as the Colour takes over; Holy Water burns the flesh of the believer, not the heretic.

He also allows the story to build slowly, rather than bludgeoning the audience with cheap “boo” tricks. His use of linear nightmares—usually a pet peeve of mine—also works in this context, allowing the metaphysical corruption of the colour to literally control their dreams is in perfect keeping with the theme. By the time the violence erupts through Lucia, it’s almost a relief to the tension.

Using an international cast to represent Italian farmers gives Colour from the Dark a classic feel as well, harkening back to the days when every war movie was filled with Nazis with English accents. So Giovanni, as played by Gerry Shanahan, speaking in an Irish Brogue, alongside Debbie Rochon’s American (yes, she’s Canadian, shut up, I’m making a point here) Lucia, Eleanor James’ Scottish Anna and Michael Segal’s classical Italian, ceases to be jarring after the first few minutes. The performances, incidentally, are terrific, evoking the tension and confusion of the situations. Rochon, who does crazy and scary exceptionally well (as best evidenced in American Nightmare), is given the opportunity to exhibit slow, smoldering hatred.  Marysia Kay, as Alice, serves tenderly as the audience’s emotional porthole into the story. There’s a slight misstep near the beginning of having her grunt to indicate her muteness, but this gimmick is abandoned almost immediately, allowing her to express her thoughts facially before the Colour restores her voice. Because of the international cast, the dialogue is occassionally stiff but, fortunately, this isn’t a movie rife with monologues. More is said with a glare or a tear than a line.

But where Zuccon’s film really excells is in its presentation. Serving as his own cinematographer, Zuccon fills the negative space with shafts of dirty light, presents the isolation with lovely wide-shots, contrasting with the horror of the story. The Colour is presented both practically and via CGI—and yes, you can tell the difference—and both is done to his advantage. It’s a palpable presence and its own character in the film, particularly when allowed to lurk in the frame. A less-disciplined director might be tempted to get the force in center frame scraeming “Look at me! I’m the evil Colour!”

When all is said and done, Colour from the Dark is a very satisfying cinematic experience, particularly for fans of European cinema—and I mean that in the least possible pretentous sense. Zuccon’s movie seems like the result of Pier Paolo Passolini teamed with Roger Corman. It works on multiple levels and forces the viewer to think about the story—often the kiss of death with our A.D.D. culture. But if any of the above frightens you—European crew and sensibility, lower budget, free adaptation—and you give it a miss, you might be doing yourself a disservice.

And if you’re one of the ones who’ve been whining about sequels and remakes, bemoaning the lack of intelligent horror, then shut your trap, mouthbreather, and go seek this out!

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