It's tough to choose an appropriate movie for Halloween. Tempting to go out with a bang. What's most appropriate? Something classy? Something nostalgic? Camp weirdness? It's tempting to say that I put a lot of thought into my Halloween plans, but really, my thought process is "what haven't I seen that wouldn't be an embarrassing way to sign off for the year?" Last year we had a guest and I planned accordingly. This year I went through my DVD collection, looking for stuff I hadn't seen. Between Die Farbe and Troma's Body Parts, Die Farbe won.
I don't think you'll have heard of Die Farbe. It's a German film from a few years ago. All the podcasts I listen to were raving about it when it came out, but it didn't make much of a splash otherwise; foreign, black-and-white adaptations of semi-obscure horror fiction are not popular with mainstream audiences.
Anyway, I asked my friend evil_jim to pick up a copy at the 2012 H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival, and then it sat on my shelf for a long time. I couldn't say why, exactly, except that I knew it was going to be Bleak and Serious, and those are not two words I like to associate with my horror movies. Not that I can't handle bleak and serious, just, you know, when it comes to horror I'm usually looking for trash, not art.
The title Die Farbe translates to "The Color", and in fact, it is an adaptation of "The Colour Out of Space" by H.P. Lovecraft, which was adapted in the late '80s as The Curse, which I reviewed in 2011. At that time, I briefly described the plot of the original story as follows:
"The Colour Out of Space" takes place on a small farm outside of Arkham, MA where a meteorite lands and dissolves into the soil, contaminating the water, the crops, and eventually the cattle. Everything that's contaminated takes on a color that nobody's seen before. Actually, "color" is only an analogy -- it's so weird and alien that nobody can figure out exactly how to describe what's going on. At any rate, the crops are tasteless and inedible, and the animals are simply falling apart, and pretty soon the Gardener family starts to be affected. At the end everybody dies, and everything is ruined. It's incredibly bleak."The Colour Out of Space" tends to make a real impression on people. A lot of people vaunt it as HPL's finest story, and non-Lovecraft fans consider it the exception to the rule. I've heard British horror writers Of a Certain Age (okay, Brian Lumley and Ramsey Campbell) both mention it as a defining milestone in their young lives; apparently it was published in a British anthology in the '60s, where it stood out starkly from the other tales of broad-chested Aryan supermen defending the Earth against various Creeping, Oozing, and Pulsating Menaces from Space.
My own interesting experience with "The Color Out of Space" happened early in the year 2000. I had just finished reading the story, and had begun reading The War of the Worlds, in which the Martians travel to earth via cylinders, which are launched in an eruption of green smoke. That night I ran into a year-old article in the Philadelphia Inquirer which described circumstances eerily similar to those in "The Colour Out of Space". Later in the same evening I was stargazing with evil_jim, and just as I finished relating the story of the newspaper article, a green shooting star streaked across the sky. The next morning I switched to nonfiction.
The Curse takes the campy '80s horror approach to this material. There's a lot of action. Die Farbe is much slower, much more insidious. In it, an American named Jonathan Davis travels to rural Germany to find his missing father. The elder Davis was stationed there in World War II, and returned there recently. No one has seen him since. Jonathan begins his search, and eventually somebody recognizes the photo he's been passing around. The man tells him the story of how, back in the '30s, a strange meteorite crashed on the Gärtener farm. Its composition confounded the experts who never got a good chance to study it--it simply dissolved into the ground, into the water, where it began to affect the vegetation... Some years later, the farm is invaded by American GIs who want to use it as a makeshift medical facility, which is where Jonathan's father gets involved. The Americans can see that something is wrong here... maybe they should check the well...
Nothing leaps out of the well at this point. It's not that kind of movie. It builds slowly, ominously, and deliberately. The plot is constructed of many layers, narratives within other narratives. The ideas here really are frightening, and the execution is perfect; it builds and builds and never lets up. I guess that there is a Big Reveal at the end of the movie--it's part of the original story too. But it's really not the kind of Big Reveal that climaxes the story; the point here is the journey to the buildup, and the fact that nothing is ever truly resolved.
"The Colour Out of Space" has been adapted before--I recall mentioning Die, Monster, Die! when I wrote up The Curse. But neither of those movies really gets it right; they're both silly, Hollywood versions of a story that seems too slow and subtle to film. Clearly, it's not too slow or subtle, because Die Farbe gets it right. There are no big scares here, just the oppressiveness of the inexorably encroaching decay. There are no laughs, either. No levity at all, and no monsters or knife-wielding killers. The performances are good, but I think Mr. Vu's script, and his commitment to a slow-moving horror movie are really what make it succeed.
It's not a perfect film--the low budget pokes through in a few places, and the German accent of the actor playing Jonathan Davis stands out in the English dub, which is funny because the other characters are clearly dubbed by Americans. But these gripes seem inconsequential in light of sixty years of bad Lovecraft adaptations. The important stuff--the stuff I care about--is all here, and it all works. And considering that they've moved the story forward in time and across an ocean, that's not a small victory.
Die Farbe was adapted and directed by Huan Vu, a German filmmaker who has only one other credit on IMDB: Damnatus, a fan film based on the Warhammer 40,000 game. Damnatus is "banned" for complicated reasons involving German Intellectual Property law, and I downloaded a torrent of it years ago. I was curious, but not so curious that I actually sat through it. Now it appears I'm going to have to make time for it, because Die Farbe was so good.
Excuse me. I need to stretch my legs. Splash some water on my face. Pour myself some coffee.
Stories like "The Colour Out of Space" and movies like Die Farbe take a little out of a guy. It didn't "mess me up", the way I was told that A Serbian Film would, but I need a break. I need some air. I need to think about something else for a little while. I'd have preferred to go out on a lighter note, I think, but we've had plenty of lighter notes this month; nice to remember that Halloween hasn't always been about exposed cleavage and candy.
Anyway, in the words of the narrator from Count Duckula goodnight, whatever you are. Count Duckula, like Mr. Boogedy, probably does not hold up.
Click here to watch the trailer