I first met Richard Stanley at a French café on Melrose Avenue in June of 2015. He had been peddling his long dormant screen adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s seminal “The Colour Out of Space” with little success. As fate would have it, SpectreVision had been searching for a proper Lovecraft adaptation for some time, and we felt that Richard’s daring take on the heretofore elusive material had the potential to hit the bullseye.
In the runup to our meeting, I had done some asking around and was met with a general consensus that the legendary South African filmmaker-slash-anthropologist was a mad genius who was professionally radioactive after his explosive firing from New Line’s 1996 production of The Island of Dr. Moreau. In the years since, he’d gone almost totally off the grid, and rumors had swirled about him dabbling in arcane research into ancient magick and the occult. A genuine, modern day sorcerer.
I approached our meeting at once hopeful and apprehensive. After dispensing with a few niceties, I cut to the chase: “What have you been doing since Moreau?” Without missing a beat, Richard replied, “I’ve been looking for the Holy Grail.” For a moment, I thought he was playing a prank but I quickly realized that it was anything but. He then unpacked a long and fascinating narrative that wove through South African tribal magic, Haitian Vodou, Nazi hunting and a pair of stones from outer space that secreted a medicinal, alien elixir.
In the years since that fateful meeting, Richard has become a treasured friend and ally, and I’ve grown to understand how the events of his life leading to the making of Color Out of Space present a pattern of synchronicities spanning both centuries and galaxies.
Over the course of several sessions totaling about eight hours, Richard walked me through this narrative in detail, presented here in three parts.
1: A FEW TRICKS OF FATE
Daniel Noah: Do you still have the very earliest editions of Lovecraft that you read as a child?
Richard Stanley: Yeah. He was my mother's favorite author. My mum was a graphic artist and an illustrator back in the sixties and seventies. She had a habit of picking books up when they had particularly great covers. Long before it was fashionable, I was a huge fan of people like Frank Frazetta and Tom Bruce Pennington, who did all the front covers for the Dune books, and I picked up the Lovecraft books when they came out, the beautiful Bantam and Ballantine books in the late sixties.
DN: How old were you when your mother first started reading you Lovecraft?
RS: I imagine I was probably no older than six or seven. My first introduction to Lovecraft was The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, which my mum read to me in installments. Some of Lovecraft’s early Dunsanian fantasy fiction is in fact pretty child-friendly. I was suitably enchanted. My mum was a sort of self-taught anthropologist-folklorist. She came out of a West Country English background, grew up on Dartmoor and had a very good sense of the fairy tradition and the fairy faith, which is a belief in elemental spirits and in sympathetic magic of times gone by. In the 1950s, she transplanted herself to Africa after a broken heart over a failed relationship. She went to Bulawayo in what was then Rhodesia simply because Bulawayo had the word “away” in it, and was as far as she could possibly get from West Country.
As an English woman in the 1950s transplanted to Africa, she took a strong interest in tribal magic and mythology. She saw lots of the same patterns that she was familiar with from West Country witchcraft. For a white person, she was very interested in the side of African culture that most people didn't ask questions about. And all of this led to her eventually producing a door-stopping tome of a book called The Myths and Legends of Southern Africa, which is a vast overview of the pathology of a whole cluster of Southern African tribes.
As a result, we were traveling most of the time when I was growing up. In my early preschool years, between the ages of one and about five years old, I was simply dragged around from one remote settlement to another. Wherever we went, my mother was always seeking out the local witch doctor, or the oldest ruins and rock paintings. So, as a kid, I was taught to attach a considerable degree of importance to these things. The source of the quest would be a rock painting of a mermaid in the middle of the desert, or one thing or another.
Much of my childhood was spent growing up around some extremely strange people who had some very unusual belief systems. But when you're that age, you don't see those things as unusual because you've got no normal. My normal was very strange. None of these people seemed particularly frightening to me as a child because no one had taught me to fear the supernatural. Instead, they seemed extremely entertaining. Most witchdoctors are very much showman. I've mentioned before the character of Ziswe Zonkwe, who had a party trick of putting two snakes into his mouth, and then one snake would come out of each nostril. I thought it was hysterical when I was a four-year-old.
The conversations of spirits, the ventriloquism and the atmosphere in those hut circles was, I think, a fabulous place to be growing up. As a result, when my mum first introduced H.P. Lovecraft, his work didn't seem particularly farfetched to me. It was easy to imagine as a child that the gods of old Africa and the old pagan deities still slept within the hills, and were still dormant within the trackless forests.
DN: Where was your father throughout all this?
RS: My mom divorced my father when I was four years old, so he was kind of a faint trace memory. I got to see him once in a blue moon. My mother was so insistent that men were irrelevant, that they were just kind of a burden in people's lives. So I never really gave him a fair hearing. But what I will say is that my dad contributed to my life hugely by bringing home a print of King Kong, the original, one and only Kong, which he brought home on a 16-millimeter print when I was four years old. I'd never seen a movie before. Kong made a huge and lasting impression on my life.
DN: Do you remember when you first read “The Colour Out of Space”?
RS: I didn't get to “The Colour Out of Space” until about 12 or 13. As a 13-year-old, I was already messing around with whether or not it was possible to adapt the short story into a movie. Partially because, out of all of Lovecraft’s stories, “The Colour Out of Space” is maybe the most accessible for a low-budget filmmaker, given that it's set on one farmstead and involves one family and doesn't go haring off to Antarctica or some other planet. So as a 13-year-old, I was already toying with the idea of shooting some kind of adaptation. I was doing a lot of mucking around with stop motion animation and miniature sets and monsters when I was a kid. I had the bug pretty bad.
DN: And yet you chose to study anthropology at university.
RS: The world of sorcery and the supernatural is something that came to me very young, and I did have a strong desire to keep going down that path and try and record some of the data that my mom was constantly chasing after. What becomes clear when you start to dip into the world of tribal magic and witchcraft is that it's a very organized bundle of data, as these things have been passed down from one generation to another. It's extremely structured, much more so than outsiders would imagine. It’s a body of secret data that has been passed down orally for centuries in Africa and all over the world. So there's some desire to start to unearth or to record or decrypt.
DN: Was film an option for you as a major?
RS: No, it wasn't. There was a film class that I attended one day a week, which I was eventually expelled from. We basically borrowed the equipment. I managed to get a gig where I was sent up to what they called Homeland States, where the apartheid government had created these artificial homelands for different tribal peoples. I set up a big, clunky, old-fashioned, dumb video camera to report initiation rituals and tribal dances for the college of music. So there was a crossover area where I was still working with some film technology and sound recording equipment. At that time, it was deployed strictly towards documenting tribal cultures.
DN: How did you go from being an anthropology student to becoming a director of feature films?
RS: Accidents, and a few tricks of fate. I started doing dramatic Super-8 movies in my last year at college. I cut a lot of classes in the afternoons and snuck off with one other student. We shot a 15-minute caveman movie called Rites of Passage. Partly because of its heretical, metaphysical content, as well as shots on cliff faces in South Africa that involved actual baboons and leopards, it freaked out the film tutor so badly that she expelled me and the other kid who had done the camera work on the thing. The footage was confiscated and impounded for about a year. Eventually we were able to steal back the movie and cut it back up into about 12-minute short, which then won a bunch of awards at various international and amateur student film festivals. So Rites of Passage was kind of an early hit. And the film tutor who initially expelled us actually used the success of it to draw down funding to start the Cape Town Film and Video School.
After doing a caveman movie, a logical thought to me was, if we're going to do another Super-8 movie, we need to do one which is set in the future, because we've done the ancient past. Let’s try and do something that has a science fiction basis. This led to an insane, hour-long, Super-8 film called Incidents in an Expanding Universe, which is a real saggy baggy Super-8 epic that introduces all of the principal characters from Hardware.
In the course of shooting the thing, I got drafted into the South African army. The Angolan Bush War came along, which forced me to get the hell out of the country. I fled to Namibia and then Germany and then managed to get to England, where I eventually got British citizenship under political asylum as a South African war resistor. On the loose in England, I worked my way out from doing the usual terrible jobs for the first two years -- washing kitchens, delivering newspapers, internal messenger boy in different offices. I kept making Super-8 movies. And I translated that into a one-off career doing music videos.
I was very lucky to be in London in the mid 1980s just at a point in time when music videos were really taking off, when there was kind of a potpourri of dying punk meets the beginning of the industrial scene and the emergence of the goth movement. I did a bunch of music videos for bands like Public Image Ltd, and a bunch of stuff for a goth band from Stevenage named Fields of the Nephilim. It was really these early Fields of the Nephilim music videos that drew down the interest to get Hardware going.
DN: Before I met you, someone once joked to me that you were the real-life Indiana Jones, which I think is about as true a statement as I’ve heard in that I've never met anyone else who comes as close as you do. Tell me about how the aftermath of Moreau led you to your search for the Holy Grail.
RS: The Moreau Affair was an almost cataclysmic upending of pretty much anything I had planned career-wise up to that point. I was essentially creatively toxic in Hollywood from that point onwards. Nobody was returning my calls. I figured that my career as a director of dramatic feature films was pretty much over. At the same time, given the unique circumstances of the Moreau Affair, I was part of a pay-or-play deal, and I’d actually been paid pretty handsomely to step away from the project. So there was no particular reason for me to have to work.
It was very difficult to figure out which direction to take. I split up with my first partner at that point, and my dad died around the same time. I pretty much wandered the earth. I ended up first in a sanctuary for traumatized chimpanzees in Entebbe, Uganda. It was a place where they bring in chimpanzees that had been confiscated at different customs points. Usually, when people smuggled chimps, they killed the parents and took the babies. So when you get the baby back, you can't send it home because it doesn't have parents anymore, and there's no one to teach it how to survive in the wild. So this was kind of a halfway house for traumatized chimp orphans. I did volunteer work there to try to work off my sins from Moreau.
Then the Rwandan genocide happened in the country next door, and conditions became pretty dodgy. So I caught a bunch of Matatus – African taxis – and then walked and worked my way down to the Virunga Mountains. I ended up coming into contact with a bunch of silverback gorillas and seeing the Kong-like, huge, Buddha-like male sitting in the tree, which was his throne and also his bed and also his food because he was eating the leaves surrounded by all of his wives and children around him. It was like being in the presence of the first man, seeing Adam and a bunch of silverback Eves. I felt like I'd sort of come all the way back to the Garden of Eden.
It seemed like a good place to zero out the speedometer. I had pretty much burned my Filofax from the Eighties and Nineties, and I had opted not to contact anyone from my old life again and make a clean slate of things. The next few years, I started making documentaries again and did some stuff for the BBC, who sent me to Haiti, of all places, to document the voodoo festivals, which gave me an opportunity to go through the voodoo initiation.
While I was in Haiti, it was re-occupied by America. Aristide was deposed and the place was gate-crashed by Marines. Because we happened to be standing around with BBC press passes and all this great equipment, suddenly we found ourselves covering the U.S. occupation of Haiti. In the course of that, I was asked by Channel Four Television to research a possible Raiders of the Lost Ark, real-life Indiana Jones type show.
DN: One of the things that always blows me away when you tell these stories is that there’s this sort of popularized mythology about Hitler and the Nazis secretly investigating the paranormal and UFOs, and it turns out that it's true!
RS: There's an awful lot of murkiness surrounding the world of Nazi occultism. It's a very toxic spiritual territory to go near. There's a huge amount of outright bullshit and phantasmagoric material which has been propagated via the internet and via popular literature over the years. But there's no smoke without fire. At its dark heart, there is some basis to the wildly exaggerated mythology.
The Ahnenerbe were conventional academics who had been corrupted by the Nazis to turn their research towards providing the largely spurious scientific and ideological underpinnings for the Holocaust. An awful lot of academics tarnished their reputations by taking Nazi coin under this program. At the same time, quite a lot of very interesting work was carried out. In some cases, the academics and researchers working for the SS delivered the goods.
I got dispatched to Europe with a handsome research budget from Channel Four Television’s religion department to try and find surviving members of the Ahnenerbe. As a result, I found myself doing a bit of late season Nazi hunting. It was the mid to late Nineties, so there were still a number of folk alive at that time who had in fact been in command positions back in the heyday of the SS.
In the course of looking deeper into the folks who were in charge at that point in time, and trying to figure out how many of them were still alive and whether I'd be able to get any of them to consent to being interviewed for television, I focused increasingly on a character named Otto Rahn, who had been an Obersturmführer in Heinrich Himmler’s SS, but who was also a passionate medievalist obsessed with the story of the quest for the Holy Grail.
Channel Four Television had wanted an “Ark of the Covenant” story, but there was no evidence that the Nazis or the SS or anyone else had ever been looking for an Ark of the Covenant. But the more I looked into it, the more I saw that there was a very solid Nazi Grail story, which I endeavored to sell to Channel Four. That story turned out to be too dark and twisted for the “Real-Life Indiana Jones” slot. But I kept going with the research. By then I'd met so many people and interviewed so many folks that I couldn't really turn away from it. In particular the story of Otto Rahn.
Tomorrow: Nazis, the Holy Grail, secret societies and bleeding stones from space line Richard Stanley’s curious journey from Hollywood exile to the cinematic resurrector of HP Lovecraft.
Daniel Noah is a partner and Head of Development for SpectreVision, the award-winning indie genre company behind such titles as A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night and Mandy. He is co-host of the acclaimed podcast, “Visitations with Elijah Wood and Daniel Noah.”