May 16 2010

H.P. Lovecraft Collection, Vol. I — Cool Air [review]

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Inspired by the recent H.P. Lovecraft Literary Podcast episode covering the original short story, I decided to try my luck with The H.P. Lovecraft Collection, Vol. 1: Cool Air, originally released in 1999. I was a bit nervous — Lovecraft has often been less than well-served by film — but I must admit I was impressed with this production.

The plot is very faithful to the original story: in an unspecified year of the 1920s, Randolph Carter (nudge, nudge, wink, wink — Lovecraft never identified the narrator of his story by name), a young writer new to “the city” (presumably New York, given that almost every character in the story except the protagonist is a European immigrant) takes up lodging in a cheap-but-clean-enough apartment building and works himself to exhaustion trying to make a living in the poorly-paying horror pulps. A mysterious leak of ammonia into his apartment from the tenant directly above leads to the revelation by the landlady that he is the once-great Dr. Muñoz of Barcelona, now retired and sick, requiring peculiar treatments for his mysterious illness — including a gasoline-driven, ammonia-based cooling system that keeps his apartment very cold, even during such an unusually-warm summer as they’re currently experiencing. When Carter is suddenly struck with a heart attack, in desperation he pulls himself up the stairs to collapse at the doctor’s door.

Dr. Muñoz, retired and sick though he may be, pulls Carter back from the brink of death and gives him a mysterious medicine that will preserve Carter from “any more such fits in his lifetime.” The two then strike up the beginnings of a warm friendship, Carter providing Dr. Muñoz with company in his long, illness-forced seclusion, and Dr. Muñoz providing Carter with the only intelligent and sympathetic conversation he can find. Dr. Muñoz reveals that in Spain twenty years ago, he was first diagnosed with a rapidly-degenerative condition that would surely have killed him except that he and a colleague managed to hit upon a formula that was something closer to witchcraft than known science, but would keep Muñoz alive — as long as he was kept cold.

For a brief period, life continues in this vein, and Dr. Muñoz reveals more details of his previous life, including the death of his wife during a cholera epidemic and ruminations his enclosed-in-a-cage existence. And all is well, if melancholy, until one day Carter is alerted by thumping from the room above, apparently a call for help from Dr. Muñoz. Carter runs up to find the doctor in a state of near-panic: his cooling machine has broken down, and Dr. Muñoz can’t survive if the temperature goes up too high. As Carter runs off to find ice and an electrician, Dr. Muñoz’s condition rapidly goes from bad to worse, leading up to the final awful revelation.

Make no mistake: this film, much like the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society’s later Call of Cthulhu, is filmed in black and white and largely on the cheap. Although there is just enough costuming/set/prop work to establish “the ’20s,” it depends entirely on the acting and direction to carry it through. In fact, it looks almost like a student film. Carter’s antique typewriter and Dr. Muñoz’s early-early model air conditioner probably took most of the special effects budget.

That said, the acting and direction are just fine, so this really isn’t a problem. Jack Donner in particular, in the role of Dr. Muñoz, is extremely effective. He plays the role with a kind of understated intensity that could easily have turned into camp in the wrong hands, making the whole thing very believable. Bryan Moore, as Carter, is slightly less polished as an actor but still never distracts from the moment. As the audience-stand-in character, his somewhat-weary-but-still-plugging-away young Carter has just enough characterizing to be believable, without drawing attention away from Muñoz, the true star of the show.

As a Lovecraft fan, my only real kibitz with the piece is a certain undertone of schmaltzeyness which doesn’t quite fit. Dr. Muñoz pines for his lost wife Rosa (material not in the original story) to the point of tears and has nightmares in which he’s searching vainly for her; and he repeatedly tells Carter “not to underestimate the power of human will.” Where the short story’s version of this idea implies a certain “stubbornness from beyond the grave” creepiness, in the film it ends up sounding almost like a “You can do anything if you wish hard enough!” sort of homily. The added material about Rosa puts a dreamy interlude where the original story has Dr. Muñoz undergoing rapid degeneration, necessitating that he delve further into the occult and constantly crank down the temperature until it’s finally at sub-zero levels. Thus the crisis brought on by the failure of the air conditioning unit, the final straw of a rapidly-approaching doom in the short story, comes off more as a sudden strike out of the blue in the film, blunting the final horror just a tad in my opinion.

That, however, is primarily a matter of emphasis. Dr. Muñoz’s lonely nightmares of searching for a peace with Rosa that he can never find certainly suggest as bleak a picture as anything Lovecraft put to pen, so it’s hard to say that the changes are wrong; if anything, I would guess that it was a way to cut out a sequence that would have taken a lot of resources to film and required a lot more filling in of details. Lovecraft had the luxury of summarizing Dr. Muñoz’s descent in four paragraphs; Moore and his team had a 45 minute film in which to tell the whole tale.

So, all in all, a fine production, and well recommended to any fan of Lovecraft, weird fiction, or even just indie film. It’s available on DVD, or to watch instantly via download on Netflix.

-The Gneech

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