Efforts to take ‘20s horror maestro H.P. Lovecraft’s work to the movies have tended to induce groans than terror.
Although Stuart Gordon’s obsession with Lovecraft gave us an extraordinary film with Re-animator, its hard to imagine how that flick could have been more different from its source material. John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness may be the best of the films that borrows from Lovecraft. Carpenter, however, captures the Lovecraftian spirit without really bringing to the screen any one of his stories in particular, instead investing the film with the same sense of brooding, unearthly mind-ripping terror that Lovecraft could inspire. (Carpenter did much the same with his 1981 The Thing).
Albert Pyun’s effort at bringing the Providence, Rhode Island, author of weird fiction to the screen hews closer to the master’s work, but fails to give us a film worth watching. Lovecraft wrote a nasty little scare call “Cool Air” that, while much less well-known than masterpieces like “At the Mountains of Madness” or “Call of Cthulhu, manages to pack into just a few pages plenty of his trademark squishy macabre.
In this new celluloid version, alas, the macabre has evaporated.
The film follows failed screenwriter Charlie Baxter (Morgan Weisser) who rents a room in a down-at-the-heels Malibu McMansion with other strange tenants, one of whom is “the Doctor”. We don’t see this eccentric at first, learning only that their room must be kept below 55 degree °F (for unnatural purposes, it turns out).
Pyun and his screenwriters mix in a number of elements not found in the short story. The odd landlady (described as a failed Southern California trophy wife) has a gorgeous autistic daughter (yes, you read this right). Taking the story out of New York does no harm to the narrative and allows for a bit of California noir narration. Giving Baxter an interior monologue provides a vehicle for putting much of the language of Lovecraft himself into the script.
Certainly the most substantial change concerns the identity of the doctor. The mad scientist appears in a very, very different incarnation from Lovecraft’s story. I don’t want to spoil this, as it’s central to what appeal the film musters and the story feels like it picks up substantially, if briefly, when this character comes on scene.
Also to the film’s credit, a number of lines from Lovecraft’s original story make their way into the script, including a version of the main character’s opening monologue. The script often creatively reimagines some of the original authors words as, for example, when one of Lovecraft’s racist comments about Hispanics gets a jab at Hollywood execs and studio hangers-on.
There are other minor efforts to connect the film to the Lovecraft ethos. Images of what could be Lovecraftian Old Ones appear during the credits, as does an opening epigraph from an entirely different short story
Although coming in at a very slim 78 minutes (that includes an interminable credits sequence), Cool Air moves slowly ,without ever really managing to create any tension. Flat acting accounts for much of the feeling of slackness. But part of the problem, too, comes from a script that can’t produce dialogue. In one scene, Weisser half-heartedly mouths, “Should I call the paramedics?” as a body dissolves into swirling nothingness in his arms.
This really sums up the film’s basic failing as a horror film: it’s just not that scary on any level. There’s an effort at a food gross-out that both doesn’t work and doesn’t make sense. Moreover, the final ten minutes will leave your mind reeling… not from Lovecraftian nihilistic horror, but from having absolutely no idea what to make of what happens. A ham-handed effort to blend the original short story with what might be going on with that beautiful autistic daughter takes us exactly nowhere.
Be further warned that production values here are low. The photography has a milky quality and special effects are more or less nonexistent. What could have been the film’s single scene of shocking gruesome horror feels like watching a bad reenactment on a basic cable paranormal ghost-hunting show
Cool Air comes with zero special features (in fact, it advertises its trailers as special features). On the one hand, this maybe makes some sense, given that it’s difficult to imagine anyone wanting director’s commentary and making of featurettes. At the same time, this often feels like it underscores how little time and attention went into the making of the film. No one even bothered to label the scenes.
The effort to stay true to the spirit of Lovecraft’s short story deserves a bit of recognition but in general Cool Air shouldn’t take up our time. The work of the dark spirit that haunted Providence, and the American horror tradition, deserves better.