Eldritch Adaptations: Rod Serling’s ‘Night Gallery’s’ H. P. Lovecraft’s Pickman’s Model (…and “Cool Air”)

Eldritch Adaptations

Eldritch Adaptations is a series of reviews of movies based on or heavily inspired by the works of Howard Phillips Lovecraft—better known as H. P. Lovecraft—an American horror writer who produced numerous stories during the 1920s and ’30s.  His works have influenced the horror genre and inspired major writers and directors like Guillermo del Toro, John Carpenter, Neil Gaiman, Stephen King, Joyce Carol Oates, and many more.

Rod Serling is an amazing human being.  I’ve written before (here and here) about my love for his 1950s sci-fi anthology series, The Twilight Zone, a show that managed to slip through censorship by telling science fiction stories (no one thought that sci-fi should be taken seriously or could speak to real social issues), but spoke more to the truth than most other television of the time by using the “unrealistic” aspects of the genre to get at the reality of human experience.  Serling, the creator of the series, wrote 92 of the 156 scripts.  Seriously, isn’t that impressive?

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Oh Rod, you’re such a handsome devil.

Following that, Serling went on to host (via opening monologues, as he did with The Twilight Zone) and provide some scripts for the anthology series Night Gallery, which I’d not actually checked out until I realized that two episodes—not written by Serling—were adaptations of H. P. Lovecraft stories.  The two stories, “Pickman’s Model” and “Cool Air” are slightly lesser known pieces from the Lovecraft canon, but sufficiently creepy to warrant adaptation in a Serling-esque series.  And, honestly, considering that a lot of Lovecraft adaptations are bearable at best, I was excited to see a short-format take in a series I assumed to be of at least reasonable quality.

Overall, before going into the specific episodes, I think that the show does a decent job of adapting the stories.  The episodes are a bit hokey, and they’ve aged worse than the ten-years-older episodes of The Twilight Zone, but they also have interesting plots and characters that at least make the viewing interesting.  Lovecraft was an incredibly eerie writer, but he was also an engaging one—at least, in my opinion—and so if you can’t make the stories chill you to the bone, then making them interesting is a nice bone to be thrown (I’m looking at you, The Dunwich Horror).

Bone-chilling, I say!

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Bone-chilling, I say!

Are these fantastic adaptations that truly dig into the heart of the story?  Not particularly, but at least they’re nice, short viewing for people that don’t know the stories, and interesting takes on the original tales for those that do.  So let’s take a slightly closer look, starting with…,

“Pickman’s Model” (1971)

Plot: An artist, Richard Upton Pickman (Bradford Dillman), has vanished.  We go back to just before his disappearance and see that Pickman was an art teacher.  A young woman,  Mavis Goldsmith (Louise Sorel) has taken quite a liking to him; she particularly finds his paintings of fiendish ghouls intriguing, especially since his mantra is to “paint what you see.”   Goldsmith stalks Pickman and sneaks into his studio—which he specifically forbade—and discovers that his artistic secrets are of terrible origin.

The episode gets off to an interesting start, with inspectors pondering over Pickman’s disappearance.  Then, the camera zooms into the painting, and zooms out to reveal that we’re back before Pickman’s disappearance.  The technique is used a couple times, and while it comes across as a little gimmicky, I think it reflects the original story surprisingly well.  The camera itself is interacting with the painting, which seems like just a picture, to reveal the whole story that the picture is related to.  This reflects Pickman’s paintings, which seem like just a picture of some fabricated monster, even though they actually hold a more troubling reality and story within them.

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“If you look closely, you can see that this article was written by an English major.”

The replacement of the original narrator with a love interest isn’t really surprising for a basic cable TV show in the early 70s, although I was impressed that it didn’t totally replace the original story with a silly romance.  I mean, the subplot is silly, but ultimately the idea of the artist inspired by foul creatures is at the forefront, and while the reveal is similarly a bit cheesy by today’s standards, the development of Pickman’s character and the unsettling reality surrounding him is done quite well.  In fact, the Night Gallery episode adds a more human investment into the story, which one could easily argue is lacking in Lovecraft’s original.

“Cool Air”

Plot: Agatha Howard (Barbara Rush), daughter of an MIT professor, goes to an apartment to see her deceased father’s old friend and colleague, Dr. Juan Munos (Henry Darrow).  Although she is put off by his cold (refrigerated) apartment, which he claims he can’t leave due to a life-threatening illness, she starts to care about him and visit him frequently.  All is well until one night the refrigeration unit that keeps his room cold breaks, and she tries in vain to keep Dr. Munos cool enough to survive the night.

Again, we have the main narrator replaced with a love interest, and again the result is relatively non-offensive.  In the original short story, the visitor is a fellow tenant of the apartment who lives below the doctor; one night, he needs medicine and runs to the man’s apartment, who concocts a miraculous potion to save his life.  The visits become more frequent, and Dr. Munos’ need to keep cool becomes increasingly drastic, as does his odd behavior.  The climax in the original feels a lot more organic, whereas here the love story does over-romanticize it a bit and thus diminish the horror and creepiness.  Still, the idea is interesting enough to keep an audience entertained for the duration of the episode.

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Or at least, his facial hair is.

Honestly, I know that this all sounds like faint praise; both episodes are just entertaining enough, and the sad part is…that makes them some of the better Lovecraft adaptations out there.  I had a reasonably fun time watching them, and that’s more than I can say for a lot of the movies and shows floating around out there that try to play with the famous horror author’s work.  Night Gallery modernizes the stories a bit into 1970s, in terms of style—with all the good and bad that entails—and at least has both dedication to the story and a desire to try something new.  These episodes aren’t the best, but I’ll give them credit for not being anywhere near the worst.

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