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.
Hello, all. It’s been a while since I’ve checked out a Lovecraft film adaptation, so I was enthused to hear my friend and housemate mention that he had to view the adaptation of Cool Air featured in the first volume of the DVD series, The H. P. Lovecraft Collection, from 1999. The semi-short feature (about 47 minutes) seemed inoffensive and possibly quite fun, perhaps invoking some of the hilarious silliness that thinking back over The Dunwich Horror (1970, see review above) yields.
I was wrong. I should’ve known better, considering how poor Lovecraft adaptations are wont to be and the particularly detrimental effects low budgets have on directors that lack a lot of cleverness. Cool Air saw a previously lackluster rendition in the likes of Rod Serling’s Night Gallery (see review above), but this one really takes the cake in terms of poor depiction of the source material.
In terms of problems that clearly result from the lack of budget, I have to point to the poor cinematography and lighting. Few scenes are above the quality that one would expect from a kid playing with a Super 8 camera, and the shots have a black and white style that does not reflect old school thrillers, but rather the cheap sensibility of home movies. That does not bode well for horror. The cheap aesthetic—and I don’t just mean grainy black-and-white; there are also shots that don’t know where to place the subjects and thus look comically constructed—precludes investment in the story and any sense of fear. I could not buy into this world as any form of reality, which differs from the worlds Lovecraft built on the page.
That being said, there is the occasionally inspired moment. When Randolph Carter (named after a common character in Lovecraft’s stories for seemingly no reason other than to go, “Look at our reference!”), the main character renting an apartment in a crappy house, has a heart attack, the cinematography properly captures the frightening uncertainty of what’s going on. In fact, the director, Bryan Moore, and cinematographer, Michael Bratkowski, mask the budget with some solid camera tricks and story-relevant camerawork, almost implying that they know how to work with a low-budget.
Barring that scene, though, there is incredible indulgence going on in the editing and directing departments. When Randolph Carter’s elderly and mysterious neighbor, Dr. Muñoz, talks about his past, the camera pans up and over, and then fades into a photograph of his lover, which is not only ineffective but slightly hilarious in its blatant schlock. Cheesy might be the proper adjective. Then, when he describes the loss of his love, it fades to the picture on fire, in case we can’t get the point of the pointlessly long monologue on its own. Above that, there’s an incredibly indulgent scene where opera plays in the background as strangely selected shots (the kind that look nice but are only good when relevant to the portrayal of the narrative, which they aren’t here) capture the various people in the hotel.
I could forgive this indulgence if it weren’t just another example of how this movie wastes the viewer’s time. Outside of this attempt fpr artistic cinematography, the movie spends most of its short run time on extended scenes of exposition. The characters vent their entire pasts in one sitting, effectively revealing the (irrelevant parts of the) story in a quick burst, which feels unnatural and makes any attentive viewer wonder if the screenwriters understand how pacing works. In Lovecraft’s stories, the narrator would often recount the knowledge gained over a long period of time all at once; this worked, though, because he or she (mostly he) was the focus, and assured the reader that all of this info wasn’t relegated by the mysterious person after meeting a few minutes ago. Here, all the info is dumped immediately, which is not only unnatural, but also really boring.
There are so many minutes spent on one person talking about stuff that doesn’t even matter, some ineffective backstory that means to draw emotion but instead shows a photograph on fire because it can’t even accomplish that. The director attempts to intercut these with Carter taking a twenty second break in his room, but then he jumps right back into exposition. That’s not ominous; it’s incredibly, incredibly monotonous.
And beyond that, these stories do not add to the horror. After all the sap stories are said and done, this movie spends its last act trying to be a horror story, in which Dr. Muñoz’s mystery illness is affected by the failure of his machine, which keeps the room at a perfectly cold temperature. The fright is in what’s happening to his body, which we never see spare a flipper covered in ace bandages and a glimpse of a decayed hand. None of the exposition mattered, at least none that couldn’t have been salvaged in an eighth of the time taken. If the director wanted atmosphere, he shouldn’t have wasted time on uninteresting backstory and then attempted to make up for it with irrelevant horror.
I’m almost even more disappointed by all this because the acting was actually pretty good. Jack Donner is engaging as Dr. Muñoz in spite of the script; Vera Lockwood acts well as the Italian caricature landlord, even if the character is awful and makes no sense. She too has an extended sprawl of exposition early on, but then berates Carter for looking at her as she tells an extended story, blames him for taking up her time that she took telling the story, and then makes a hilariously pointless angry-point-gesture as she leaves. Moore, who is also the director, is good enough as Carter, even if the character is as dull as the movie’s color palate. But the characters are either uninteresting, over-talkative, or racial caricatures that offend with their laziness more than anything (there’s a money-grubbing laborer who is apparently Hispanic). These characters are not only poorly written, but boring as all hell to watch.
The one scene where Carter gets a moment for character development is when he discusses his job: writer for a pulp magazine. He opines that the work is “steady,” which considering Lovecraft’s experience—the dude who wrote the story this is based on—is not at all true. The guy also writes off the material as “hack” work, claiming it has no real value and is rooted in cheap tricks that do not at all reflect that of literature. Clearly, having a guy write fantastical horror for pulp magazines in a Lovecraft story is meant to at least reference the author, but all this seems to do is diminish him to a hack writer. Lovecraft would gladly have published in higher-brow markets if possible, because he thought his work was more thoughtful (and, in consideration of a lot of the competing writers, he might have been correct). So why have the protagonist say this drivel? To remark that it’s not hackwork? I didn’t see that point made anywhere. This scene is mean-spirited at best, and entirely pointless at worst.
I know this is a low-budget indie flick, but is it too much to ask for some standards? I don’t even mean all-around. A nice script with good pacing and writing, some solid editing, purposeful camerawork and cinematography, or even some creepiness shoved in somewhere would’ve been nice. I’m all for encouraging people to experiment and try to explore their passions, but there comes a point where we have to draw a line in the sand in terms of quality, and recognize that no one making Lovecraft adaptations are coming within view of that line. Having a low budget means a director should find out how to work within those constraints, as opposed to attempting to make a standard movie but with poorer everything. Maybe I’m being unfair to Cool Air, but I cannot abide these lazy attempts to capture a solid horror writer’s work.