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.
My biggest complaints of Lovecraft adaptations—besides, you know, not adapting the material well—take two forms:
- This movie is dreadfully boring.
- This movie is weirdly offensive.
I usually don’t even have to pick. Horror movie directors plunder Lovecraft’s bibliography, strip out the intelligence, bludgeon the pace with poor dialogue/cinematography, and then—when all interest has left the building—throw in some weirdly regressive character traits for its invented female characters. In this context, H.P. Lovecraft’s Cool Air (2013) is great; it captures most of what is awful about Lovecraft flicks in a brief 80-minute run-time. And believe me, I intend to back up that claim. But I am going to at least try to be even-handed, and see exactly where the massive room for improvement rears its head.
Lovecraft’s Cool Air follows a narrator with an eccentric but incredibly kind upstairs neighbor in a crappy New York City apartment complex. The neighbor, Dr. Muñoz, is an old and sick man who needs extreme cold to live. The two meet when the narrator experiences a heart attack, and their relationship turns dramatic when Dr. Muñoz’s machinery breaks down. SPOILERS The narrator cannot save the doctor in time, and learns that Dr. Muñoz had died a long time before. His quickly decomposed corpse is all that remains. END SPOILERS
The story provides a pretty solid base to build from, and screenwriter Cynthia Curnan isn’t relentlessly faithful to the original story. That’s a good thing, actually. A writer needs to change the material to fit her desired story and the medium of film. But the changes don’t add much. The landlord (Wendy Phillips)—a bit character in the original story—becomes a conduit for the Muñoz analogue, Dr. Torres. But the power of the original story was the personal relationship to the doctor, and losing that in favor of a faceless villain and poorly written lackey…well, all of the impact is gone. We don’t connect to Torres’s plight. In the original story, Dr. Muñoz’s transgressions conflicted with our sympathy for him, and that made him interesting. But because Curnan wants this to be a horror story, with Dr. Torres being the bad guy, we’re clearly supposed to fear him. But instead, the doctor is just Evil for Reasons, and we don’t even see him or the effects of his “condition.” The central horror and heart of the story are gone. The always-witty Will Standish (of A Bomb in the Lasagna and Capes on Camera) summed it up perfectly: “Oh man, you know what would improve this already great story? Stupid bullshit.”
The aforementioned stupid bullshit, though, goes way beyond this change. The key issue is the introduction of a romantic interest. I don’t have any inherent problem with this, because I’ve sadly come to accept that it’s a narrative device I need to accept; directors and writers will opt to include it because thinking of something actually gripping and fitting for the story is hard. But Curnan and director Albert Pyun decided to put their wits together to create Estella (Jenny Dare Paulin), a character who is—in the protagonist’s own words—seemingly “autistic.” Of course, this is bad-writing-autism, not to be confused with the actual autism that real people deal with every day. Symptoms of bad-writing-autism are namely not talking except for when it conveniences the plot, and stuttering in a really unbelievable way. The result is an infantilized adult female who is simultaneously sexualized. If that wasn’t gross enough, the main character, Charles (Morgan Weisser) appears to have a compulsive need to say the word autistic in increasingly inappropriate sentences, culminating in: “Autistic hottie…would that be an oxymoron?”
A female lead who is pointlessly childlike and “sexy” should bother anyone who likes good writing and has enough empathy to dislike the objectification of women in film. But if that’s not enough for you, the faux-disability adds some good-ol’-fashioned ableism, using the character’s mental illness in place of characterization. Considering the narrator’s obsession with Estella’s disability, you’d think his unprecedented, sudden, and potent hallucinations garner more than a shrug, but I guess we’ll have to chalk that up to horror movie logic.
To focus on the litany of bland and poorly written characters in Cool Air, though, is to miss the dilapidated wood for the rotting trees. First of all, there is an unbearable amount of narration in this movie. The opening consists of aimless shots and a voice-over that goes on so long that you could just read the original story before the actual plot begins—which, I might add, is a much better use of your time. Then, there’s an extended credits sequence with ambiguous close-ups of an un-discussed artifact. If you’re still paying attention after the overlong introductory sequences, then you’ll be treated to a lot more narration over the course of the film. There are segments between 5 and 10 minutes of pure voice over info dump, losing even the most patient and forgiving viewer. At times, the narration covers stuff that’s already been explained in scene. A freshman in Intro to Film Studios who thinks Quentin Tarantino is the greatest film director to ever live could have caught that massive flaw in the revision process.
And while I’m loathe to criticize an indie production for poor production qualities, there does reach a point where you can’t use the “We’re on a budget!” excuse. Examples of this include inconsistent lighting, horrendously recorded dialogue (switching between volumes/quality between characters in the same conversation), and special effects that ignore the implied depth of a shot. Further, the visual language of cinema is never used, or at least not well. At best, in one scene a side-character provides a “creepy” info dump for the narrator, who is bedridden due to a surprise heat attack that lasts five hours and is stopped by a guy confusedly rubbing an artifact against his face. The camera sits at a dutch angle with a wide shot that captures both characters. The problem here is that we’re supposed to be experiencing complete terror, but instead we just see the guy fidgeting in bed, clearly uncomfortable. The dutch angle attempts to make up some ground, but is akin to dumping salt on your dinner because you didn’t know how to use spices.
I will credit the screenwriter with attempts to capture the metafictional play in the original story. Instead of a pulp writer like the original unnamed narrator, Charles is a screenwriter, struggling to get through his writer’s block. But that impulse doesn’t really go anywhere, besides reminding us that Charles is a writer and occasionally showing him writing in a word processor. This was the type of creativity that Curnan should have explored more (or at all) for something mildly unique.
Cool Air needed several read-overs of the screenplay, as many complete re-writes, and a lot more thought. The actors are slightly above the level of the rest of the film, and possibly would have excelled given a better context, but there’s no way to know for certain. Everything adds up to monotony, 78 minutes that feel like well over 120, and none of them are memorable. If you want to make a Lovecraft movie, then watch this to see how (probably well-intentioned) people fail to capture an audience. Learn from their mistakes. Make changes that help you tell the story, rather than cover up the original tale’s potency. As a fandom, we need to demand better products than this; as creators, you need to meet us halfway.