Friday, October 08, 2010

Subzero


I suppose it's appropriate that H. P. Lovecraft should live on in films made by his legion of fans. It wasn't until comparatively late in his career that Lovecraft was regularly published in professional magazines. His earliest publications were in amateur magazines and there's a touch of the amateur--in the traditional sense of "doing it for love"--in all of Lovecraft's work. This is something that movies based on Lovecraft fail time and again to capture, in part, because they fail to meet Lovecraft on his own terms. Even when they hit the notes, they usually miss the music. But fans? They approach Lovecraft perhaps too reverentially, but in doing so, come nearer to the heart of the man's work. You see this in the silent Call of Cthulhu feature made by the Lovecraft Historical Society. You also see it in Cool Air, adapted into a 1999 short feature by director Bryan Moore. Like The Call of Cthulhu, the movie version of Cool Air contrives a retro look and feel. It looks very much like a movie from the 1930s, though it does concede a much more accomplished soundtrack (it has an excellent score by Steven A. Yeaman) and 16mm black and white cinematography by Michael Bratkowski that is as much European art film as it is retro talkie. For that matter, this, among all of Lovecraft's stories, seems like the fuel for an art film. The filmmakers may be fans of Lovecraft, but they're obviously fans of cinema as well. Certainly, professional filmmakers have foundered on the same material.*



The story here follows Lovecraft's literary alter ego, Randolph Carter, to a boarding house in New York City. In this film, Carter is recast as a stand-in for Lovecraft himself; he's a writer of weird pulp stories of the sort found in Weird Tales. Carter's new digs are spartan, but it gives him a space to write until he notices a pool of ammonia dripping onto his floor from the apartment upstairs. His landlady tells him that it comes from Dr. Muñoz. Shortly afterward, Carter has a mild heart attack and makes his way to the good doctor's place in extremis. After he recovers, he strikes up a friendship. Muñoz, it seems, has a rare ailment that prevents him from leaving his apartment, where he has set up a machine to keep the temperature below freezing. It's the machine that leaks the ammonia. When one day, the machine breaks, Carter discovers the horrifying truth about Muñoz's condition.

This all sounds like the makings of a crackerjack horror story, but that's not the way the story itself reads, nor is it how this film plays. Instead, you get a film concerned with loneliness, mortality, and confinement. Fear doesn't really enter into it. And yet, the this taps into one of the oldest of the weird tale's moral dilemmas: At what price immortality? There's a dark undercurrent here, even if the film itself isn't scary (and doesn't mean to be). As in the best of Lovecraft's stories, this suggests much, while only showing a glimpse of other worlds.






*"Cool Air" has been filmed on two other occasions. Once for Rod Serling's Night Gallery, and subsequent to this film, by Albert Pyun. The version discussed here can probably be considered definitive.



Current Challenge tally:

Total Viewings: 10

First Time Viewings: 10






5 comments:

Gin said...

Very cool find! I'll have to check it out.

Jaye Schmus said...

Are there any other decent Lovecraft movies? I've seen a lot of crappy ones. I've heard a little buzz about the supposedly forthcoming Jim Cameron/GdT "At the Mountains of Madness", but that one's a little too vaporous for my taste right now.

dr.morbius said...

My favorite Lovecraftian movie is X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes, which isn't even based on Lovecraft. The Haunted Palace is nominally based on Lovecraft, and it's pretty good, too, in a Poe movie kind of way. Dagon is good. It captures the spirit. So does The Call of Cthulhu mentioned in this review. One of my friends (she knows who she is) will crucify me if I don't mention Re-Animator, but that film isn't very Lovecraftian, really, even if it is really good.

Gin said...

While not a movie, there is an episode of Night Gallery based on Pictman's Model which is outstanding. And while From Beyond doesn't get it all right, there are a lot of good Lovecraftian elements (although it gets really schlocky). I'm also a big fan of Re-Animator, but it doesn't really qualify as a Lovecraftian film considering that the author hated the source material and only wrote it for the money.

Actually, a film that has a surprising number of Lovecraft elements is Cast A Deadly Spell.

dr.morbius said...

I love From Beyond, and while it does a great job of conveying the gist of Lovecraft's four page story, I think it's a movie that the man himself would have run from screaming. I think the scene with Barbara Crampton done up in S&M regalia would have done it. (As a side note, I totally wanted that outfit for the longest time. I wound up with outfits that I like even better. Muahahahahaha!)