Literary great H.P. Lovecraft has long been an inspiration for filmmakers. His tales of cosmic terrors intruding on our planet are responsible for a wide range of genre films: Italian classics such as CATLIKI, cheesy ‘80s flicks like THE UNNAMABLE, and even the recent crowd pleaser by Guillermo del Toro - HELLBOY. It is no surprise, then, that amateur and independent filmmakers have completed the spectrum. Avid fans will be pleased to know that pictures such as these represent some of the more faithful adaptations around.
US based Lurker Films have compiled several such films as part of their H.P. LOVECRAFT COLLECTION 1 DVD, with Bryan Moore’s COOL AIR comprising the main feature. This high quality short is accompanied by Christian Matzke’s AN IMPERFECT SOLUTION and NYARLATHOTEP, and Anthony Penta’s THE HOUND and THE HAPLESS ANTIQUARIAN, presented as extras.
COOL AIR opens with protagonist Randolph Carter searching for accommodation in a Spanish immigrant quarter of a 1920’s American town. An expressionless young man who writes sci-fi / horror stories for a living, he discovers living quarters at a local boarding house and learns of the mysterious doctor residing in the room above his own who dabbles in strange experiments.
Carter suffers a heart attack, and staggers up to see Munoz for treatment. He passes out immediately, but awakens a cured man. Munoz persuades Randolph to stay until he recovers fully, and informs his guest of the medical condition that has forced him into a hermit’s existence. For twenty years, it is discovered, Munoz has suffered a degenerative disease that causes his muscles to rot away. His solution is to refrigerate his whole apartment (and himself), preserving his life. Disaster strikes when the doctor’s refrigerating machine breaks down, and Carter must search frantically for ice to keep Munoz from decomposing and find a technician capable of restoring the machine.
Unlike the original story - told in the first person - Moore’s film is presented in a seemingly objective manner that is punctuated by well placed snippets of expressionism. In presenting Carter (an oft used character in Lovecraft’s fiction) as a writer of weird fiction, it is clear that he has been posited to represent Lovecraft himself. Randolph is seen several times in the process of typing: cue fetishistic images of type writers and stylish high angled shots to heighten their significance.
This theme of the creative artist is sustained in a subtle and intriguing way. Much of the film occurs within the private space (private fantasy?) of his room and Carter’s experiences with the sinister Dr Munoz are prefigured by various events that may have inflamed his imagination. The ramblings of a superstitious landlady of drugs and “reagents”, the liquid dripping from the floor above through Randolph’s ceiling and the mechanical grinding sound from overhead all coalesce to “become” a doctor who has been reanimated and who must freeze himself.
This notion is sustained by subtle nuances of characterisation. Before the horror occurs, it is an uncomfortably hot time of the year and Carter’s electric fan breaks down and electrocutes him, leading to the heart attack. This is of course paralleled by Munoz himself, who must remain “on ice” and whose life is threatened when the machine stops working. Moore, thankfully, never makes clear the distinction between reality and fiction / fantasy: in doing so he infuses the film with ambiguity and teases the active viewer’s imagination.
The story is set among Spanish immigrants, and Lovecraft’s original text was filled with casual racism that involved a mockery of the broken English spoken by some of the inhabitants, i.e. when the landlady tells Carter "Doctair Muñoz, he have speel hees chemicals. He ees too seeck for doctair heemself--seecker and seecker all the time…” Moore, however, uses the setting for different, more productive purposes. After Munoz’ machine breaks down, Carter finds great difficulty communicating with the locals, and his strained efforts to find both ice (to sustain the doctor) and a technician (to fix the machine) builds up a great deal of suspense.
The most successful part of the film is undoubtedly the frantic search conducted by Carter. Moore’s camerawork is appropriately edgy and disorientating. More tellingly, the hard sun is prominent throughout Carter’s search: it beats down on him and the surrounding area. The bright, high key camerawork is a constant reminder of the threat to Munoz’ health: a simple but highly effective visual motif. Despite a sentimental interval in which the doctor weeps over the death of his wife when he first meets Carter, the film on the whole justifies Lovecraft’s view that “It is a mistake to fancy that horror is associated inextricably with darkness, silence, and solitude. I found it in the glare of mid-afternoon, in the clangour of a metropolis…”
Like COOL AIR, Christian Matzke’s AN IMPERFECT SOLUTION attempts the task of period reconstruction, but features alarmingly unconvincing décor and costume design that kills the verisimilitude. This adaptation of “Herbert West - Re-Animator” features the same lack of affect as COOL AIR, but proves an inappropriate choice given the comic intentions of Lovecraft’s story. Not only is the film bland, but also tame, and thus sorely lacks the gruesome outrageousness of Stuart Gordon’s 1985 feature.
With NYARLATHOTEP, Matzke attempts to filter Lovecraft through an avant garde aesthetic, involving rapid cutting, off centre compositions and unpredictably free form sound and image tracks. This is the only of the films in this set to tackle Lovecraft’s theme of cosmic forces, and pays the price for attempting to visualise them. While films like HELLBOY can get away with it by means of highly creative big budget computer effects, filmmakers like Matzke just don’t have the resources, and should thus refrain from woolly monsters and cut rate 2001 style swirling vapours from outer space.
Anthony Penta demonstrates a failure to deal with the term “adaptation”: instead of transferring THE HOUND from literature to film with creativity, he utilizes a voice over that reads the whole Lovecraft text and provides an oblique image track to accompany it. This is an unfortunate creative choice - the film is totally enslaved to the original text and represents an unfortunate and difficult to watch (and listen to) confusion of mediums.
The final short film is Penta’s THE HAPLESS ANTIQUARIAN, which uses silent movie visuals (sepia tinged, mime type performances) and a voice over to detail an A to Z of antiquarian life: for example ”A was the antiquarian who found a rare tome; B was the bike he used to get home; C was the couch where he slept for an hour”. It is a task to get past C.
THE H.P. LOVECRAFT COLLECTION 1: COOL AIR is a must for fans of the writer who wish to sample an eclectic choice of films by enthusiastic young filmmakers. The short films of Matzke and Penta may be unsatisfying, but Moore’s COOL AIR is a neat little piece that makes the journey from book the screen in one piece. Image quality on the whole is fine, and there is plenty of material to put the films into context such interviews with S.T Joshi and the crew of COOL AIR.
Directed by Bryan Moore, Christian Matzke and Anthony Penta
US / Black and White / 140 mins total
SPECIAL DVD FEATURES
A Lurker Films DVD Release
Region 1. NTSC. Full Screen
THE H.P. LOVECRAFT COLLECTION 1: COOL AIR