Judge Russell Engebretson concluded that Cool Air was a strong argument for relocating to Hawaii. His wife didn't buy it.
"I think it is beyond doubt that H.P. Lovecraft has yet to be surpassed as the Twentieth Century's greatest practitioner of the classic horror tale."—Stephen King
Since 2004, Lurker Films has released half a dozen DVDs devoted to low-budget, independent film productions of the work of Howard Phillips Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe, and Robert W. Chambers. This collection, which contains five short films, is the first in the series.
The 43-minute short feature Cool Air, directed by Bryan Moore, is the centerpiece in this volume and easily the most accomplished film of the lot; The Hapless Antiquarian, directed by Anthony Penta, is a six minute short done in the style of a 1920s silent film—complete with sepia tint and subtitles; The Hound, also by Penta, is an 18-minute black and white with a condensed narration of the original Lovecraft short story; Director Christian Matzke's Nyarlathotep, a 13-minute black and white short, has no dialogue and is a word-for-word reading of the short story; Matzke also directs the 17-minute black and white An Imperfect Solution.
There is nothing of special merit in Penta's The Hapless Antiquarian. It is ridiculously overacted—even as a silent film parody. Silly yet unfunny, the brief tale is connected to the Lovecraft mythos by only the most gossamer thread (an allusion to one of the authors forbidden books). Maybe this one worked better within the context of a film festival as comic relief, but I somehow doubt it.
Even though released earlier, Penta's other offering, The Hound, is a vast improvement over Antiquarian. The original story is actually a pastiche that Lovecraft wrote poking fun of his own over-the-top fictional characters that were so often in search of forbidden lore and came to sticky, unspeakable ends. The film, however, takes itself semi-seriously and creates a pleasantly nasty film-noirsh atmosphere. It runs a minute or so too long at the end, perhaps to accommodate the narration. The ghoulish pair of seekers is nicely portrayed by actors Scott Hoye and Steve Toth.
Christian Matzke's Nyarlathotep is based on the intense, moody prose poem of the same name. Lovecraft claimed that the bizarre imagining came to him in a dream. He simply transcribed it. Since the film is narrated with a voice-over, we hear the whole story as the film rolls. The only major complaint I have about this feature is the actors; they are simply too young for their roles. I couldn't suspend my disbelief long enough to feel I was watching anything more than moderately skilled student thespians. Fortunately, the imaginative camera work helps to overcome the characterization problems. Dire and confusing occurrences converge, anxiety escalates to dread, and none of the characters have a clue as to where events are leading them—except that it may be some especially bad place. The finale—a subdued, surrealistic mini-apocalypse—is satisfyingly dark and dreamy.
The other Matzke film, An Imperfect Solution, is an on-target interpretation of a portion of Lovecraft's serialized horror adventure Herbert West: Re-Animator. It is very different in tone from Stuart Gordon's delightfully zany gorefest, the 1985 Re-Animator. Matzke's version is set in the early 1920s and cleaves much closer to the author's vision (although H.P. Lovecraft himself considered the serial to be hackwork). In any case, this is an elegantly lensed short feature that gives us a clear and creepy portrait of Herbert West, the suave psychopath who graduates to murderous mad scientist, deftly played by Bob Poirier.
Now we come to the gelid heart of the collection, Bryan Moore's Cool Air, winner of the 1999 H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival. In the 1920s, impoverished writer Randolph Carter (Bryan Moore) leases a small room from Mrs. Caprezzi (Vera Lockwood, Love Is All There Is), an elderly, sour-faced landlady and proprietor of an old Brownstone in New York. Not long after settling into the shabby and almost bare room, he discovers a pool of ammonia on the floor that has leaked down the wall from the room above his. Mrs. Caprezzi, while cleaning up the ammonia, regales Randolph with strange stories of Dr. Muñoz (Jack Donner, Imaginary Heroes), the eccentric old gentleman who lives in the room upstairs. Sometime later, Randolph suffers a heart attack and painfully makes his way to the doctor's room, where he is treated with an unconventional medicine. After a full recovery, Randolph becomes friends with the doctor. Randolph cannot help but notice that despite the intense summer heat, the doctor's room is glacially frigid. He asks the doctor why his room is so cold. Dr. Muñoz explains that he must keep his room cooled down for health reasons, and over the days that follow he confides to Randolph the details of his condition and why he never leaves his small apartment. To tell more would be to give a way too much of the plot.
What makes this film work so well, aside from the fine 16mm cinematography and deft editing, is the characterization. The story as written by H.P. Lovecraft does not give us a sympathetic portrait of the doctor, who is presented as a rather curmudgeonly and distant individual. The scriptwriter has created a character whose plight elicits audience sympathy as the terrible history of his life unfolds; Jack Donner as Dr. Muñoz finds a proper balance between dignity and pathos. The rest of the small cast is uniformly fine. Vera Lockwood—in her final role—is perfectly cast as the acerbic landlady who so thoroughly intimidates Randolph Carter with her withering gaze and acid tongue. She provides some fine comic relief in an otherwise gloomy setting.
All of the films, to some degree, are marred by excessive grain, scratches, blooming whites, and so forth; audio ranges from adequate to good. But to complain about such imperfections is petty. These are short features made on shoe-string budgets by people who love what they are doing and expect no significant monetary rewards for their hard work. It's a wonderful near-miracle that these films exist at all; they are a gift.
The extras include an interview with Lovecraft scholar S.T. Joshi, a couple of short openers for the Lovecraft Film Festival, a full-color eight-page printed booklet, and a very entertaining set of interviews with the cast and crew of Cool Air. Bryan Moore's description of the many obstacles he overcame to create the film is delightful, and a testament to the will and ambition required for tackling guerilla filmmaking.
I've given the DVD a somewhat lower score than I prefer because this disc is intended primarily for Lovecraft fans. The average horror movie viewer will likely find the films opaque and anti-climactic.
Which brings up the question: why is Lovecraft so difficult to bring to the screen? An uncharitable critic might say that part of the answer lies in his turgid prose. In his 1973 history of the science fiction genre, Billion Year Spree, Brian Aldiss states, "Ghastly writer though Lovecraft is, predictable though the horrors are, somewhere buried in his writing is a core of power that remains disconcerting when all the adjectives have fallen away like leaves." Now whether or not one believes H.P. Lovecraft was a ghastly writer, he did have major stylistic and personal problems: a surfeit of adjectives, poor rendering of dialect, bigotry, passive protagonists, and many more that are too painful for a fanboy to admit. Yet, as Aldiss says, there is a core of power in his writing that gives the reader that special little frisson of skin-crawling delight so sought after by supernatural horror junkies. The arduous and tricky task for the scriptwriter and filmmaker is to capture the elusive, frightful shadow that lurks in the interstices of Lovecraft's prose, and then translate it into visual imagery. The filmmakers here respect the source material, and with a bit of nip and tuck to the original stories they have partially resuscitated the shade of the old Rhode Island fantasist.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Lurker Films
• Behind the Machine (Interviews with Cast and Crew of Cool Air)
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