“Death comes coldly**”
Directed by Albert Pyun
Starring Morgan Weisser, Crystal Green, Jenny Dare, Norbert Weisser and Wendy Phillips
A penurious writer explains his aversion to cool breezes with a story of the time he took lodgings in a cheap boarding house full of low-grade Spaniards (oh, Lovecraft; you old racist) where a chemical spill and a heart attack lead him to the acquaintance of Dr Munoz, a medical genius who insists on having his room kept exceptionally cool. When the refrigeration unit breaks down, Munoz demands ice while it is repaired, but despite the narrator’s best efforts he degenerates completely, leaving only a written confession that he had been dead for 18 years.
A penurious writer named Charlie Baxter (Weisser) explains his aversion to cool breezes with a story of the time he took lodgings in a boarding house in Malibu, with a defunct animator named Deltoid (the other Wiesser, the father of the first), his landlady (Phillips) and her autistic daughter (Dare).
The landlady evicts Baxter after seeing him flirting with her daughter, but a chemical spill and a combined heart attack and stroke defer the departure and lead him to the acquaintance of Dr Shockner (Green), a surprisingly hot medical genius who insists on having her room kept exceptionally cool. Deltoid complains to Baxter that despite paying all of his money to keep his dead wife in the freezer since he stabbed her in the throat, Baxter jumped the queue and she hasn’t been brought back to life yet. Then he kills himself, in the freezer, with his dead wife.
When the air con unit breaks down, Shockner comes to Baxter, who tries to save her by… Well, sitting and hoping, really. The landlady refuses to help and Shockner decomposes in a miasma of post-production shimmering shadows, leaving a not eto explain that she had been dead for 120 years (Munoz; lightweight.) Baxter leaves and uses the story as the basis of his first successful screenplay, while the Landlady shoots her daughter and then herself… probably.
What’s wrong with it?
Apparently filmed on cheap video using an integral mic, the dialogue is often indistinct and frequently mumbled. This would be a worse flaw if not for the fact that 70% of the film has any dialogue covered by narration.
The film has waaaaay too much slow mo. Like… Peter Jackson’s King Kong levels of slow mo, without the other production advantages to distract from it.
Rather than obscure medications, Shockner’s own life, and apparently Baxter’s, are saved using a mystical doohickey, which a caption card at the start explains was lost in a fire in 1890, with the Madrid University refusing to comment on whether the late Dr Torres had managed to reanimate the dead with it, as newspapers often ask university authorities to do.
There’s this whole subplot with the doctor ‘fixing’ the autistic daughter, Estella, a process which has apparently turned her from severely autistic to compulsively impersonating Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man. A shot at the end implies that Estella is also effectively dead, despite the fact that she spends almost the entire movie in the bright Malibu sun.
The narration at one point asks: “An autistic hottie; is that an oxymoron?” which shows a grotesque misunderstanding of the nature of at least one of autism, oxymorons and hotness. I think what it means to ask is ‘is it okay to mack on a girl with no real social cognition’, and the answer is probably no, but he kind of does it anyway.
Shockner is way touchy-feely with her patient.
Deltoid was apparently a Disney animator in the 50s, but can’t adapt to 21st century animation, which would make him at least 70. He looks good for it.
Apparently a combined stroke and heart attack looks like stutter cutting and flashing lights, followed by animation of jumbled letters accompanied by wailing modern jazz.
At the end, after Baxter explains that this is his screenplay based on what happened to him, a caption card flashes up to tell us that Baxter claimed the screenplay was what happened to him in reality. Redundant caption is redundant!
As a side note, at one point Baxter refers to his friendship with the Doctor and wonders if ‘the company of an intelligent, educated woman‘ was a pleasant change. I don’t know if this was a hold over from an old draft, or meant to be a hint that this was actually screenwriter Cynthia Curnan’s real life adventure, but it was odd.
What’s right with it?
With the exception of the autistic daughter business, the film manages to stay pretty solidly within the lines, not just of the source material, but of the more general Lovecraftian aesthetic.
The jumbled text actually fits quite neatly with the words which occasionally appear over the film to indicate that Baxter is writing.
How bad is it really?
Make no mistake, H.P. Lovecraft’s Cool Air is a terrible movie, with all of Pyun’s usual flaws compounded by an ultraslim budget. It is, however, one of the most authentically Lovecraftian of the films I’ve seen. Everything from Baxter’s smug sense of superiority – not just to his landlady and the house and his fellow tenants, but to his own reduced situation – to Shockner’s account of her rage at her own impending demise when she had so much to offer and had saved so many less important people. Even the daughter subplot has aspects of it, with Baxter suggesting that rather than really hitting on Estella, he is proprietorially fascinated with the story of her apparently intermittent autism and its potential for a saleable screenplay.
Best bit (if such there is)?
Shockner sits with the recovering Baxter and talks about his screenplay, having read it from his laptop. They discuss whether the ‘mad doctor’ in the story is the villain or not, and she expounds her own history by suggesting backstory for the character.
What’s up with…?
- The macguffin? The original story isn’t about magic at all, and shoehorning it in in the apparent conviction that that is what Lovecraftian is is actually the one notable departure from a proper Lovecraftian feeling.
- The daughter’s sudden decomposition?
Production values – Diabolical. I was reading an article the other day about the increasing democratisation of film making, as the tools needed to create a studio quality film become increasingly available to all. In Cool Air, Pyun proves that this should not mean that shoddy gear and bad filming should be considered out of reach. 18
Dialogue and performances – The performances are a little stilted, almost stagy, although I think that in part that is an editing flaw, and likewise there is a lot of mumbling due to the poor mic quality. The dialogue is mostly functional, but the updating of the narration – mostly adapted pretty closely from the source story – is well done. 14
Plot and execution – There are some odd digressions, but in this area Cool Air is pretty tight, especially in its second half. 7
Randomness – Semi-Autistic daughter why? 4
Waste of potential – The budget constrains this movie hard. It really works at getting what it needs, but Pyun is not the director to do this at this price tag. On the other hand, as Lovecraft adaptations go, this is actually Lovecraftian, although in part this serves to show why Lovecraftian adaptations rarely work well. 10
* Like a number of films on this blog, the production and release dates are both widely divergent and variably reported.
** Of course, in this film, death comes warmly.