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31 Days of Halloween: Cool Air

Published Sunday, October 03, 2021

Amateur armchair psychologists like to point out the tropes in H.P. Lovecraft's fiction: a phobia of seafood and an unhealthy obsession with miscegenation. Nobody ever mentions all of the stories where unwholesome things invade the narrator's space by way of the ceiling. In "The Picture in the House" it's blood, in "The Music of Erich Zann" it's screechy violin music, and in "Cool Air" it's ammonia.

I can't remember whether I ever recognized that "Cool Air" is supposed to be scary. Like a lot of Lovecraft's works, the italicized final sentence! is telegraphed so early in the narrative that it doesn't carry much weight when it gets there. It also doesn't help that I first read it, what, 20ish years ago, and the fact that its simplicity makes it good for adaptation means that I've heard it as a radio play and seen it as numerous short films on YouTube, so it stays relatively fresh in my mind. I may not remember the minute details, but the outlines of the story are well-imprinted into my memory, and I plan to spoil the heck out of it. Stop now if you're planning to read it.

Still here? Good, but you should read it anyway. I saw Brian Moore's Cool Air around the time I first read the story and it's a pretty good adaptation. I have no idea how it plays for viewers not already familiar with the story, but I'm guessing it doesn't come off as horrific. IMDB says it's currently rated at 6.4 stars out of 10, and the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society's online store shows a customer rating of 4.8 stars out of 5. That's a pretty wide discrepancy, but I think I get it.

The narrator of Cool Air—unnamed in the original text, Randolph Carter (ho, ho) in the short film—is an impoverished writer (as opposed to "Zann's" impoverished student, or "House's" impoverished genealogist) who can only afford the cheapest apartment in a bad neighborhood. When he discovers ammonia dripping through the ceiling, he makes the acquaintance of Dr. Muñoz, a elderly Spanish immigrant who is well-known locally as a brilliant doctor. He has a severe and unnamed disease which requires constant frigid temperatures and prevents him from leaving his apartment. Nevertheless, the two hit it off andbecome friends when Muñoz saves Carter's life after a potentially fatal heart attack. "Nothing can harm you ever again," Muñoz says. It's a cryptic line of dialogue, but the movie doesn't dwell on it.

A heatwave descends and the doctor's ammonia-based refrigeration system breaks down. Carter is dispatched to bring ice and find a repairman, but the rest of the city is already consuming ice in record quantities and the machine is beyond simple repair. When the ice runs out, Carter finds Muñoz's corpse in a state of advanced decomposition clutching a heartfelt apology for not explaining earlier that technically speaking, the disease he's been suffering for the last 18 years is death.

It's less of a surprise in the short story, but the ending isn't much of a revelation here either. It works though, and Cool Air is regarded as one of HPL's better standalone stories. The adaptation here is awfully good, which I think explains the ratings discrepancy I mentioned before. I don't think I can step back far enough to view it without bias, but I think the problem is that it's an ineffective horror movie because the story never really builds any suspense. It's like a buddy movie where the buddies politely hold each other at arm's length, and then one of them turns out to have been hiding a terminal disease. The high rating on the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society website likely comes from the fact that Lovecraftians are used to having the Old Gent's work butchered beyond recognition by Hollywood, so a mostly-faithful adaptation—however dry and uneventful—is very welcome.

Dr. Muñoz is played by Jack Donner whose acting credits span nearly 60 years. He's very good and brings a lot of pathos to the role, especially in the scene where he opens up to Carter about his tragic younger days in Spain. The director, a Bryan Moore, does double duty by playing the role of Randolph Carter, and his acting does not compare well to Donner's; he has a way of modulating the cadence of his voice without delivering any emotion. His filmmaking style plays it safe but he gets points for allowing the story time to develop. Cool Air comes in around 43 minutes which feels just about right; I can imagine it being shorter but not better without deviation from the source material.

So is it any good? Sure, but if you're really looking to be scared you'll come away unsatisfied.
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