H.P. Lovecraft would have turned 125 years old the other day, and given that Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows’ Providence has proven to be the impetus for the biggest “Lovecraft kick” I’ve experienced since high school, I figured, what the hell? Why not mark the occasion by reviewing a few Lovecraft-inspired flicks over the next handful of days? And given that pretty much everybody has seen the Stuart Gordon/Brian Yuzna productions of Re-Animator, From Beyond and Dagon (my personal favorite of the bunch), we’ll avoid those and try instead to zero in on a few celluloid Lovecraft adaptations that are easy enough to find, but that haven’t been seen by many apart from seriously hard-core fans.
First up is legendary B-movie auteur Albert Pyun’s ultra-low-budget, shot-on-HD-videocam 2006 take on Lovecraft’s Cool Air, a film that is, admittedly, tempting to dismiss before even seeing it simply because any movie that sits unreleased on a shelf for seven years before quietly being dumped out on DVD (and DVD only, I might add — no Blu-ray for this one) is probably bound to not be all that good, right? LionsGate, who owns the rights to this number, surely would have seen fit to get it into the hands of fans sooner if they’d felt it was worth the effort to do so, wouldn’t they? I mean, anything shot this cheaply (IMDB lists the budget at being just over $1.5 million, but watching the film it’s hard to see where most of that went) that has Lovecraft’s name attached to it in any capacity whatsoever is bound to at least break even, wouldn’t you think?
Well, evidently the suits at LGF disagreed, and let Pyun’s filmed-entirely-in-one-house opus gather dust until 2013 — which was when, I’m guessing, some catalogue- and -archiving intern stumbled across it and reminded his or her bosses that, hey, we’ve still got this thing sitting here and we may as well do something with it. So they did.
Actually, that’s not what happened at all — the film’s original production company (a one-and-done outfit composed of Pyun himself and a couple of financiers) sat on it until 2012, trying to figure out how best to get the thing out there, and ended up entering it into the 2012 Las Vegas Grindhouse and Horror Film Festival, where it was something of a minor hit, then LionsGate picked it up for home video release the next year (it’s also available streaming online for $2.99, which is how I caught it). But dammit, I like my version of the story better.
To be brutally frank, things don’t appear too promising at first here, with what has to be the one of the dullest extended opening-credit sequences I’ve ever been forced to sit through (in fairness, the “run snippets from the movie you just watched with the actors’ names underneath” that rolls at the end is probably even worse, though — that didn’t even work well in ’80s “ensemble” comedies, why would it fare any better in a low-key horror flick with a grand total of five cast members?), but if you can stay awake through that, the good news is that once events (finally) start rolling, this is actually a pretty faithful adaptation that has a lot going for it.
Now, if you’ve actually seen this thing, this is the point at which you’re probably going to stop dead in your tracks and question my sanity. Allow me to paraphrase what’s likely going through your mind : “Faithful adaptation? Are you nuts? The story’s been moved to the present day, it’s set in Malibu, and the the main ‘villain,’ Dr. Munoz, has been gender-swapped for a female character named Dr. Shockner! Shit, the 20-minute adaptation Rod Serling did of this story on Night Gallery is more faithful than that!”
Okay, fair enough — on paper, the story of a down-and-out Hollywood screenwriter named Charlie Baxter (played by Morgan Weisser) who’s lost his apartment and has to rent a room in a “McMansion” from a secretive landlady (Wendy Phillips) who has a couple of secretive tenants (a former Disney animator named, believe it or not, Deltoid, who’s played by Norbert Weisser, and the aforementioned Dr. Shockner, who’s played by Crystal Green) bears only a passing resemblance to Lovecraft’s original premise, but Weisser’s voice-over narration directly lifts huge passages from the story verbatim, and really, those cosmetic changes are about the only major difference on offer here, apart from the whole-cloth invention of a character named Estella (Virginia Dare), who’s the landlady’s autistic daughter. In terms of overall theme and tone, though, Pyun and screenwriter Cynthia Curnan get things more or less exactly right, and in the end, isn’t that what counts?
Any film with production values this abysmally- low-by-dint-of-necessity is going to have its problems, of course — visually, the flick is dull as un-buttered toast, and a visible boom mic during a scene that has no dialogue whatsoever is jarring to say the least, but you know how things work around these parts : we’re generally a pretty forgiving bunch. On the whole the acting is actually pretty good apart from Weisser being asked to have one of the least-convincing heart attacks ever committed to film (or, in this case, to tape), and Green in particular is flat-out superb in a role very few established actors could make a go of, namely that of a classic Lovecraftian amoral semi-monster re-interpreted as a MILF (and damn, her voice just oozes sex appeal), so it really does appear that everyone is giving their all here for a production that, let’s not beat around the bush, hardly demands any such professionalism. Also, it’s worth pointing out that, purists be damned, most of those “cosmetic changes” I just droned on about in Curnan’s screenplay actually work and go some way towards making the dated concepts at the core of Lovecraft’s yarn relevant to a modern audience. Let’s face it : these days you can find an air conditioner that will keep your room below 55 degrees at all times, which is exactly what Dr. Munoz required in the original story, so that whole “crazy-contraption-that-runs-on-ammonia” thing just isn’t going to fly with folks unfamiliar with the, to use a term I fucking hate, “source material.” Some sort of updating was very much in order here, and while this Cool Air may deviate here and there from what’s on the printed page, it does so not in a way that corrupts or trashes the story, but rather brings it into the modern era with its soul intact.
Now, obviously, this being 2015, it’s pretty hard to talk Lovecraft without talking Providence, and yes, the short story as originally scripted features prominently in the first issue of Moore and Burrows’ ongoing masterwork (is it too early to call it that? I think not). Pyun and his small crew can’t compete with that, it’s true. But they’ve also got a budget — and a very tight one at that — to work within. The comics page has no such restrictions (nor does the imagination of Alan Moore). Cool Air does what it can with what it has, and manages to squeeze a lot of blood from a rock. It’s far from stylish, far from flashy, and in many technical respects it’s fair to say it’s even far from competent — but it’s still good. What more can you ask than that?
Next up : we keep the Lovecraft train rolling with a look at 1970’s The Dunwich Horror — which is streaming on Netflix right now if you want to catch it in advance of my review. Hope to see you back here in a few days!