Wednesday, May 12, 2010

H.P. Lovecraft Week: The Chill of Cool Air, Part 2

COOL AIR (1998)

In 1998 Satanic priest and sculptor Bryan Moore released his self-produced short-film adaptation of Lovecraft’s story. I’m not sure what the budget was, but it’s not much outside of the filmstock, processing and some fees for the (mostly) professional crew. It’s pretty much a glorified home movie, but on the other hand, it’s a really damn good one.

Out of work writer (Bryan Moore) finds a room for rent in a run-down boarding house, with requisite ethnic land-lady (Vera Lockwood), who tells him of the mysterious Dr. Munoz (genre veteran Jack Donner). The strange fluid drips, the heart-attack and all other aspects of the story are, for the most part, faithfully realized in grainy black and white. Essentially a near literal translation from story to screen, Moore doesn’t stray much, if at all, from the path set out in Lovecrafts brief story. He takes the liberty of naming the previously anonymous narrator and lead character “Randolph Carter” and, for some reason, has given the land-lady a name change and swapped her ethnicity from Spanish to Italian.

While it is shot on film, it has gone through a lot of post to give it a scratched and grainy appearance. I’ve seen this done many times before with varying degrees of success, but I have to say this is probably the best I’ve seen it done. The props are sparse, but the machine that Munoz has built to keep his room cold is actually quite impressive looking. I’m assuming Moore used his sculpting talent to build it and it’s actually the most “authentic” looking to the time period of any adaptation.

Moore himself does an acceptable job in the acting department, resisting the usual pitfalls of amateur filmmakers. He doesn’t mug for the camera, or try to draw attention away from the other characters and hog the screen. He’s definitely a bit on the wooden side, but I’ll take that in place of the usual scenery chewing antics of most amateur thespians any day. When it comes time for Munoz to take over as dominant character, Moore wisely takes a back seat to Donner’s decades of experience in film and television. Speaking of Donner's Dr. Munoz, that is where this adaptation really shines. Donner is easily the most perfect casting in the role of Munoz out of any adaptation. He is totally convincing in his portrayal of a scientist that has ironically ceased living by trapping himself in his room in order to stay alive, and conveying anguish for his past life while radiating something dark and sinister. So convincing in fact, that after seeing Donner’s reading of the part, I will never be able to see anyone but him when I think of the character.

Without Donner’s sublime turn, the film would not be anywhere near as successful as it is. It would also be easy to nit-pick the movie for its faults. Clearly the building is too modern, the architecture looks to be built at the same time the story is set, not the 1800s-era New York brownstone mansion of the story. The doorknobs and locks are modem design. The interior is described as being luxury turned to seed, not one chair away from being empty abandoned. But to reiterate what I said before; when taking in Lovecraft adaptations, if you sweat the small stuff, you’ll only walk away unhappy.

According to a two year old blog posting, Moore has claimed to be working on securing backing for a new project titled THE FUNERAL DIRECTOR. Since there seems to be absolutely no other updated info about it anywhere, I think it’s safe to assume is not coming to cinemas near you any time soon. Moore was also responsible for designing the damn spiffy deco-Cthulhu relic in Andrew Leman’s excellent faux-silent film THE CALL OF CTHULHU (2005) and seems to be continuing his work as a sculptor.

CHILL (2007)

Sung to the tune of “Dixieland”:
Oh, I wish I was in the land of Tempe,
Bad effects are long forgotten,
look away, look away
Look away, this movie sucks!

Ok, so my singing voice is a little off and that last part doesn’t rhyme, but you’ll have to cut me some slack. I haven’t got my sea-legs back after being keelhauled by this turkey.

As I said before, expectations for an HP Lovecraft adaptations must be adjusted from the norm. Here dancer-turned-filmmaker (no, really) Serge Rodnunsky, a man responsible for helping to fill the shelves of your local Blocksucker with low-rent clunkers for the past 20 years, provides an updating of “Cool Air”. I was actually sort of looking forward to this (the new DVD cover is pretty damn spiffy), as I like the story and I think a modern day ghetto adaptation has tons of potential, maybe combined with elements from “The Terrible Old Man”. And seriously, after no less than 33 previous films, you’d think ol’ Serge would have this filmmaking thing down cold (alright, alright, stop groaning).

The story told awkwardly in linear and flashback, is of Dr. Munoz (Shaun Kurtz), a research scientist who is working on some nameless serum that is never really explained. When his funding is cut off he flips out and injects himself with a syringe of the stuff and promptly dies. For some reason, with their boss dead and the funding cut, Munoz’s two assistants still show up for work every day and apparently never bother to look in the back room where Munoz is apparently alive-ish, but stinks like a polecat stuck in a radiator grill. Munoz finally gets bored with sitting and stinking and attacks and injects his assistants with a broken bottle and the serum.

Flash forward 25 years and Munoz is running a ghetto liquor store-slash-deli that has lots of red meat in its butcher counter - the implication being that it's human, but this is never explored and actually none of the victims are really killed per se. An ex-ER worker tuned writer, Sam (Thomas Calabro, who appears to be from the "sleepwalking" school of acting), gets a job at said store and notices some odd stuff. Munoz is always in a huge walk-in cooler, decked out with antique sofa, coffee table and medical charts due to his rare skin condition.

Meanwhile Munoz and a clumsy assistant with a torn face are chasing the local riff-raff around stolen Los Angeles locations and dragging them back to the cooler in their bizarrely obviously intentionally-dirtied panel van. There they are hung up in a walk in freezer (that never freezes anyone or causes anyone to have visible breath) with big red bags of something that look awfully reminiscent of the cotton candy cocoons in KILLER KLOWNS FROM OUTER SPACE (1988). Sam develops a bit of a relationship with a girl (Ashley Laurence continuing her downward spiral) who has just separated from her husband and is being stalked by a creepy-ass cop (James Russo). The cop is preforming a half-assed investigation of the disappearances, apparently not for the department, but at the behest of a local pimp (who is about as straight outta Compton as Jaleel White), but really spends most of his time stalking and intimidating Lawrence.

If that synopsis sounds like a jumbled mess, the way the movie tells it is even worse. Lurching around from plot point to flashback to underdeveloped subplot to laughable scenes of “horror” makes for an unpleasant movie to try to follow. Scenes switch for no apparent reason, when someone is running away from Munoz and his club-footed assistant, suddenly they are killed as the none-too-subtle villains appear completely out of nowhere. Even Jason Voorhees would call foul on these two. The editing doesn’t help as some scenes cut too quickly and others go on foreeeeeever; such as a scene in which the assistant pulls a hooker off the lap of a guy behind the wheel of an SUV, and after she gets away, he stabs her with a meat-hook, hauls her to the van and returns to the shlub in the SUV where they stare at each other for seemingly endless time. Assisstant stares at driver. Driver stares at assistant. Driver continues to stare. Driver looks at steering wheel. Driver starts hyperventilating. The assistant stares. The driver stares. More hyperventilating. More stares. Aggggghhhh! What the hell? Brother, if some dude with a cut up face pulled a hooker out of my ride and whipped out a meathook, even my natural born curiosity wouldn't keep my ass within 50 freakin' miles of that spot to see what happens next! In that scenario, there are no happy endings.

As much as I dislike movies shot on digital video (particularly movies that need to convey atmosphere), I can deal with it. Particularly when you have adjusted your mindset into low-budget Lovecraft mode. What I can’t choke down is the fact that executive producer  Shaun Kurtz has the ego to horribly miscast himself as Dr. Munoz. He looks like Jeff Daniels with a glandular condition and his whiny, nasal voice completely guts a character that is supposed to be a brilliant scientist-turned-walking dead who has resorted to kidnapping and killing people to sustain his life (here all he needs is human skin-grafts). In addition to that, having him get up in a Victorian-era suit and a cowl (?!) while running around da hood with his lumbering oaf assistant makes them look like a couple of lost frat boys looking for a Halloween party.

Surprisingly the best thing this film has going for it is an entire subplot that could have been made into a separate and pretty decent little movie. Lawrence does a fine job of portraying a vulnerable, damaged woman, who is an irresistible target for James Russo's aging, predatory, sleazebag cop. Russo’s performance is menacing and creepy as hell without going over the top and the subplot is actually reasonably well developed. Too bad the filmmakers didn't choose to make this the main story, sort of a BAD LIEUTENANT: PORT OF CALL INGLEWOOD, and instead chose to casually discard it like Munoz's left-over skin at the end of the film.

Last week I said that “Beat” Takashi’s ZATOICHI boasted the worst CGI ever. I owe all of you an apology. I lied. I lied like a dog. CHILL’s effects are pretty weak on the whole, but the CG work will leave you speechless. I put up with the CGI fog in the walk-in cooler (even though there wouldn’t be any because of the fans), but words fail me as I try to explain what looks like red and black sharpie marks on an acetate overlay to convey a shotgun blast that actually moves around on the target’s body! The fire effects have visible boarders and the face melting scene is like something out of a Terry Gilliam animation. Actually, Gilliam would probably be shocked and appalled by that statement and rightfully so. Man, even 15 years ago J.R. Bookwalter would have been ashamed to put his name on this mess.


The once great Albert Pyun has been threatening to unleash his very own adaptation of “Cool Air.” Frequently held-up and stalled like so many of his recent productions, he claims that it has been mucked with by the backers who wanted to change the title and is such an “odd bird” that audiences won't understand it. Hmmmmm... I don't know how much odder you can make that story, but even if he did bust out all Jodorowski on us, I'm pretty sure we can take it. What we can't take is another shot on video snoozer with no production values, weak action, cheap CGI effects, horrible acting, canned dialog and a story that is practically non-existent.

C'mon Albert, we're pullin' for ya (well, sort of), don't screw this one up!

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