Cool Air

Cool Air machine

Not to be confused with the Dark Adventure Radio Theatre version of this same HP Lovecraft story that I reviewed last year.

This is a 1999 short film by Bryan Moore (who also stars in it), about the tragic Dr. Muñoz, who suffers from a peculiar medical condition that requires him to exist in an extremely cold room to survive.

First, a somewhat amusing story. I hadn’t seen the movie before I bought it. When the DVD arrived a few weeks ago, I popped it into the player and selected the “Duo-Chrome” option over the black-and-white version and started watching. There was no spoken dialog. Was this a silent film, like the excellent Call of Cthulhu? If so, then it was strange that there were no title cards or musical score; if you’re going to reproduce the feeling of a 1920s period film, you definitely need these elements, not just have no sound.

Then I had a look at the extra features. No sound on them either.

After some troubleshooting, I worked out that one of the ports for the audio connection on my TV was faulty and I plugged it into another one. Sound at last! At least I didn’t need to go out and get a new DVD player or television.

Now that I’ve viewed both versions, I do prefer the Duo-Chrome one. Colored tints on film is a special effect from the silent era. The sepia on the daylight scenes give this story an old-timey feel, but the dark blue tint on the scenes in the doctor’s cold, cold room may be my favorite thing about this film.

That Randolph Carter really gets around. He was giving testimony on how his friend Warren disappeared, then looking up arcane information on how to deal with the unnameable creature who was slaughtering an abandoned house full of college students. Here (played by Moore), he’s a somewhat nerdy and awkward young man who’s just arrived in the city, typewriter in a case. He apparently takes a room at the first place with a vacancy he comes to.

Landlady and shabby room

The Italian landlady is vociferously obnoxious as she shows him the shabby and sparsely furnished room. It’s $15 and the bathroom is down the hall. But it has an electric light!

Randolph pays a month’s rent and settles in to start typing. As he’ll later tell his upstairs neighbor, even although he has higher ambitions as a novelist, he currently makes a living writing sensational horror fiction for pulp magazines–stories about ghouls returning from the grave and people driven to madness by the sight of things too horrible to describe. When asked if he’s written his Great American Novel, he responds: “Not unless it’s called something like The Awful Tentacled Thing that Should Not Be.”

It isn’t long before something strange-smelling comes dripping through the ceiling.

The landlady complains as she mops it up, but she tells Randolph that it’s “sal ammoniac” and lists some other chemicals that surprise the young man. She knows quite a lot about the tenant upstairs: he was a famous doctor in Barcelona years ago, but now that he’s living in the States he’s shut himself up in his room and never, ever goes out. Everything, even groceries and supplies for his laboratory work are brought in to him. He keeps his room very cold, even during these hot summer days, by using a special cooling machine; that’s where the sal ammoniac is dripping from.

She also hints that she’s knows other things about the reclusive doctor.

Now that he knows about it, Randolph can hear the machine pumping away overhead in quiet moments, but it isn’t until a small but foreshadowing event occurs that he meets Dr. Muñoz. The little fan he keeps in his own room conks out on a day of high summer heat, and Randolph suffers a mild heart attack.

Knowing that there’s a doctor upstairs, he makes his stumbling way up to pass out at Muñoz’s door.

Randolph Carter passes out

He awakes in the chilly, blue-tinted room. There’s opera music playing on a gramophone, medicine bottles and old photographs on the shelves, a white rat in a cage, and an elderly man tending him. They introduce themselves.

Dr. Muñoz (Jack Donner) tells his new patient that he’s given him a mild sedative and “something else” that will ensure that Randolph never has heart trouble again. He’s evasive about what this treatment is–given how this story turns out, one might have suspicions–but it’s the last we hear of it.

The next section, and the heart, of the film consists of the conversation between Dr. Muñoz and Randolph Carter.

Doctor and patient

When the two men shake hands, Randolph can’t help noticing that the doctor’s is as cold as his surroundings.

“Not unlike the Earth’s cold clay,” Dr. Muñoz observes.

He explains his reasons for the cold. He suffered from a strange, unspecified malady 20 years ago in Spain, which his brilliant colleague Dr. Torres–a man with radical and innovative theories about medicine–treated. But his cells continue to degenerate, and the cold delays that process. In short, he’s keeping himself preserved like food in the fridge. The cooling machine is his refrigerator, and he’s been in this room since.

Dr. Muñoz also speaks of the psychological aspects of medicine: the power of suggestion, and the will to survive. “Never underestimate the human will,” he tells Randolph.

Rosa

The most poignant part of this scene comes when the doctor speaks of his lost love.

“Cool Air” is the one Lovecraft story that seems able to introduce a romance into its adaptations without becoming ridiculous.

Night Gallery did it by making the protagonist a young woman in love with Muñoz. The Dark Adventure audio version seems also to be heading that way by using a woman narrator, until she emphatically rejects the notion of being sweet on the doctor. In this film, Muñoz’s love is in his past, a woman named Rosa whom he loved in Spain in the days before his illness. They worked together to treat cholera victims in Barcelona, until Rosa too fell ill and died. In a nice little touch, the photograph of Rosa appears in flames as Muñoz speaks of how she and the other victims were cremated by the authorities to prevent the spread of the disease.

Dr. Munoz

Donner’s performance is especially touching during this speech about Rosa’s death and Muñoz’s dreams of searching for her. It’s heart- breaking when he compares his existence to that of his lab rat, Ambrose. “The cage is all he knows.”

Time passes. Randolph Carter resumes his writing. Dr. Muñoz plays his music and his refrigeration machine continues to pump out cool air.

Then, one day, the machine breaks down. Randolph is summoned upstairs by the doctor’s frantic thumping on the floor. The ammonia’s all leaked out through that dripping pipe and Muñoz desperately needs to have the pump fixed before the summer heat begins to warm up his chilly room. Randolph is sent out to find a repairman and some ice.

Is it a Sunday? Everything is closed and Randolph can find no one to help.

He first encounters a workman who doesn’t speak English–and Randolph’s Spanish is non-existent. At first, I doubted that the man understood what our protagonist was trying to convey by insistently repeating the doctor’s name and the word “ice” and shoving money at him, but it seems to have done the trick. While Randolph is still out, the workman brings a big block of ice up to the doctor’s room.

Knocking on the door and receiving no answer, the man ventures inside.

Workman

This scene is a bit spooky, even though we know there’s no one in there apart from the kindly, elderly (and at this point, melting) Dr. Muñoz. The room is dark and quiet except for the sound of the needle skipping on the gramophone record, which has come to the end of its music.

The workman stumbles on the non-longer functioning machine, and then sees something so horrifying that he drops the block of ice and runs out of the building.

When Randolph finally returns with a repairman, the landlady warns them not to go upstairs; she must have had a peek into the doctor’s room too. But Randolph ignores this warning and dashes upstairs to discover that he’s too late to help his friend.

Note in hand

In a very nice touch, the room is no longer tinted blue.

We don’t actually see what happened to Dr. Muñoz, but he has left a note, clutched in what’s left in his hand.

I’ve been interested in small, low-budget films like this for a long time, especially when they look like labors of love by the people who worked on them. With only five characters, a handful of on-location settings, and some antique props (particularly the typewriter, the fan, the gramophone), Moore manages to tell the tale of “Cool Air” in a reasonably convincing period setting. More than that, he makes certain that we see that Dr. Muñoz’s story isn’t one of a ghoul or an indescribable horror, but the tragedy of man who has hung on to his life too long.

Significantly, the last thing the doctor did before the end was let Ambrose out of his cage.

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Author: Kathryn L Ramage

Kathryn L. Ramage has a B.A. and M.A. in English lit and has been writing for as long as she can remember. She lives in Maryland with three calico cats named after the Brontë sisters. In addition to being the author of numerous short stories, reviews, essays, and period mystery novellas, she is also the author of a series of fantasy novels set in a dukedom called the Northlands on an alternate Earth whose history has diverged from ours somewhere during the medieval period.