Serling’s Re-Framing Efforts: Night Gallery’s “Cool Air”
If you’re a Night Gallery fan, you get used to hearing some people dismiss it, based either on the syndication edit (which butchered some episodes and padded others) or because someone who’s never seen it read something negative about it. One of the most persistent myths is that Rod Serling merely hosted the series.
No one can deny that Night Gallery would’ve been better off if Serling had been more involved. However, he did more than simply host it. He created it, for one thing. He fought with producer Jack Laird to make it a better series, and he even scored a few victories. Perhaps most importantly, he wrote for it: 38 scripts, some of which can be ranked among his finest work.
As on The Twilight Zone, he came up with some excellent originals. But he also adapted some intriguing short stories by other authors – 17 of that 38 – and as I’ve shown in the first two entries of my “Serling’s Re-Framing Efforts,” he often improved on the source material.
So let’s proceed to stop number three in this “nocturnal arcade.” I’ll give you a recap of the episode so we can better appreciate how Serling changed the original short story by H.P. Lovecraft. (Spoilers ahead, so if you’d rather see the Gallery version first, check it out on DVD.)
We’re in New York City in 1923. But the short opening scene is in the present (or the then-present) as an as-yet-unseen narrator – an elderly lady, from the sound of it – moves through an unkempt, windy graveyard and finally stops and lays flowers on a flat, leaf-covered tombstone. She’s visited this person once a year for over 50 years, she says, but it’s been so long now she has trouble recalling his face and his voice.
“But,” she says as the scene changes to her as a young woman in 1923, “I remember the cool air. I remember it with a special horror. An icy draft that still whistles across half a century. Like a mournful dirge. A fitting kind of music to this man.” And the music on the soundtrack is fitting as well – a Spanish guitar playing some melancholy notes as the speaker, Agatha Howard (Barbara Rush), pays an unexpected call on Dr. Juan Munoz (Henry Darrow).
Munoz is a recluse, and a rather peculiar one at that, according to his landlady. It’s a hot summer day outside, but the good doctor has a special machine that keeps his spacious apartment very cool (“cold as a grave – like a tomb,” we’re told). Unfortunately this forerunner of modern air conditioning is smelly, noisy, and of dubious reliability.
Agatha explains that she’s the daughter of MIT Professor Walter Howard, a colleague of Munoz’s with a mutual scientific interest. He’s delighted to meet her, and invites her in. Her father, she says, recently died, and she’d come across their correspondence as she sorted his papers.
“You and my father shared something in common,” she says. “You both refused to accept the finality of death.” They’d tapped into ways to stave off the inevitable – the rejuvenation of organs and the like, but Munoz tells her he’s gone beyond that – into the realm of will and mysticism. As his peculiar cooling contraption suggests, though, there is also a very tangible component to his work as well.
His “illness,” he tells her, makes it vital that he keep it cool. In fact, he can’t survive temperatures over 55 degrees F.
As they talk, it’s obvious – as a dinner invitation is extended – that the seed of a romance has been planted. Agatha leaves feeling Juan’s plight very deeply, asking us in voice-over, “Did those walls of ice imprison him, or protect him from death waiting outside?”
She doesn’t know the answer to that yet, but Juan makes his motivation plain as they talk during one of many subsequent visits.
As they discuss art, history, and other subjects, she finds herself, she says, growing accustomed to the cold – even as she continues to warm up to him – a widower whose wife, he says, died by her own hand not long after he contracted his unique illness.
“We cling to life, don’t we?” she says.
“Why not?” he replies. “The alternative? A life after? How can we be sure? … No, Agatha. This is the life that counts. It’s the only one that has substance. It’s the only one we can be sure of. And that is why we clutch at it so jealously and so selfishly – but we know it to be brief and very precarious.”
But as anyone who’s seen this episode knows, this pleasant state of affairs doesn’t last. One day she drops by, and he explains that he can’t let her in. He’s sick. The landlady then tells her that the doctor had had a repairman come by recently, and that the man had fled the apartment in terror over … something.
A storm is rolling in. That night, Juan calls her in desperation. His machine has failed, and he needs a part that won’t be available until morning. Until then, he needs ice – lots and lots of ice. And Agatha makes sure he gets it.
But it’s a losing battle. Initially, he talks to her with a sheet covering all but one eye, then he locks himself in the bathroom, refusing to come out or let her in. It’s too late, he explains. Their research went only so far. You can’t keep delaying death indefinitely after the organs have ceased to function.
She gets more and more upset, insisting that he won’t die. “I won’t let you,” she says tearfully.
His wife, he tells her in his weakened voice through the closed door, committed suicide “because she couldn’t stand living with a corpse. You see, my darling … I died that day … ten years ago.” She hears him fall, breaks the door in … then screams as she sees him in his current form: as a rotting corpse.
The Night Gallery version ends back at the graveyard that opened it, as the elderly Agatha finishes the tale. “I wonder if I’m mourning something that was, or something that might have been.” Either way, she adds, “I find any icy draft of wind unbearable,” as it conjures images of the nightmare that she lived through. The leaves blow away now, to reveal his tombstone in full, complete with two death dates.
Now, if you want a story that’s going to give you a good scare, you can’t really improve on the source material here. Most of the authors who Serling adapted for Night Gallery are largely unknown to people who aren’t already big genre fans, but H.P. Lovecraft is on another level.
As director Jeannot Szwarc, told Scott Skelton and Jim Benson in their excellent book on Night Gallery, “As it is written, Lovecraft is impossible to adapt because you can never find a visual equivalent of his style. He describes horrors that chill your bones. It’s the words and way he manipulates those words, and you can’t do that on film because film is almost too literal a form.”
Serling solves this dilemma in a surprising and ingenious fashion by introducing an element of romance into it – something totally absent in the original – and by giving a much greater focus on the themes that undergird the whole experiment – namely, the fear of death and the desire for immortality. And aren’t these themes that we saw periodically on Twilight Zone? “Escape Clause”? “Long Live Walter Jameson”? And so on.
Lovecraft’s version first appeared in the March 1928 issue of “Tales of Mystery and Magic.” It’s largely free of dialogue, but that’s never a problem when Serling is the adaptor – ear-catching dialogue is one of his specialties. The basic story is the same – it’s 1920s New York, and the main character meets Dr. Munoz, who keeps his apartment unnaturally cold, and yes, it builds to that memorably grisly conclusion.
But the main character is not a woman who is the daughter of a colleague of Dr. Munoz. It’s a man (one whose name we never learn, by the way), a fellow tenant in the building who notices the good doctor’s odd habits, but who doesn’t meet him until one day he’s having a heart attack and seeks out the doctor for emergency treatment.
The doctor fixes him up and from then on they become friends, with our narrator then helping the doctor with shopping and other errands that he can’t do himself. But as with the Night Gallery version, Dr. Munoz is only staving off the end that we all know must come sooner or later.
Both versions of the story owe something to Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” in which a dying man is brought into a state of suspended animation through the use of “mesmerism,” a sort of hypnosis, for a period of months – only to be brought out of it at the end, whereupon he decays in a matter of seconds, in a manner that sounds considerably more gruesome than what we see on Night Gallery, and even what we read in Lovecraft.
But the Gallery version is certainly horrific enough. And Serling made it more memorable by introducing elements that enable us to mingle regret with the shock. The Gallery version isn’t merely a horror story that leaves us with a shiver. It’s a tale of longing and anguish that makes us examine, however briefly, just what we believe about the very nature and purpose of life and the life to come.
Obviously we can enjoy this in a more superficial way – as a good horror story. But Serling has so masterfully enriched the work of a legendary author that there is much more to ponder and reflect on long after the curtain has come down and the lights come up.
Previous “Re-Framing” posts can be found here.
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Hope to see you in some corner of the fifth dimension soon!