A scientist who can’t take temperatures over 55 for the most unusual reason is the subject of this Night Gallery story review of “Cool Air.”
Season 2 Episode 12—aired 12/8/71
“Cool Air” ***1/2
Teleplay by Rod Serling • Story by H. P. Lovecraft
Directed by Jeannot Szwarc
Barbara Rush as Agatha Howard
Henry Darrow as Dr. Juan Muñoz
Beatrice Kay as Mrs. Gibbons
Larry J. Blake as Charlie Crowley
Karl Lukas as the Iceman
This is a very strong and surprisingly touching romantic Night Gallery story, adapted by Rod Serling from an H.P. Lovecraft story and one of many ably directed by Jeannot Szwarc.
The story begins with an old woman, Agatha Howard (Barbara Rush, very good), in voiceover narration as a hand-held camera walks through a cemetery on a blustery fall day. Over mournful Spanish guitar, Agatha begins to tell about her relationship some fifty years ago with a Dr. Juan Munoz, whose leaf-covered tombstone the camera ends up on.
Flash back to early 1920s New York on a hot summer afternoon. Agatha comes unannounced to visit Dr. Munoz (Henry Darrow, also quite good), who was a professional colleague of her scientist father, who has recently died. While going through her father’s papers, she found correspondence between them regarding their views on accepting (or more accurately, not accepting) the finality of death.
She’s greeted at the front door by the building’s landlady, Mrs. Gibbons (Beatrice Kay in yet another strong performance in this story) who expresses surprise that anyone would come to visit Dr. Munoz. The reason: the man has some strange habits, such as the fact that he never leaves his apartment and that he keeps it at an incredibly chilly temperature.
Dr. Munoz is quite pleased to meet his former colleague’s daughter and she finds his views on the subject of postponing physical death via force of will extremely interesting—so interesting that she asks him to dinner, but not before inquiring as to his marital status. He is a widower, his wife having committed suicide in their native Spain ten years ago, shortly after his…illness, he awkwardly adds. Since he never leaves his apartment due to his unexplained condition which requires him to remain in a temperature-controlled environment, she invites herself to dinner at his apartment and he gladly accepts.
When she is about to take her leave of him, he graciously takes her hand into his chilly one and kisses it, and Rush does a fine job of communicating both her pleasure at the gentlemanly gesture and the shock of the frigid touch of his hand and lips.
She returns for that dinner and several more and we are treated to some lovely direction from Szwarc in these scenes as his camera revolves around the two of them seated at the dinner table, moving over photographs on the walls of his apartment and giving us a visual sense of their strong attraction and attachment to each other growing throughout these visits.
We also get some wonderful Serling dialogue delivered by Darrow on Dr. Munoz’s views on life and death. “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. Because we know it to be brief and very precarious.”
One early morning, before dawn, as the heat wave continues, Agatha is awakened at her hotel by a phone call from Munoz requesting her immediate presence and assistance.
When she arrives, Dr. Munoz is wrapped in a blanket with only one eye visible and he implores her to find someone to repair his apartment’s refrigeration machine which has broken down. Mrs. Gibbons says that the man living directly below him is a mechanic and Agatha rushes downstairs to wake him. He’s none too happy for the 3:00 a.m. visit but grudgingly agrees to come upstairs to take a look.
The machine needs a part which can’t be obtained until later that morning. Desperate, Munoz asks Agatha to get him “ice—a lot of it.” She complies and shortly thereafter a worker brings up the last of 300 pounds of ice blocks and leaves it outside Munoz’s bathroom where he is ensconced, unseen to the delivery man or to Agatha.
Later that morning, Munoz’s condition has worsened. Still locked inside the bathroom with the blocks of ice, he refuses to let Agatha see him and instead speaks to her in a raspy, weak, near-whisper through the door.
Admitting that his theories on cheating death after organ failure were just that—theories, he further amplifies on the reason for his wife’ suicide ten years ago. He spells it out for her. “She couldn’t stand living with a corpse. You see, my darling, I died that time, ten years ago.”
As we take in these words and our dread grows, we hear Munoz collapse from inside the bathroom. With a rising panic, Agatha summons all her strength and breaks open the door to find a most shocking and disturbing sight—that of the gruesome, desiccated corpse of Dr. Juan Munoz. Agatha lets out a series of horrified screams as we take it all in.
The story returns to its bookend of the much-older Agatha narrating a trip to the cemetery where Munoz is buried to place flowers on his grave. “I wonder if I’m mourning something that was or something that might have been,” she reflects, then adds this disturbing thought, “’What might have been’ embraces elements of horror that could drive me insane,” which one could certainly take as her imagining that if Munoz had not died then, their relationship may have proceeded to such a point that she could eventually have, knowingly or unknowingly, engaged in necrophilia.
The final image is that of Munoz’s headstone, covered in leaves as they were in the opening scene, which are swept away by the wind revealing this: Born 1887. Died 1913. And 1923.
Overall, this is a very strong entry in the Night Gallery canon—an excellent mixture of drama, humanity and a bit of horror.