Equinox: Criterion Collection Review

Courtesy of CD-Wow, Mike Sutton looks at the Criterion edition of “Equinox”, a cult movie which launched several careers and has a devoted following. The DVD is a model example of the loving care which Criterion give to all kinds of cinema.

Equinox, one of the most beloved cult films of the past forty years, has its origins in the backyard of Dennis Muren, a fantasy film fanatic who later became one of the best known technicians working for George Lucas’s Industrial Light and Magic. At the time, he was studying business at Pasadena City College and consequently this isn’t a ‘student film’ in the strictest sense of the term. It cost $8,000 and was made in conjunction with Mark McGee, puppeteer David Allen and matte artist Jim Danforth. The film was sold to Tonylyn productions where producer Jack H. Harris (who gave us The Blob amongst other delights) hired Jack Woods to shoot extra footage before giving it a theatrical release. It did pretty well at the box-office – even gaining a British ABC circuit release (see below) – but has only rarely been shown since.

The plot doesn’t make any sense at all but you really shouldn’t worry yourself by trying to understand it. It begins in reasonably logical style with David, a geology student, running away from an explosion and being run over by a car which is meant to have no driver (although in long shot we can see one). In hospital, he tells his story before being reduced to a catatonic wreck clutching a crucifix. It turns out that he and three friends – Jim, Vicki and Susan – went into the mountains to see his geology professor Dr Watermann (Lieber) but discovered that his cabin had been mysteriously destroyed. Later, they encountered an old man in a cave who pressed a mysterious occult book on them. All manner of strange things begin occurring – Dr Watermann turns up and then dies suddenly, giant clawmarks appear in the sand, time changes in strange ways – and it all seems connected to a sinister park ranger named Asmodeus (Woods).

The development of the narrative is a little jerky, largely a result of being a mixture of new footage shot in the summer of 1969 and material from the 1967 original. The earlier footage is often redubbed in a particularly unconvincing way – there’s a scene with a doctor and a journalist at the beginning which is laughably unconvincing – and sometimes voiceover is used to conceal the changes in the plot. The dialogue has a hokey, kids’ television quality to it – “I just remembered! Asmodeus is another name for the devil!” – and the acting is functional at best. One problem with the latter is that scenes shot two years apart are rarely matched in terms of hairstyles and make-up – the two men look considerably different in the later material, particularly Jim who seems to have aged about ten years. Jack Woods also discovered that the 1967 locations were no longer usable so similar settings had to be found, none of which were conducive to dialogue recording.There are also some idiotic moments – the kids turn out to be incapable of hanging onto symbols designed to protect them from evil which is a plot device to allow Susan to attack Vicki – and the ending defies all common sense. Where did the figure in the hooded robe come from? More to the point, where did the book come from? Why do the kids hang onto the evil book for dear life? Why do the men share an apparent belief that girls are incapable of walking along any path which is a bit steep? Why can’t Jack Woods keep his camera still?

The influence of Equinox on later filmmakers is obvious, particularly on Sam Raimi since there are moments which are repeated almost verbatim in The Evil Dead and it’s sequels. Not only the idea of four kids going to a remote cabin but also the whole idea of the evil book discovered by an academic who then paid a terrible price for reading it. When the book is explored, the shot of it coming towards camera is one to which Evil Dead 2 paid tribute. However, Equinox is a lot less gory and knockabout than Raimi’s films and closer to pseudo-academic H.P. Lovecraft territory. Then it moves headlong into science-fiction with some alternate dimension stuff which is only half thought through but does allow for the use of some very natty blue and orange filters.

As a horror film, Equinox is pretty mild stuff. Asmodeus – who has carefully chosen to conceal his identity as a demon by taking the name of a demon – doesn’t do much except look on in a mildly unnerving manner and when he catches Susan he doesn’t do much except dribble all over her and feel her up in the kind of grotesquely inefficient manner which any woman would certainly find offensive. There’s a creepy giant squid thing with an evil look in its eye but all it does is destroy a cabin and the rest of the stop-motion animation, enjoyable as it is, is no more scary than your average Harryhausen Sinbad movie. However, the intentions are laudable and the winged demon who appears at the end is a splendidly infernal creation. It’s the kind of film which, patently idiotic as it is, proves very hard to dislike. Common sense is distinctly lacking but there’s a plethora of energy and ideas and how can you really resist a film so cheap that the only way it can denote a demonic possession is by adding a bit of black make-up under a character’s eyes.

The Equinox… A Journey Into the Supernatural

This is the original version of the film made in 1967 before Harris and Woods got their hands on it. It’s about ten minutes shorter and generally less professional than the later version with an home-made feel to it. The dialogue, which was hardly anything to write home about in the later version, is truly diabolical here with some exchanges so mind-numbingly banal that an example is worth quoting:

“Jim seems like a nice guy though”
“He is”
“Vicki seems nice too – an awful lot like Jim.”
“She is. That’s why they get along so well”.

This early version has a considerably simpler storyline which has a simpler explanation for the kids’ trip into the mountains and omits the character of Asmodeus who takes such a central role in the later film. There is also a different , distinctly atonal music score. However, one of the chief virtues of the later film is also present here in the shape of the delightful stop-motion animation. There’s slightly more of it in this early version than in the theatrical release and the intention is clearly to pay homage to Ray Harryhausen. Most of all, there is a difference in tone. This first version is a lot more ‘geeky’ in the sense that it’s a science-kid’s adventure movie and not really a horror film. The performers are limited in their range and come across as more scientifically curious than anything else. Muren and Danforth discuss in their commentary how they put ‘filler scenes’ into the film to lengthen it, which could be taken out or shuffled around if necessary.

It would be easy to laugh at the amateurish acting and the silly plotting but I think it’s worth concentrating on what a remarkable effort this is for three twentysomethings who shot mostly in a backyard and some other locations within half an hour’s distance. The use of front projection to incorporate the stop-motion puppets is remarkable as is the daring attempt to use forced perspective to create the giant – played by a normal sized actor. Although the Woods version is more polished in terms of filmmaking skill and acting, this early version is more exciting because there’s a sense of filmmaking discovery, of amateurs trying to beat the big boys at their own game. The dedication and imagination that it represents are rather inspiring and it’s pleasing, in retrospect, to note that the three key filmmakers – Dennis Muren (Star Wars et.al), David Allen (Honey I Shrunk the Kids) and to a lesser extent Jim Danforth (Caveman)– all went on to successful careers in Hollywood.

The Disc

Anything you could possibly want to know about Equinox is covered by this wonderful 2-disc set from Criterion, a classic example of the company’s dedication to cinema in all its manifestations. Some of the more staid fans of the company have tut-tutted at their decision to release this but it’s surely right that they give some space to this kind of cult movie, especially one which was the first work for some significant figures in the industry.

The 1970 cinema release version of the film is given a full-frame transfer but isn’t windowboxed, unlike Criterion’s recent release of Mr Arkadin. The quality of the image varies depending on the nature of the footage. Anything shot in 1969 looks pretty strong but the interpolated footage from 1967 is quite poor. However, it’s certainly very watchable and the colours are particularly gorgeous. The soundtrack is mono and very clear, certainly better than the one on the 1967 version. This version of the film is accompanied by a commentary from Jack Woods and Jack H. Harris which is packed with detail about their decision to take on the film and how they set about changing it. Neither man is a particularly riveting speaker but there’s enough interesting material here to make the track worth listening.

The 1967 version of the film is also presented full-frame and is in pretty rough shape, although it looks about as good as it possibly could do considering the source material. Loads of grain and shaky-cam, as you’d expect, but the flaws are rather endearing. For various reasons, the colour balance is out of whack and the commentary track explains this. Nothing wrong with the mono soundtrack but, again, indulgence is required since some of the dialogue is next to inaudible due to the limitations of the recording techniques. This version is accompanied by an affectionate and informative commentary track from Muren, McGee and Danforth which concentrates on the filming and the ways in which they had to overcome the restrictions of having barely any budget or experience. The sections in which they discuss the use of front projection and forced perspective are particularly valuable.

The first disc also contains a lovely ten minute introduction from the great Forrest J. Ackerman, of “Famous Monsters of Filmland” fame. He’s now nearly 90 years old but is still brimming over with enthusiasm. Otherwise, most of the extras are on the second disc. These are excellent being exhaustive without seeming so numerous as to be exhausting.

“Monstrous Origins” contains all the outtakes still in existence, courtesy of Mark McGee. These seven minutes are silent but remain intriguing and Eddie’s pool party has some points of interest (well two, both of them belonging to a well built young lady in a blue bikini). The Taurus test comes from 1964 and shows the Taurus monster rampaging around David Allen’s home town. This is in remarkably good condition considering its age and 16MM origins. There are also a few seconds of the first models which Allen ever built, an animated skeleton inspired by The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad. The interview with Dennis Muren is very pleasant because of Muren’s obvious good-nature and he speaks very affectionately about his first filmmaking experiences and love of Harryhausen and Darby O’Gill and the Little People. He also explains why the film ended up with Jack H. Harris and why he didn’t want to direct the extra footage himself.

The cast interviews are largely nostalgic but amusing enough – Barbara Hewitt comes across best – and “Equiphemera” is a very well organised collection of stills, publicity materials and magazine articles about both versions of the film. There’s also the original US trailer and some radio spots.

Finally, some materials are included which have a tenuous connection to the film but are great to see anyway. Zorgon: The H-Bomb Beast From Hell, a nine minute short, was directed over the course of a weekend by Kevin Fernan for a college film course. He was assisted by some of the Equinox crew and the cast includes future effects wizard Rick Baker. It’s really stupid but often very funny and there’s plenty of energy and imagination to compensate for the very amateurish technique. The materials concerning David Allen are a lot more professional and act as a showcase for a man who had a very dedicated following in the special effects community. The Magic Treasure is a rather twee but beautifully animated stop-motion fairy-tale which runs about twenty minutes and the 1971 Volkswagen commercial demonstrates the animator’s love of King Kong. Both of these features are accompanied by text reminiscences and the commercial is joined by some test footage.

Both versions of the film come with optional English subtitles but none of the supplementary features are subtitled.

Mike Sutton

Updated: Jun 25, 2006

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