Review by Ed Nguyen
Stars: Skip Shimer, Barbara
Hewitt, Frank Boers Jr., Robin Snider, Jack Woods
Directors: Jack Woods; Dennis Muren, Mark McGee
Audio: English monaural
Video: Color, 1.33:1 aspect ratio
Features: Original 1967 version, Forrest Ackerman introduction, two commentaries, interviews, deleted scenes, test footage, short subjects, gallery, trailer, booklet
Length: 82 / 71 minutes
Release Date: June 20, 2006
"You are cursed by all the forces of Hell to die a year and a day from this moment!"
Film * (1970 version), ** ½ (1967 version)
Okay, so here's the scope - two guys and two girls take a car ride into the great woody wilderness. They wind up near an abandoned cabin and soon discover an ancient, mystical book. After carelessly skimming through the book's passages, the kids find themselves confronted with demonic forces determined to get those foolhardy young'uns.
Plot sound familiar? It could be a general synopsis of Sam Raimi's cult classic The Evil Dead. Or, as the most avid horror fans know, this plot description describes an earlier horror film, Equinox, a film that actually predates The Evil Dead by nearly a dozen years.
The Equinox: A Journey into the Supernatural was originally made in 1967 by amateur filmmakers Dennis Muren and Mark McGee. Shot on 16mm film with virtually no money, Equinox was a three-year labor of love that showed one does not need a blockbuster budget to make an effective monster film.
The film so impressed producer-distributor Jack Harris (The Blob) that he picked it up for distribution. Of course, he also mangled it with re-writes and re-shoots, releasing it theatrically in 1970 as simply Equinox. The new director, Jack Woods, also injected himself into the storyline and created additional scenes allowing him to manhandle and mash up against the female leads on-screen.
Viewed today, the film (either version) is not particularly frightening but still demonstrates a certain boundless enthusiasm for horror filmmaking. Equinox would be a clear influence on many of the gorier horror flicks of a decade later. Its original co-director and visual effects mastermind Dennis Muren would even graduate to bigger and badder monsters in such films as Star Wars and Jurassic Park.
Equinox opens with a young, frightened man running out of the woods only to be mowed down by an empty but apparently haunted car. The hapless sap, David (Skip Shimer), survives but loses his sanity, and the rest of the film is a long flashback relating the events leading up to David's mental collapse.
As the flashback reveals, David is joyriding with blind date Susan (Barbara Hewitt), buddy Jim (Frank Boers Jr.), and his girlfriend Vicki (Robin Snider) along a Californian highway when the gang decides to detour into the woods. Why? Well, why do young folks do anything? They end up at the wrecked cabin of David's missing college professor. Such a mystery simply begs to be explored, although the kids also encounter an appearing and disappearing castle and a cave from which eerie screams are emanating. So many strange and new oddities to search!
The intrepid kids enter the cave. Inside, they discover a cackling and deranged old man who hands them a book. It is the Book of the Damned, a "veritable bible of evil or witchcraft or demonism." Within its pages is also a note from David's missing professor describing the horrors he has unwittingly unleashed upon the world by deciphering the book's passages. And surely enough, the kids are soon besieged by a host of demonic forces, including an unjolly Green Giant and a gigantic ape-thing (the "Taurus") that harkens back to the glory days of King Kong.
Perhaps the sole authority figure in this area, a mysterious park ranger named - get this - Asmodeus, might be able to help our terrified kids. However, "Asmodeus" is not coincidentally also the name for a demon lord (I should know, I used to play Dungeons & Dragons). To complicate matters, ghoulish possessions begin to plague the kids, who can no longer trust one another to be who they seem to be. The climax of Equinox involves a winged demon and some rather effective shots, particularly a prophetic scene involving a huge silhouette against the sky and most of the scenes involving our unjolly Green Giant.
Of course, none of this guarantees that Equinox is actually any good. In truth, Equinox is one of those "so-bad-it's-good" films. The acting is pretty hokey, the dialogue is cringingly bad, and the general production looks downright amateurish. The young creators seemed dead-set on fusing together elements from Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Night of the Living Dead, King Kong, and any number of mythological Harryhausen film. The resulting film offers some of the worst characteristics of the monster sub-genre of horror films (exceptionally mediocre dialogue and some ridiculously foolhardy characters) with some of the best (cool special effects and a gripping storyline). The film isn't great, but judged by the merits of its original non-existent budget, Equinox is actually a decent effort.
One final word - I gave the film two ratings, as there are two very different versions in this Criterion release. The 1970 version is quite dreadful, with inconsistent pacing and many sequences re-arranged (or re-shot) to the film's detriment. The new material mostly focuses upon the contents of the Book of the Damned and any scenes with Asmodeus (played by director Jack Woods, who incriminates himself with firm evidence that lousy directors make lousier actors). The re-shoots create some havoc within the film's premise and plot and even introduce several continuity gaffs.
The 1967 version of the film is vastly superior in terms of pacing, tension, internal story logic, and even background score. It also provides a fuller explanation of the "Equinox" (a twilight zone where two worlds collide) than is present in the 1970 version. It thankfully does not include Asmodeus, either. But watch both versions and judge for yourself.
Video ** ½ (1970), * (1967)
Criterion's usual magical touch with film restoration can only extend so far, given the available film elements. Both versions of Equinox have been assembled hodge-podge on this DVD like patchwork quilts. The 1970 version of the film was mastered from a 35mm color negative and a 35mm optical track negative of the original 16mm blowup of the film. The picture quality is not stellar, but at least it is decidedly better than that for the original 1967 version. This older version used a 16mm duplicate negative, a 16mm composite print of recuts, and even a fan-circulated VHS, believe it or not. The aspect ratio for both versions is 1.33:1.
Equinox was originally shot on 16mm, so the film's grainy texture and soft picture quality are to be expected. There are copious amounts of dust and debris as well as emulsion damage, particularly on the rather beat-up 1967 version. Image details are washed out in certain scenes or too dark to be well seen in other scenes. Flesh tones tend to be overly-red, problems which do not significantly plague the 1970 version.
Equinox was made entirely as a silent film with the soundtrack created in post-production. Frankly though, audio synchronization is a joke. The filmmakers are lucky if the dialogue ever vaguely matches lip motion at any given time. Sound mixing is very rudimentary; spoken words typically float vaguely about like discombobulated babbling with little sense of who is speaking. Suffice it to say that the aural spatial definition for Equinox is stupendously poor. The 1967 version fares even worse in this department than does the 1970 version, as there are numerous pops and clicks on the soundtrack. Audio quality is decidedly tinny. Then again, what can we expect from a film with an original budget of about $6500?
The musical score differs between both versions of the films but generally has a cool 60's Star Trek flair to it.
Equinox arrives as a two-disc set. The film is presented on Disc One along with a seven-minute introduction by Dr. Acula himself, Forrest J. Ackerman, editor of the fanzine Famous Monsters of Filmland and the man who coined the phrase "sci-fi." Ackerman gives us a brief synopsis of his career, followed by words of wisdom about Equinox. Criterion has also included a career biography that provides further details about this literary icon of science fiction and fantasy. Ackerman appears in Equinox as an uncredited voice on an audio tape.
There are two versions of the film on Disc One. The Equinox: A Journey into the Supernatural is the original 1967 version, as created by amateur filmmakers. The 1970 version, distributed theatrically by Jack Harris, expands the original film by some eleven minutes and adds some polish to the film's presentation. I recommend watching the 1970 version first, as it has been better preserved. For re-watchability, however, the 1967 version is superior.
The 1970 film has a commentary track by Jack Harris and writer-director Jack Woods. It is somewhat self-depreciating but gives some background on how Harris came across Dennis Muren's original 1967 film and how the film was altered for its 1970 release. The 1967 version has a commentary by original co-directors Dennis Muren and Mark McGee and effects artist Jim Danforth. They discuss various homages or cinematic influences for this film. They also reminisce amusingly over how they managed to create a very cool special effects extravaganza out of virtually no budget.
Disc Two holds the remaining supplements. Courtesy of Mark McGee's private collection, there are seven minute of deleted scenes and silent outtakes from the 1967 version. Included are a party sequence, some stop-motion footage, and various shots of the cast just standing about. We can see on-screen tests of the forced-perspective effect shots used for the Green Giant sequences. Two further minutes of test sequences from David Allen involve a skeleton and a zoo sequence with Taurus, the big ape monster used in the film.
A short Dennis Muren interview (7 min.) highlights the visual effects artist's career and various achievements. Muren's childhood filmmaking experiments are also shown and demonstrate his early fascination with monsters and effect shots. A second interview (9 min.) features former cast members Barbara Hewitt, Frank Boers Jr., and James Duron (the Green Giant) reminiscing about their various roles (or blunders) in the film.
Kevin Fernan's goofy silent film Zorgon: The H-Bomb Beast from Hell (9 min., 1972) is also included, just for fun. Featuring David Allen and Mark McGee, this school project was shot around Bronson Canyon in California, where Equinox was also shot, and earned Fernan an A- grade in class.
David Allen would go on to become an acclaimed effects animator. A couple of his finest rare short subjects are presented on this DVD. First is The Magic Treasure (20 min.), a puppet-animated fairy tale about a gentle giant and his magical treasure box. Only a child with the answer to the giant's question - What makes people so special and unique? - can open the box and share its treasure with everyone. James Duron's article One from the Heart: Recollections of The Magic Treasure describes how The Magic Treasure evolved from Allen's desire to adapt Oscar Wilde's short story "The Selfish Giant."
Allen was also quite a King Kong fanatic, as clearly demonstrated in his Taurus creation for Equinox and also in test footage created for a Volkswagen commercial. That footage is included here and reproduces shot-for-shot a portion of the climactic Empire State Building finale of King Kong. The completed Volkswagen commercial can also be seen and even features Fay Wray's daughter as the damsel in distress! Chris Endicott provides an article "Kong at Cascade" about how this commercial came to be.
Also, try to find the small Easter egg on the David Allen page - it is a still photograph of Allen with his Kong model!
Next is the Equiphemera index, a collection of hundreds of stills, promotional art, and vintage articles excerpts about Equinox, David Allen's King Kong model, and The Magic Treasure. The photographs in this vast collection are offered with short explanation describing how certain shots, effects, and models were prepared. This section is quite huge, so set aside plenty of time to look over its contents.
Last on the disc are two sensationalized radio spots and one trailer for the 1970 theatrical version of Equinox. In "supernatural color" indeed!
A booklet is included with this release and offers brief messages from George Lucas and Ray Harryhausen as well as one big article by Brock Dehane, "Backyard Monsters: Equinox and the Triumph of Love."
BONUS TRIVIA: Famous sci-fi writer Fritz Leiber has a small role in Equinox as the ill-fated Dr. Arthur Watermann. Stunning Barbara Hewitt went on to become a Tournament of Roses Parade Queen. Robin Snider was best friends with singer Stevie Nicks and was the inspiration for her songs "Gypsy" and "Rhiannon." Dennis Muren's grandfather, Louis Clayton, financed much of the film and also has a small role as an old man in a cave.
Every so often, Criterion ventures away from its expanding catalog of seriously depressing foreign cinema, and the cult horror classic Equinox provides one such detour into the mysterious unknown. It's a hoot and quite ideal for a midnight monster movie marathon!