It was a peaceful day at the computer until a hairy, ape-like monstrosity, a green-skinned caveman, and a terrible winged demon stopped by to see what Judge Paul Corupe was writing.
It was a peaceful mountain retreat until IT came home…
A film you might expect to be released by those sleazehounds at Something Weird Video rather than a high class outfit like Criterion, Equinox is a pure triumph of imagination; a shoestring horror flick shot by eager college students that ended up playing drive-ins and monster matinees all across North America. Announced several years ago by the boutique label, much to the surprise of the film's solid cult fan base, Equinox's long-awaited arrival on Criterion was more than worth the wait, since they've delivered an absolutely colossal package so full of monster mayhem that it's threatening to burst at the seams.
Facts of the Case
On arriving to visit their professor, Dr. Waterman (sci-fi writer Fritz Leiber), Dave (Edward Connell), Jim (Frank Bonner, WKRP In Cincinnati), Vicki (Robin Christopher), and Susan (Barbara Hewitt) are shocked to find no trace of the man or his deep woods cabin. Their search for Waterman in the creepy national park leads them to a hidden cave where a strange old man gives them an even stranger book of ancient evil symbols. Pursued by a devilish park ranger named Asmodeus (director Jack Woods), the teens discover some notes by Dr. Waterman hidden between the pages, but before they can discover the true nature of the old manuscript, they are besieged by a series of terrible creatures intent on stealing it away from them—a hairy, ape-like monstrosity, a green-skinned caveman, and a terrible winged demon that unlocks a hidden dimension.
Take heed, Criterion-ophiles: Equinox is not a cinema classic in the strictest "Spine Number" sense of the term and those of you who are looking for anything more than a decidedly schlocky B-monster flick and its fascinating behind-the-scenes story had best stick to your Fellini or Bergman sets. Despite the inexperienced acting, the one-dimensional plot, and the primitive (if ambitious) special effects, a strong case can still be made for the film's hotly debated Criterion treatment. It's a landmark effort of DIY genre filmmaking, the very essence of brilliance on a budget by a trio of effects artists who would help redefine the very nature of the industry in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
This 16mm film was originally made in 1967 under the title The Equinox…A Journey into the Supernatural for a mere $6,500 by future Industrial Light and Magic supervisor Dennis Muren, along with his good friends, effects freaks Jim Danforth and David Allen. Using stop-motion animation, forced perspective, split-screen shots, and matte work, the film was little more than a vehicle for these talented kids to show off their burgeoning talent as they brought to life a series of primitive, but still convincing, creatures to assail their heroes—most notably a stop-motion squid that smashes Waterman's cabin that owes much to the 1950s-era work of Harryhausen. While maybe not as technically skilled as their mentor, these young kids put so much heart and pride in their craftsmanship that it's hard not to at least admire the effort on display here.
Equally impressed with the trio's accomplishments, Muren ambitiously shopped the film around looking for a distribution deal, but couldn't find anyone willing to bite until he showed it to The Blob producer/distributor Jack H. Harris, who took on the fledgling film on the condition that he could bring in writer/director Jack Woods to reshoot some scenes, flesh out the plot, and give the picture a little professional sheen. Despite some glaring continuity problems in wardrobe and hairstyles, the 1970 Jack H. Harris theatrical version is a noticeable improvement over the original student film cut, both of which are included on this release for comparison's sake. Woods's insertion of himself into the film as the obvious Satan stand-in Asmodeus really helps to focus the good vs. evil struggle that is supposed to be unfolding and he really does appear to be a sort of leader and instigator of these marauding monster attacks. While it would have been impossible to completely erase the wooden performances and silly plot turns of the original, a number of rookie mistakes have been noticeably cleaned up and some of the newly-recorded dialogue has an extra punch that lifts it just slightly beyond the clichéd pleasantries of the 1967 version.
What Woods and Harris didn't change, however, are the effects themselves, which marked the transition from old-guard craftsmen like Harryhausen to a new breed of special effects artist. Muren and Co. improvised convincing effects on the fly, using old techniques in exciting new ways, such as a split-screen process that allowed actors to pass in front of the stop-motion monsters. It's easy to see that these young artists were destined for greatness, as roughly-hewn as Equinox sometimes is, and Muren soon found himself working for ILM on everything from E.T. and Terminator 2 to all six episodes of the Star Wars saga, while Danforth's matte paintings graced such films as Conan the Barbarian and The Thing. Until he passed away in 1999, Allen also worked steadily as a stop-motion animator, mostly for low-budget outfit Full Moon, but also on more high-profile blockbusters including Honey, I Shrunk the Kids and Willow. This was also the first job for several other showbiz mainstays, including Frank Bonner, better known as WKRP's sleazy salesman Herb, and a young Ed Begley Jr. even helped out as an assistant cameraman!
Criterion's transfer of Equinox is not bad at all, especially considering the age and cheapness of the whole production. The video is slightly grainy but it's a major improvement over a previous VHS release—it looks surprisingly sharp and colors are pretty faithful, though the included 1967 version, never before released, does have some more obvious artifacts throughout. For both version of the film, the dubbed soundtrack is more than adequate, delivering the flat mono dialogue and music without any noticeable crackles.
Even for those less than awed with the quality of Equinox, what really makes this set an impressive achievement is the breadth of the extras that truly catalog each aspect of the film's tumultuous history. On the first disc you'll find a ten-minute introduction by Famous Monsters in Filmland editor Forrest J. Ackerman, who talks briefly about his career and his role in inspiring his young fans to make Equinox. There are also two excellent commentaries on this disc, a lighthearted and sometimes self-deprecating track with Muren, Danforth, and co-writer Mark McGee that covers how they put together their original version of the film, revealing some amazing production tidbits and a few insights into no-budget filmmaking. Jack H. Harris and Jack Woods chime in on the second commentary and bring the viewer up to speed on the changes that needed to be made before it could hit legitimate theatres. Pop in the second disc and you'll find even more fascinating features, including video interviews with a few members of the cast—Bonner, Barbara Hewitt, and James Duron (who played a monster), as well as Muren, who talks about how he went from working on Equinox to Star Wars in less than a decade. Though presented without sound, there are also about seven minutes of outtakes from the film, including shots from a poolside beer bash that never made it into either final cut.
Most of the remaining supplemental material focuses directly on the effects, from some of Dave Allen's stop motion test footage of one of the monsters and a skeleton to "Zorgon: The H-Bomb Beast From Hell," a nine-minute silent short film made with the assistance of McGee, Allen, and Danforth. Allen is even toasted with his own section of the DVD, which includes some of his later work—"The Magic Treasure," a 20-minute children's short, and a cheeky Volkswagen commercial that pays tribute to King Kong, along with some brief test footage and essays to help put both pieces in context. A thorough gallery of stills, behind-the-scenes shots, and promotional material follows, along with the original theatrical and two radio spots, not to mention a thick booklet with testimonials from George Lucas and Ray Harryhausen. Whew!
A missing link of sorts between the fantastic cinema of Jason and the Argonauts and Star Wars, Equinox isn't so much a good film as a noteworthy one that perfectly captures the turning point for special effects in Hollywood, as models and mattes gave way to CGI. A lovingly compiled disc bound to please any fan of low-budget schlock, Equinox will nonetheless play for the nostalgia crowd best.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Jack Woods and Jack H. Harris
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