Sunday, December 22, 2013

Occult Barrier Between Good And Evil

From time to time, I plan to use this space to repurpose film reviews I wrote for several local independent newspapers during the previous decade:

THE OCTOPUS: 1999-2000
THE PAPER: 2003-2004
THE HUB: 2005-2006

During my tenure as a professional (re: paid) film critic, I wrote about both new releases and cult classics. The date provided below is the date the newspaper issue containing the review hit the streets.

This review has been slightly edited from the original published piece.

Running Time 1:17
Directed by Mark Thomas McGee and Dennis Muren
Stars Edward Connell, Frank Bonner, Barbara Hewitt, Robin Christopher

EQUINOX (1970)
Running Time 1:22
Directed by Jack Woods
Stars Edward Connell, Frank Bonner, Barbara Hewitt, Robin Christopher

If you were a horror fan growing up in the 1960’s and 1970’s, you were undoubtedly aware of FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND. A monthly magazine published by Warren, which also produced black-and-white magazine-sized comics like EERIE, CREEPY, and VAMPIRELLA, FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND enchanted kids with wonderfully evocative articles and stills from science fiction, horror and fantasy movies past and present. Much of it was written by its editor, Forrest J Ackerman (sic), in an inimitable “punny” style that clicked with a young audience fixated on monster movies and special effects. It’s no exaggeration to say that FMoF influenced a generation of future filmmakers, and it’s likely culture-changing hits like STAR WARS may have never existed without it.

In 1965, a trio of young “monster kids” who had met through the FMoF classifieds decided to join forces and make a movie just like the ones they enjoyed watching on late-night TV. Greatly influenced by KING KONG and the special effects wizardry of the legendary Ray Harryhausen, the three lads—Dennis Muren, Mark McGee, and David Allen—created THE EQUINOX…A JOURNEY INTO THE SUPERNATURAL on weekends over the course of two years on a budget of only $6500.

Muren is a name many genre fans recognize immediately. He’s an Oscar-winning visual effects technician whose credits include STAR WARS, E.T.: THE EXTRATERRESTRIAL, TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY, JURASSIC PARK, and WAR OF THE WORLDS, just to name a handful. Muren was still a teenager when he co-directed his first movie, along with McGee (who went on to write several films for Roger Corman) and Allen, who, like Muren, became renowned for his work in visual effects, specializing in stop-motion animation.

Three years after THE EQUINOX was finally completed, Hollywood producer Jack H. Harris (THE BLOB) bought the picture and hired Jack Woods to write additional scenes and reassemble the cast to direct new footage. The result was titled simply EQUINOX, which played across the United States and found an extra life in TV syndication and home video. Criterion released it in a sumptuous 2-disc DVD that includes not only the theatrical cut, but also—for the first time ever—the original 77-minute version from before Harris and Woods got hold of it.

Both versions have slightly different storylines, but the basic premise remains the same. Four youths—David (Edward Connell), Susan (Barbara Hewitt), Vicki (Robin Christopher), and Jim (Frank Boers, Jr., who later changed his name to Frank Bonner and became famous as sleazy sales manager Herb Tarlek on WKRP IN CINCINNATI)—hiking through the woods to the cabin of Professor Waterman (fantasy author Fritz Leiber) encounter a crazy old man in a cave who hands them an ancient book. This tome opens a doorway between Earth and a haunted dimension that unleashes a bevy of murderous creatures against them, including a green giant, a Harryhausen-like “Taurus,” and a winged demon. The Woods/Harris version attempts to flesh out a story that doesn’t need it by adding a spooky park ranger, Mr. Asmodeus (Woods), who warns the kids away from the woods, but also takes the time to mesmerize and make out with the two girls in scenes that appear to exist solely for the actor/director’s gratification.

Neither EQUINOX is what I would call “good,” but both are interesting in terms of their admittedly crude special effects. It’s fun guessing how the budding filmmakers pulled off their ambitious vision without much money. A lot of it was done “in the camera” using forced perspective, mirrors, or matte paintings on glass that mingle perfectly with the real background. The paintings were done by another “monster kid,” Jim Danforth, who was already a Hollywood professional on films such as THE 7 FACES OF DR. LAO. The stop-motion scenes were mostly directed by Allen using front and rear projection techniques that seem impossible on $6500. I particularly admire the cave set, which is one of the best I’ve ever seen. It was basically a 40-foot cave wall constructed in Muren’s backyard, but, combined with exteriors filmed at Bronson Canyon and another Danforth matte painting, is indistinguishable from a real cave.

I’ve barely mentioned the performers, which is fair when discussing EQUINOX. It’s difficult to accurately measure their work, since EQUINOX was shot without sound using a 16mm Bolex camera, and the voices were post-dubbed later. The cast are inexperienced, but likable; it’s unsurprising that Bonner comes off best. The performances are definitely hurt by Woods’ recutting, which eliminates nearly all the character buildup and backstory, turning the protagonists into teenage ciphers, rather than people we become invested in.

EQUINOX is perhaps the unlikeliest member of the vaunted Criterion Collection, which, according to its Web site, is “a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films“ and “dedicated to gathering the greatest films from around the world.” I’m not certain EQUINOX qualifies on those counts, but there’s no denying the film’s impact on a select few individuals who went on to create some of Hollywood’s greatest fantasies.

1 comment:

Grant said...

Like the people you mention, I first knew of it thanks to Famous Monsters - all it took was one BW photo to make me curious about it. I've only actually seen it a couple of times, but I really liked it. I think it's right up there with ANGRY RED PLANET when it comes to making a "virtue" out of its cheapness.