Equinox (Criterion Collection)
by Dennis Muren, Mark McGee,
and Jack Woods (Dirs.)
Review by Rogan Marshall
Criterion DVD ISBN/ITEM#: B000F6IHTA
Date: 20 June, 2006 List Price $39.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
Starring: Edward Connell, Barbara Hewitt, Robin Christopher, and Frank Bonner
The movie starts right in the middle of horrific action: running from a monster we don't get to see yet, our hero David Fielding gets knocked down by a car with no driver. Subsequently semi-catatonic in a mental hospital, David clings desperately to a cross, which he believes will protect him… A multilayered frame/flashback device leads us back to the beginning of the story: four teenagers – David, Vicki, Susan, and Jim (Frank Bonner, who later played Herb on WKRP in Cincinnati) - set out to enjoy a picnic in the woods near the secluded cabin where David's favorite professor Dr. Waterman lives. The kids try to visit Waterman (a cameo appearance by monolithic genre author Fritz Leiber), but the professor has vanished, and his house has caved in. Puzzling over the wreckage, our heroes spot a matte painting castle in the distance, and decide to hike over and check it out. On the way, however, they're distracted by a creepy-looking cave; inside, a crazy old man gives them a copy of the Necronomicon...and pretty soon, a pack of creepy stop-motion monsters come after the book, led by a "park ranger" named Asmodeus, who intermittently turns into a forced perspective giant.
There's nothing quite like this bizarre little monster movie, which plays like a Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew adventure re-written by hyperactive children who love Ray Harryhausen and are blissfully unaware of the concept called "camp". I was lucky enough to catch Equinox on TV at exactly the right impressionable age to cause a lifelong obsession, and I wasn't the only one: lots of the inventive low-budget visuals that cram this movie, including a dozen old school stop-motion monsters and matte paintings, turn up more-or-less whole, in Sam Raimi's Evil Dead pictures. In fact, the Evil Dead "trilogy," and its creators, owe Equinox a debt so profound, it reminds me of the currently infamous relationship between the books The Da Vinci Code and Holy Blood, Holy Grail. (Don't feel too bad about it; the enthusiastic amateurs who made the first version of Equinox, Dennis Muren and Mark McGee, went on to earn plenty of money and acclaim elsewhere – Muren cofounded Industrial Light & Magic for George Lucas… and though I can't swear to it, because I don't have a copy here to check, I'm pretty sure the main monster from Equinox has a cameo as an animated chess piece in the original Star Wars.)
While Equinox lovingly recreates the vibe of the very worst fifties sci-fi movies, right down to the glaring continuity errors, it's also quite advanced, formally and technically: the acting is solid and straight-faced, the breathless pace and attention to detail are still remarkable, and though the dialogue is often if not always laughable, the script is carefully constructed upon a thorough reading of pulp prose classics, particularly the Weird Tales crowd (for instance, in addition to the Lovecraftian details I've already mentioned, its story-within-a-story framework is straight out of Call of Cthulhu (though HPL himself stole the device from Machen's Great God Pan)). This odd combination of "high" and "low" elements makes Equinox a close cinematic equivalent of the best pulp writing, in the best possible way.
For those outside that literary loop, Equinox is still a unique point of interest: while many earlier independent movies "broke through" to mainstream success, Equinox, which began as a wildly ambitious student film (Hollywood independent Jack Woods bought the movie from Muren and McGee, then brought the cast back for extensive reshoots), is probably the first notable feature to be obviously made by "amateurs," whose energy, enthusiasm, and obsessive devotion to the project shine through and continue to win audiences thirty-five years later (as well as influence underground filmmakers, who ever since, and ever increasingly, crank out movies on this scale and in this mode).
It's hard to believe that Equinox, which may be supercool but certainly is marginal and well let's face it sophomoric, is now available from Criterion, a label which tends to specialize in definitive editions of vitamin-laden Euroclassics by directors whose very names invoke ennui in most Americans (Bergman, Fassbinder, Godard... you're getting sleepy, very sleepy...). Not that I'm complaining: the extras include the hitherto unreleased original version in toto, as well as interviews and commentary from every major creative principal and cast member, and endless behind-the-scenes stuff (special effects guys save everything). To introduce the movie, Criterion interviewed Forrest J. Ackerman, on location, at his Ackermansion; Unca Forry (who provided the kids who made Equinox with enough behind-the-scenes support to earn an associate producer credit these days) is about 90 years old now, but he doesn't look a day over seventy (not sarcasm but a heartfelt compliment). For some, the glimpse these extras provide into the world of SF fandom in the sixties, is alone worth the price of the disc.
Obviously you for whom this movie was made now know who you are. And for children in the six-to-nine range, who like monster movies, and think they like them "scary", this is absolutely the perfect movie. I have no fear that it will still mesmerize them, just like it did me, when I was such a kid, myself, thirty years ago.