Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Rumors circulated a couple of years ago that The Criterion Collection was considering spinning off a second tier label for 'cult' titles. Their work on this wonderful Equinox special edition would seem to make a second label unnecessary -- it presents a practically home-made 1970 horror film in an affectionate and respectful context.
In 1968 or '69 young filmmaker Dennis Muren brought his finished 16mm production to the independent producer Jack H. Harris, who realized that with some additional polish it might be made into a viable exploitation picture. Muren probably never saw any money from the deal and was grateful just to have his work distributed. That's the reality for 99% of first-time semi-amateurs, a class of filmmaker not usually considered ideal Criterion subject matter.
Criterion's Equinox presents a movie we'd sooner expect to find in a $4.00 bargain bin. The difference is the disc's extras, the best chronicle I've yet seen of the 1960s "monster kid" phenomenon: Young enthusiasts motivated by articles in Forrest Ackerman's Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine to create their own fantastic make-ups and special effects. A goodly percentage of today's top special effects talent came from this 60s generation. Equinox is being given special edition treatment primarily because Dennis Muren went on to become a top man at George Lucas' Industrial Light and Magic.
Equinox is an awkward amateur production graced with some impressive special effects scenes. The story is strikingly similar to the later horror film The Evil Dead: Some college students and a weird old professor find a demonic book that conjures demons and monsters from another world. The interest for fantasy film fans naturally revolves around the effects tricks of Muren, animator Dave Allen and matte painter Jim Danforth. Their work contributes a live-action green giant, a sloth-like tusked demon and a harpy-like flying devil. Clever forced-perspective techniques are combined with stop-motion animation modeled after the work of Ray Harryhausen, the patron saint of special effects fans. Filmed mostly in 16mm, the often-tacky illusions nevertheless display a keen knowledge of technique and an artful spirit.
As for the rest of the show, the performances range from personable (Frank Bonner, later of WKRP in Cincinnatti) to just what we'd expect, amiably terrible. This is the level of filmmaking spoofed in John Landis' 1972 Schlock. Acting talent is almost irrelevant. The actors offer the information that their character motivation was more often than not trying to remember whether or not they wore a sweater in the last shot.
In the heyday of independent monster movies, whenever an unlucky production hit the financial skids, a company like American-International would be there to snap it up for a song. Jack H. Harris definitely saw Equinox as a financial opportunity, and this disc allows us to compare the film before and after he reworked it for a 35mm theatrical release.
Criterion's two-disc set contains two versions of Equinox. Disc producers Brock DeShane and Curtis Tsui show their understanding of the monster-kid Zeitgeist with a fine selection of extras. Monster cult figure Forrest J. "Dr. Ackula" Ackerman introduces the picture and comes off as a lovable, ditzy old horror host. "4-E" talks more about himself than he does the legion of kids he inspired and is quick to mention his many cameo roles over the years.
The theatrical release version is a polished HD transfer with good color. The image has some dirt but is otherwise in fine shape. It carries a commentary by Jack H. Harris and Jack Woods, the writer-director of revised and additional scenes. Harris presents himself as a grand old man of the cinema while Woods details his overhaul of Dennis Muren's original semi-amateur post-production job.
The original 1967 version Equinox ... A Journey into the Supernatural is a good transfer of original negative elements with a brief couple of inserts from inferior sources. Muren's film is quite different from the Jack Harris version and more fun to watch. It credits Muren's faithful crew members, most of whom were deleted from the Jack H. Harris version.
The original co-directors Dennis Muren and Mark McGee join Jim Danforth in a commentary. Since they've all become seasoned professionals their hindsight observations are particularly insightful; they're amused by Equinox's lapses of logic but proud of their accomplishment just the same. To illustrate his priorities at the time, Muren says he had tickets to see the Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl but didn't go so he could work on this movie instead.
Disc two is packed with supplemental goodies. Clips from old home movies accompany a new interview with Dennis Muren. He remembers meeting Forry as a teenager and asking director Don Siegel for career advice. Muren still likes the homemade fun and invention of doing things the old way; he respects CGI effects but considers them synthetic. We're shown the 1971 Hollywood Blvd. marquee for Equinox that I remember seeing when I attended UCLA ... didn't go to the film, though.
Cast members Frank Bonner, Barbara Hewitt and James Duron talk about returning to shoot new material for the Harris version. Duron played the green giant in the forced perspective setup by standing on a picnic table. Leading lady Hewitt became a Pasadena Rose Queen.
Outakes from Equinox reveal its cast and crew of cute 1960s kids - wonderfully klunky and self-conscious suburban types, some wearing pocket protectors. The tall one is Dennis Muren. The trims include outs of effects work and were saved by co-director Mark McGee. We get to see him mug at the camera.
Next up is Zorgon: The H-Bomb Beast from Hell, a short 1972 amateur film filmed by Kevin Fernan in Bronson Caverns. The movie happens to involve some of the same notable effects people named in Savant's reminiscence The Hollywood Children of Ray Harryhausen: Mark McGee, Danforth, Allen, Jon Berg and even Bill Hedge. In a conspicuous role is Susan Turner, an unsung crew veteran of Equinox and a Savant workmate on the miniature effects team for 1941. Makeup effects master Rick Baker shows up as well, which explains the monster Zorgon's distinctive "Octaman" feet. The silly ending features David Allen's impression of Paul Blaisdell in Ghost of Dragstrip Hollow.
A "David Allen Appreciation" section is the best testament yet to the stop-motion animator. The "Taurus test" is Allen's 1964 test animation reel with two puppets later used in Equinox. Allen's famous Volkswagen commercial features a reconstructed scene from King Kong. Also included is Allen's technically polished animated Fairy Tale The Magic Treasure. I saw miniatures from this film in my visit to Allen's house in about 1973. The show has excellent settings and nicely stylized characters. Text notes on David Allen are provided by Chris Endicott, an associate who has been working for years on effects for Allen's unfinished The Primevals movie, one shot at a time.
A lavish notes and stills section contains many interesting photos and documents of the shoot and Muren's career beginnings as a contributor to Famous Monsters and other fan magazines. A fat booklet has a welcome essay from Brock DeShane.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Video: Excellent (Archival quality)
Supplements: Extensive, see above
Packaging: 2 discs in double Keep case
Reviewed: June 7, 2006
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson