For many fright fans, it was the genre's Bible. It eclipsed the beloved EC Comic by introducing teens to the unholy terrors to be found as part of Hollywood's past, and the modern movie house's present. Edited by an expert in all things macabre and devoted to giving horror its own legitimized forum, Famous Monsters of Filmland and its maverick overseer, Forrest J. Ackerman ('Uncle Forry' to many) literally created the post-modern fright flick movement. By providing genre overviews, critical analysis, glimpses behind the scenes and outright love letters to the legends of fear, Ackerman instilled an obsessive devotion to the canon of monster movies and creature features.
A few of his determined scare cinema "students" were Dennis Muren, Mark McGee, David Allen and Jim Danforth. Thanks to Famous Monsters of Filmland, and it's head honcho, they all shared a love of dread, and eventually were inspired to make their own shock story, using their burgeoning interest in special effect as the basis. The result was something called The Equinox...a Journey in the Supernatural. Few if any have ever seen it. Like most homemade movies, it showed locally in a few out of the way places, and that was it. Yet, there was another version of Equinox -- a 1970 b-picture revamp of the footage these determined fans shot. Now Criterion, in clear acknowledgment of the DIY domain of modern digital moviemaking, releases a comprehensive DVD package that illustrates how dreams can be dashed for the sake of a dollar. It also proves how one group's innovation and imagination can be replaced by an old pro's preference for a profit margin.
The Equinox...a Journey into the Supernatural, 1967 (Score: ***1/2)
Equinox, 1970 (Score: **)
Granted, in either structure Equinox is not much of a monster movie. Its mythology is garbled and it contains elements both excellent and amateurish. Frankly, how anyone found this excursion into the California countryside anything other than a graduated home movie is certainly surprising. Even in its drive-in ready, b-film revamp by the completely clueless Jack Woods, the story is scattered and the creature conceits as low budget as a Roger Corman reject. Yet fans still respond to this nutty narrative, finding in it something that stirs the imagination and awakens the genre justifications. Before, with just the Woods version to work with, such sentiments seemed hard to establish. But thanks to Criterion's efforts to release both interpretations of the material -- the 1967 and 1970 examples -- the explanation for all the praise is pretty obvious. What Muren and his mates created was a horror film for horror fans. They understood what lovers of fright and fantasy really wanted, and they set about delivering it in an unabashed paean to everything within the realm of fear. It was their personal present to those who dreamed of delivering their own movie macabre, and this vibe of cinematic celebration encases every frame of the first film. Woods and Harris were only out for the money, and their manipulation of the movie to create another cardboard cutout passion pit play date is painfully clear in their completely craven cock-up.
In its original incarnation, The Equinox...a Journey into the Supernatural is not without its flaws. Conceived as a series of F/X set pieces using each and every trick in the trade book, the narrative is more or less woven in between make-up work and forced perspective shots. Nothing looks more homemade as low budget stop motion animation, and the film is loaded with several of these semi-silly moments. As actors, the amateur cast can be agonizing in their performances, most never finding a happy medium between zombification and strident scenery chewing. And yet, despite all the mistakes and editing errors, amongst all the garbled line readings and story stumbles, something truly magical occurs. It is clear that, as fright fans, Muren, Allen, Danforth and McGee understood inherently what aficionados demand from the dynamic. True fans want to be thrilled by visions they've never witnessed before. They long to believe in the living, breathing reality of mythic monsters. They hope to be horrified, but will gladly accept a knowing nod to the requirements of dread. But most of all, they want to know that the filmmakers are on their side, that they take fright and fantasy as seriously as they do. The original version of Equinox definitely delivers in all these areas. Its demon driven finale is very effective, and the mix of giants, animated ape men, and magnificent miniatures work is just delightful. In a strange way, Equinox is The Evil Dead with Ray Harryhausen substituting for Sam Raimi. There are so many obvious connections that you have to imagine Sam and his clan came across this version somewhere in the formation of their film and starting taking stylistic notes. While it can't compare with Dead's decided darkness, Equinox manages to be an effective entertainment.
That's more than can be said for the "professional" remake. The first thing you notice about the official release of Equinox is that it is overloaded with exposition. Where Muren and his friends found a level of ambiguousness helped their horror, Wood wants everything explained, in triplicate. Most of the new footage shot (same actors, almost same hair and costumes) consists of the characters asking questions while others offer overlong answers. Sacrificing substantial creature material for these far too drawn out discussions, it's the first sign that this interpretation of the story will be much, much different than the original. To make matters worse, director Woods winds up playing a perplexing presence known as Asmodeus. Riding a horse and wearing a ranger suit, the filmmaker gives his interpretation of a demonic force by issuing ineffectual warnings and screwing up his mouth like a non-joking Jerry Lewis. Perhaps the most insufferable sequence has Woods feeling up the beach blond babe Susan for no apparent reason. Marking her as his via slow sloppy kisses and a hand up her sweater, this looks like nothing more than a casting couch concession created in full view of the camera. But maybe the most amazing mangling of this movie comes in the F/X department. Every scene is snipped substantially, with the last act demon getting the biggest scissors job. Sure, the amateur efforts are obvious, but are they really any worse than the killer carrot from Corman's canon, or the many less than stellar examples flopping around inside the Bert I. Gordon and Robert Lippert oeuvre? Clearly, Harris and Woods considered this material mediocre, and figured they could have the characters talk their way out of it all. It doesn't work.
This doesn't mean that the new version is awful, it's just not the genre-loving invention of the original. We so enjoy the first movie's palpable passion for filmmaking and the creation of creature that we are willing to forgive a lot of technical troubles. But Woods and Harris' bottom line driven designs are so self-evident that we instantly see every single stumble. They're so linked into getting distribution and collecting the receipts that they don't really bother with concepts like continuity and creativity. The released version of Equinox is a rote reinvention of a myriad of already made monster movies. The fanboy version (to utilize a post-modern phrase) is full of industriousness and imagination. Granted, you can groan at the moments where the stop motion stumbles, an errant element (like a hand or a stand) taking up a single frame of footage, and even with all their talent, some of the designs here are too faithful to films that came before (our ape man looks like Kong in fox fur chaps). But both movies illustrate how the desire to express one's self runs in stark contrast to the actual ideals in the movie business. Muren and his pals managed to pick up where Equinox left off and become powerful players in the industry. Others are not so lucky. They are merely exploited by well-meaning trade journeymen, men only concerned about profitability and product. As a pair of cult classics, neither version truly lives up to the title. But as a DVD presentation that compares and contrasts the competing interests involved, this is quite possibly one of the most important releases in the medium's history.
Yet Disc 2 is even better. It begins with another nice Muren conversation. Here, unlike the commentary, he's more matter of fact about how Equinox opened doors for his future Oscar winning career. Continuing the Q&A, actors Frank Bonner (Jim), Barbara Hewitt (Susan) and James Duron (the green giant) add their insights. They mention making the movie for "audition tape" (read: footage to show potential employers) and really didn't mind returning to film more material. Criterion then includes a lot of making-of selections, including an assortment of silent deleted scenes and outtakes from the 1967 effort, as well as some archival stop motion test trials. There is also an extensive gallery loaded with rare still, promotional material, and additional production elements and a booklet containing tributes from George Lucas and Ray Harryhausen, along with a new essay on the film(s) by Brock DeShane. We also get to see how the movie was sold as a collection of trailers and TV spots round off the extras. Perhaps the most compelling content is saved for items without a direct connection to the movie's making. David Allen's excellent fairytale short -- The Magic Treasure -- is offered here, and it's a stunning achievement. Equally impressive are a King Kong car commercial from the early 70s (again, an Allen item) with a look at some of the pre-production test footage. Finally, an obscure 1972 short entitled Zorgon: The H-Bomb Beast from Hell is presented, and it's a hilarious man in a zipperback suit hoot.