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Equinox: The Criterion Collection

The Criterion Collection // Unrated // June 20, 2006
List Price: $39.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Bill Gibron | posted June 10, 2006 | E-mail the Author
The Product:
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 Plot:
There are indeed two versions of Equinox offered on this DVD, and though both are based in the footage shot in 1967, each story is different. Let's begin by looking at:

The Equinox...a Journey into the Supernatural, 1967 (Score: ***1/2)
After a frantic phone call from his college professor, David Fielding decides to take a trip into the woods to see if the educated man is okay. He drags along his friend Jim, as well as Jim's girlfriend Vicki and her gal pal Susan. The long drive to Dr. Waterman's is uneventful, but once they arrive, they find his cabin completely destroyed. While trying to locate the still missing man, Vickie discovers a castle high up on a hill. Intrigued, they decide to explore. Next thing they know, they are in a cave where a frightened old man tells them to take "the book" and leave. Pouring over the tome, David discovers a note from Dr. Waterman. Apparently, this volume functions as a key to a temporal doorway, an "Equinox" between the lands of shadow and light. Without warning, Dr. Waterman arrives and steals back the book. Then a giant monster attacks. It's after the book as well. Before they know it, David, Vicki, Jim and Susan are chased by a giant green ogre and come face to face with a horrifying demon, all Hellbent on death and destruction.

Equinox, 1970 (Score: **)
While planning a picnic, best buddies Jim and David wonder about a favorite professor, Dr. Waterman. Seems the old man has been acting odd, and they fear that something is wrong. Still, it's sunny out, and it seems a shame to waste such a perfect day. Gathering up their gal pals Vicki and Susan, they head out into the woods, set up their snack, and are almost immediately accosted by a park ranger named Asmodeus. He warns them to leave as soon as possible. While searching for the professor's cabin, they come across a castle. Hoping to explore it, they look inside a cave for clues. An old man torments them, and they end up running away, a very old and very odd book in tow. While trying to decipher it's passages, David comes across a couple of clues. It appears that the book is a doorway, a self-described Equinox between two worlds. By wearing certain religion symbols, individuals are safe from its effects. Eventually they get back on the trail of the missing scholar and try to unlock the knowledge of the volume, Asmodeus shows up. He attacks Susan, and threatens Jim. Eventually, some monsters show up and then disappear quickly. Jim passes into the Equinox and is possessed. It is up to David to save the day.

The DVD:
In the movie of the same name, an 'Equinox' is described as the boundary between good and evil, Heaven and Hell. It's an unstable dimension where fear is transparent and seemingly solid entities can become possessed by spirits bent on demonic destruction. This description could also easily be applied to the movie's troubled history. Starting out as a 1967 semi-student project by a group of fresh faced filmmakers -- among them future F/X mavens Dennis Muren (Star Wars, Jurassic Park) David Allen (The Howling, Young Sherlock Holmes), Jim Danforth (They Live, Robot Wars) and writer Mark McGee (Inner Sanctum, Stepmonster) -- it was eventually bought by B-movie producer Jack Harris (famous for The Blob) and, as with most unknown quantities, reconfigured to fit the distributor's designs. Harris hired Jack Woods, let the novice filmmaker reshoot certain elements, and the resulting re-edit hit the drive-in circuit some three years later. In this final form, Equinox has established itself as a minor cult classic, the kind of film people fall in love with during late night monster movie reruns. Part of the fan forged fidelity comes directly from the 'So-BIG' school of cinema. This is one movie that is definitely "so bad it's good". Yet for anyone lucky enough to see the original, a decidedly different opinion could be reached. Muren, Allen, Danforth and McGee wanted to create a movie that their friends who followed Famous Monsters of Filmland would appreciate. And all this genre geek love is clearly present on the screen.

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.

The Video:
In a highly unusual move for Criterion (a company that prides itself on stellar transfers of even the most obscure titles) both editions of Equinox are rather routine. The 1967 version is the most objectionable, as it is loaded with scratches, dirt, damage and editing errors. True, we can take all these defects with an oversized grain of salt, since it's a privilege to see the original configuration of the film. Still, the 1.33:1 full screen image is definitely problematic. The Woods helmed effort looks a lot better, but since it also incorporates some of the damaged film, we get a nice selection of non-reference quality quirks here as well. The colors in both are incredibly bright and clear, while the details are discernible and direct. Overall, this is a trying technical achievement. We wish the original looked better, if only so that it could stand toe-to-toe with the professionally produced redux.

The Audio:
Music will be the main issue with either film. The 1967 soundtrack is awash in an odd electronic noisiness that occasionally distracts from the atmosphere. It's almost as if Muren and McGee took the notion of the aural amplifying mood way too seriously. They want to beat us over the head with Dolby Digital Mono dread. Woods works in a decidedly different manner. He employs a typical symphonic underscore, and only cranks up the creepiness toward the end. The dialogue, when dubbed, is crystal clear. Yet sometimes, during the more chaotic location sequences, we do loose some lines.

The Extras:
Here's a substantive suggestion for Criterion. Take this terrific title and distribute it, free of charge, to every film school in America. The added content, with their life lessons in working within the misguided movie business are scholarship level supplements that really make their point. Divided over two discs, we are first faced with a pair of excellent audio commentaries. Muren, McGee and Danforth are present on their pet project to explain their inspiration, to argue over the dated F/X designs, complain about certain plot logistics, and to marvel at how fans have flocked to the film over time. They don't seem overly concerned that Harris and Woods totally rewrote their original storyline, nor are they angry over the newly shoot footage. Instead, they look at the entire 1967 Equinox situation as their first face-to-face confrontation with the beast known as show business. Speaking of the redesigning duo, Harris and Woods show up to discuss their version of Equinox, and it's a very telling narrative. More or less dismissing the initial version, they believe they have made a successful monster movie in the end. Woods argues for the inclusion of his character and the strange scene with Susan. Harris describes what initially interested him in the film, and argues that the changes make an incomprehensible storyline straightforward. Along with a wonderful introduction by Forrest J. Ackerman (pushing 90 and still going strong) disc one definitely delivers the contextual goods.

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.

Final Thoughts:
As a celebration of old school F/X melded with lessons on realizing your dreams, the Criterion Collection presentation of Equinox is above reproach. While both movies may be marred by under realized ambitions and commerce minding missteps, this is still an important primer to the varying facets of filmmaking. Easily earning a Highly Recommended rating, this two disc DVD set stands as one of the premiere preservationist's most significant statement on cinema. Not every movie can be a foreign film classic, an influential documentary or a historically important entry in the artform. No, in the case of Equinox (in either arrangement), the movie is minor at best. But with the connection to Famous Monsters of Filmland, the eventual effects stardom of the original brotherhood of first time filmmakers, and the clearly illustrated lessons in how one group's grandiose vision can be varied -- and even violated -- by another's need for saleable merchandise, this is an electrifying education. In one of the first cases where Criterion's digital dimensions clearly outshine the film being featured, Equinox is a must own part of any genre fan's collection. It proves that, with perseverance, anyone can achieve their cinematic goals, even if, in the end, it's merely a saleable shadow of it's former flight of fancy self.

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