Saturday, March 9, 2013

Equinox (1970): A Journey into Movie Magic

In the mid-1960s, a group of kids, including future eight-time-Oscar-winning special effects artist Dennis Muren (Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jurassic Park), decided to make a monster movie. Using money he originally received for his college tuition as the budget, Muren, along with future stop-motion legends-to-be David Allen and Jim Danforth, made The Equinox: A Journey into the Supernatural, a low-budget but incredibly influential horror movie that no genre fan or special effects enthusiast should miss!

The film's story concerns four young people, two guys and two girls, who decide to visit some old professor-guy in the mountains. While there, they stumble upon a series of strange things: an out-of-place castle, a mysterious park ranger, a terrifying old man in a cave, an ancient book filled with pure evil, and finally a demonic portal that unleashes strange and violent creatures.
Initially made for $6,500, Equinox was picked up by producer Jack Harris (who gave us the classic 50s chiller, The Blob), who loved the special effects sequences and later commissioned Jack Woods to direct new scenes to expand the movie. As such, the film wasn't released theatrically until 1970. Because of this, Equinox exists in two different version, the first being the original 1967 student version, titled Equinox: A Journey into the Supernatural, and the longer version featuring new footage shot by Woods. Both are included on the Criterion Collection DVD. Although the introduction on that DVD, done by Forrest J. Ackerman himself, claims that the Jack Woods version mostly just added new "gory sex" scenes, this isn't really true. The movie also improves drastically on the narrative, opening the film up and giving it some much needed atmosphere. Some scenes, like the picnic sequence where they flip through the evil book, are also totally redone in a much more sinister manner. The new picnic scene also features some charmingly blatant product placement for KFC. From what I understand, this was done as a deal to get free catering for the crew.
"Saved by the Colonel!" (actual line)

Unlike some other low-budget stop-motion romps like Planet of the Dinosaurs, Equinox does actually succeed as a film on occasion, with some legitimately eerie moments such as the aforementioned scene where the characters open the ancient text and discover creepy imagery, chilling tales, and the Lord's Prayer written backwards. The scene where the demonic park ranger hypnotizes one of the girls is also pretty disgusting.

The acting in the movie is barely worth mentioning, although one of the actors, Frank Bonner, did achieve some success as Herb Tarlek in the sitcom WKRP in Cincinnati. All of the dialogue is post-dubbed, which exaggerates the amateur performances further. However, I wouldn't say that this hurts the film too much. Such strangely delivered line readings, at least to me, add to the weird atmosphere the movie emits, so I don't mind it at all. Besides, the school play-esque script wasn't going to benefit from Brando-caliber talent anyway.

The big reason to watch the film is, of course, for the wondrous special effects, with which this film goes all out. Everyone involved with the movie, especially David Allen and Dennis Muren, loved King Kong and Ray Harryhausen movies and wanted to inject as much trickery and movie magic into the proceedings as possible. Although this movie was a rookie effort for the crew and features plenty of rookie mistakes to show for it, the effects are none the less impressive. In fact, some are downright brilliant. The forced perspective shots of the giant are really incredible, as are the sequences featuring the portal to hell (accomplished using a dirt-covered picnic table and an elaborate series of mirrors respectively).
The film's stop motion monsters are as memorable and interesting as some of Ray Harryhausen's or Willis O'Brien's creations. These include the Taurus (featuring the mutton-chopped facial features of Harryhausen's iconic Ymir), a tentacled creature that recalls shades of Lovecraft, and a really weird-looking winged demon. Many of these shots creak quite a bit, especially with regards to how the actors are integrated into the footage, but, again, this contributes to the experience, almost blurring the lines between fiction and making-of documentary. For fans of special effects, seeing the seams of these sequences is a treat, not a let-down.
Interestingly, The special effects in this movie also feature a pioneering use of front projection, with the original cut of the film predating the release of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) by one year. The youth and inexperience of the crew shows through in many sequences. For instance, there will be moments where a great deal of detail is put into a special effects shot and then another shot will feature clearly visible errors.

Here's a great forced perspective shot of our heroes with the dead Taurus. Note the one guy's shadow being cast on the Taurus's arm.

Here is... well, I'll just let the quality of this shot speak for itself.
It's also been stated that Equinox was a big influence on the first Evil Dead film. Indeed, both films were low budget pictures produced by young friends and feature demons, a Book of the Dead, hand-crafted special effects, and a cast of young characters going out into the middle of nowhere for kicks. It is true that the Evil Dead crew spent a great deal of time watching horror films at drive-ins in order to gauge what elements would make the perfect low-budget horror flick, and Tom Sullivan, special effects and make-up artist on The Evil Dead, had seen the film before working on the movie, so it's a definite possibility.

Regardless, the movie did help launch the career of Dennis Muren, one of the most influential special effects artists of our time, and showcases the brilliance of David Allen and Jim Danforth. Allen went on to work on the effects for The Crater Lake Monster (1977), Q (1982), The Hunger (1983), The Stuff (1985), Ghostbusters II (1989), and Puppet Master (1989). Danforth had actually been nominated for an Academy Award for his work on 7 Faces of Dr. Lao (1964) before Equinox, but he decided to give Dennis Muren a hand, working on the matte paintings and 2D animation. He later went on to work with Ray Harryhausen on The Clash of the Titans (1981), providing the animation for the Pegasus among other creatures.

Some of Danforth's work on in Equinox.
To fans of special effects, Equinox is a treat of a movie. Not only do we get to see titans of the field discovering their powers, but we are also shown effects shots that partially reveal themselves to savvy viewers while still maintaining quality craftsmanship. For genre fans, Equinox represents a fun diversion with neat monsters aplenty. Check it out!



    1. Bought the super 8 movie from KMart of all places. No sound but it was fun. I think I was 10.

  2. One of my all time favorite since I first saw on tv it made me grab a camera and make similar movies with my friends- the Criterion edition is must for fans and anyone interested in DIY film making

  3. Now that’s what I call a tremendous blog. Beautifully written.