As a result of being a fan of director Sam Raimi's work, anytime the subject of the original Evil Dead came up there always seemed to be a reference to an earlier film by the title of Equinox having had some influence upon the story. For years, I searched for this fabled film, unaware that copies were to had, but only in the form of a long out-of-print VHS release which was retitled The Beast. During that search, I became familiar with a lot of the lore behind the film, discovering that special effects guru Dennis Muren had a hand in it's direction, which delighted a hardcore Star Wars fan like myself. Hell, I even knew that Frank Bonner (of WKRP in Cincinatti fame) had a starring role in the movie, his first I believe.
After finally giving up hope that I'd ever get a chance to actually see Equinox, along comes the fine folks at (of all people) The Criterion Collection who decide to give this obscure early 1970s schlock horror flick the best treatment it's probably ever seen in it's distribution history.
The storyline's pretty much old hat for any of us who are fans of the horror genre: Four college age kids take an outing into the spooky old woods, and while there they discover a creepy old man in a cave who gives them an ancient book. After that, everything is pretty much crazy go nuts insane. They encounter the crazy old scientist who had been doing research on the book (portrayed by famed sci-fi author Fritz Lieber), who tries to steal it back from them, and ends up dead by the handsome young lead's hands....purely by accident, mind you.
Then, there's the stop-motion Taurus monster (pictured on the cover art) and the flashback sequence involving the scientist character's meeting with a stop-motion skeletal vaguely Satanic character. And to top things off, there's the Green Giant, a victim of crude forced perspective photography who appears out of a rift in reality to attack our cast. Everybody pretty much ends up dead or possessed by the end of the film, with one exception that leads up to our shock twist ending.
In the end, it's the typical tale of a group of young protagonists who seem to have a talent of doing the exact opposite of the sensible thing to do whenever confronted with the supernatural, the first of which that comes to mind is: RUN! Get the hell outta there and back to civilization!
The flawed story, though, is overshadowed by the technical aspects of the film itself, which is a testament to creativity and youthful determination on the part of the filmmakers. Muren (who was 18 at the time of filming) pulls off several inventive in-camera filming tricks, and the stop-motion animation by the director and crew (stop-animation legend Dave Allen being amongst them) is top-notch considering the budget they had to work with (according to the audio commentary being around 6500 dollars). For what is practically a backyard 16mm home movie made by several Famous Monsters of Filmland subscribers, Equinox actually comes off better than a lot of the low-budget fare that was produced at the time for 20 or 30 times the budget.
Presented on the first disc of the set are both versions of the film: Equinox...A Journey into the Supernatural - the original 1967 71-minute cut compiled by Muren and crew, and the 1970 cut which producer Jack Harris released after re-editing the original footage and adding new scenes shot by director Jack Woods, which introduces Harris himself as a central villian character, for a run-time of 82 minutes. This Criterion set is the first time that the original cut has ever been available to a mass audience, and after viewing both versions, I actually prefer the Muren cut. Because of the slightly shorter running time, the pacing seems to work better story-wise and the original placement of several special effects sequences adds shock value.
(The editor will now selfishly direct you his own review of the movie at The Bad Movie Report)
As with all Criterion releases, the utmost efforts have been made to not only preserve the original elements, but to restore them to the best possible condition for presentation. This seems to work against the original 1967 cut at points, for several process and special effects shots stick out like a sore thumb with varying degrees of discoloration, emulsion, and base damage evident. But, these flaws in the original elements tend not to distract, but add to the charm of the film. I mean, this is a schlocky monster film produced during the late 1960s before the advent of uber-expensive digital effects...it's supposed to look slightly off-center and, well..hokey.
This is where Criterion really shines, because this set is loaded with 'em.
- Commentary by writer/director Jack Woods and producer Jack H. Harris on Equinox (1970)
- Commentary by effects photographer/producer/ director Dennis Muren, writer/co-director Mark McGee, and matte artist/cel animator and effects technician Jim Danforth on The Equinox - A Journey into the Supernatural (1967)
- Video introduction by Forrest J. Ackerman: Ackerman tends to ramble a bit, but it's nice to see some respect paid to the man who essentially inspired the making of this film and the careers of several folks working with the film industry.
- Interviews with director Dennis Muren and actors Frank Bonner, Barbara Hewitt and James Duron
- Deleted scenes and outtakes from the original 1967 version
A ton of respect is paid to late stop-motion animator Dave Allen and his work in the form of:
- Rare animated fairy tale "The Magic Treasure" by Equinox animator David Allen
- David Allen's acclaimed "Kong" commercial for Volkswagen, including test footage
Then there's amateur work by some folks involved with Equinox:
- Short film "Zorgon: The H-Bomb Beast from Hell" (1972)- charmingly funny in only the way schlock can be.
- Still Gallery and Promotional material- alot of this stuff is a hoot, folks.
- Trailer and radio spots
- 32-page insert booklet with tributes from George Lucas and Ray Harryhausen and an essay by Brock DeShane- This is even a fun piece of material, presented with a Famous Monsters style layout and theme.
All in all, a fun package. Gives one hope that Criterion will focus on any of a number of B-Film genre pictures in the future. And, God bless their little hearts of they do...
Anthony Conn, aka The Hong Kong Cavalier, 8/20/2006