The world of cinema has always been filled with dreamers, and a lot of those dreamers start out with nothing more than a Super 8 or 16mm camera, all the way up to the latest iPhones; little backyard excursions with friends and sisters or parents to fill out the cast for a monster on the loose or a super sleuth flick. Every once in a while there’s genuine talent to back up the enthusiasm; our Raimi’s and Coscarelli’s bear this out. But before them a group of enthusiastic teens actually had their vision realized, and eventually a mutated form of it invaded drive-ins as Equinox (1970), an inspirational and energetic full blown monster mash.
Released in October, Equinox began as a project in the mid ‘60s for creature kids Dennis Muren, David Allen and Mark McGee, combining their love of Famous Monsters of Filmland and Ray Harryhausen’s mesmerizing stop motion work into a simple scenario that would be used later on in some of our genre favorites. But their project, which they finished in ’67 entitled Equinox…A Journey into the Supernatural, was a little shy of feature length run time (clocking in at 71 minutes), so legendary producer Jack H. Harris (The Blob, Dark Star, Son of Blob, and The Blob remake) bought up the $6,500 production (!) and brought in Jack Woods, at the time an editor who would later find his greatest success as a sound editor for such films as Phantasm II and Star Trek VI. Woods brought back the original cast for additional scenes and gave himself a role as a mysterious park ranger named Asmodeus.
At this point your unreliable narrator (I am, trust me; just ask the missus) should back up and tell the tale of four college students (Edward Connell, Barbara Hewitt, Frank Boers, Jr., and Robin Christopher) who head off to the woods to see their professor (renowned author Fritz Leiber, Conjure Wife) at his cabin in the woods. They find the cabin crushed, and come across an ancient tome the professor found that unleashes unfathomable demons. Will the students live to tell the tale of giants, flying devils, and portals to other dimensions? (The short money is on no.)
Which isn’t completely true; the film opens in medias res as David (Connell) is fleeing from the canyons, followed by something, and he runs out onto the highway where he’s hit by a driverless car. Taken to hospital, clutching a cross, David warns of the dangers of the book before we’re thrust a year ahead to present day, where a reporter is doing a follow up story on the disappearances. David is, shall we say, under permanent observation, and the reporter is played a recording of a doctor’s observations (voiced by FM’s very own Forrest J. Ackerman) on his treatment and David’s story. After the main tale is conveyed by flashback, the film ends back in the present with David having his cross taken away, which does not bode well for his extended stay at the Padded Room Motel…
Equinox plays as a demented Saturday matinee picture for grown ups, but just barely; there’s a scene added by Woods that has Asmodeus sexually assaulting Susan (Hewitt) that feels out of place, even though it isn’t graphic. The rest of the picture is devoted to the gosh darn students sleuthing their way through the woods and hills in search of the professor, one step removed from a live action Scooby Doo episode. And it would be that if not for Asmodeus’ lecherous ways; one gets the sense that Harris was looking to inject a little exploitation into the flick, but it certainly is at odds with the rest.
And the rest, once it gets to the second half, is mesmerizing; Muren brought along Jim Danforth, who he had met while visiting the set of Jack the Giant Killer (’62), and his stop motion work along with Allen’s is laden with Harryhausen heart and more than a little imagination. I’m a sucker for aviating dark angels, and Equinox has one of my very favorites.
This is the soaring spirit of the film; a group of 20 year olds with yes, some tangible connections to the industry (McGee wrote for FM, hence the Forry appearance), who nevertheless self financed their dream and vision, and got it made. Whether Evil Dead borrowed its plot from Equinox is irrelevant; whether Phantasm’s red planet was inspired by this particular interzone is beside the point as well; they are all completely different films with the same irrepressible force of filmmakers who just have to see it through, any way they can. Personally, it would give me the greatest thrill if Raimi and Coscarelli were even partially inspired by Equinox. Isn’t that part of the magic and allure of moviemaking?
Talent will always bear out. Muren would go on to do visual effects work for little films like Star Wars, E.T., Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom among many others; Danforth would continue to impress with matte work for The Thing, Creepshow, Day of the Dead and Body Snatchers; McGee wrote Sorority House Massacre II. Love Full Moon’s Puppet Master creatures? That’s Allen. Ed Begley, Jr. (A Mighty Wind) was assistant cameraman. Speaking of actors, Frank Boers, Jr. would change his name to Frank Bonner and become beloved salesman Herb Tarlek on TV’s WKRP in Cincinnati.
That is a lot of top flight skill. However, it never means anything without the heart to fuel, hone and push on to have it come to fruition; Equinox is bursting with the joy of backyard dreams writ large, by a group of young men who made their own Saturday matinee and Famous Monsters spread for the next group of burgeoning film buffs to pore over, dream, and do the same.
Equinox is available on DVD from Criterion.