Directed by Jack Woods/ Dennis Muren
Distributed by The Criterion Collection
What did Criterion see in Equinox to dub it worthy of their attention? This one question wracked its way through my head the entire time I partook of the glorious Criterion (read: beautiful, packed with seizure-inducing extras) release of the cult classic creature feature.
I kid you not. This is a luscious DVD. As always, there are two things you can expect from a Criterion set: A) It is going to be a great transfer with a lot of goodies for the film geek squad to get excited over, and B) It will cost you just shy of an arm, a leg, and a few pints of plasma. Yet, in all fairness, the sets are always worth it. Criterion has made a name for itself with not only great packages but also daring, if not puzzling, choices for releases.
Equinox is the single biggest head-scratcher for me since they released Salo. Let me delve quickly into the pedigree of the film at hand here, just to bring us all up to speed. Equinox was made in the late 1960’s by a young man by the name of Dennis Muren. Along with a crew of friends, David Allen, Jim Danforth, and Mark McGee, Muren set out to tell the tale of a team of teens that fall into the clutches of evil. The antagonists in the film all stem from a forbidden tome, which allows them to pass over from other dimensions and then wreck havoc on the world with their killing chaos.
The movie was shot for less than $7K, and then was summarily sold to distributor Jack H. Harris by Muren. Harris took the film and hired director Jack Woods to shoot some different footage to straighten out the story and lengthen the film a bit. The film was released to theatres, where it did well, but was nothing extremely special, unlike Harris’ one major claim to distribution fame, The Blob.
When one watches Equinox it’s easy to see why the film may be ridiculed. The two sets of footage, Muren’s original and the added sequences that Woods shot, do not match up exactly. The hair of the actors changes, the clothes don’t match, and the film stock is different. The film is cut so that the principles are never right involved with the special effects. Most of the time they are reduced to Raymond Burr style reporting on the situation and a lot of pointing at things off screen. The entire production is dubbed over, and the final nail is the aging special effects. Stop motion animation seriously dates a film, and as beautiful and fluid as Allen’s work is, the film cannot overcome its constrictive budget.
So we are dealing with a chopped, dubbed, dated film whose biggest genre star is never even seen on screen. Forest Ackerman, editor of Famous Monsters of Filmland, provided the voice on a tape recording. Add all of these factors in, and you get the makings of a film that is destined to play on bad drive in screens, then be thrown to the wolves that prey on such fodder for network television programming filler for the 3 am time slots.
Yet, strangely enough, this exact thing happened to Equinox. People who saw it at the theatre or drive in remembered it. The film made an impression on those who caught it at 4 am, when their parents thought they were asleep. Equinox ended up being remembered as that quirky film that was so bad that people just could not help but talk about it when they actually got to see it.
Possibly it is this fondness that caused Criterion to pay attention to the film.
Or it could be because Equinox helped change the face of modern filmmaking as we know it.
It all boils down to Dennis Muren, the man who would come to meet George Lucas, help make Star Wars and forever change the way we view the dancing dreams on the silver screen. Muren would go on to help create some of the biggest innovations in film special effects. The effects company he helped to build, Industrial Light and Magic, was the hallmark effects studio for many many, years. Muren has been responsible for bringing such a wide array of sights to life. Everything from dinosaurs in Jurassic Park to the killer Klendathuu in Starship Troopers owe their existence to Dennis Muren.
Watching Equinox, we get to see the fetal stages of his development. Crude make up, forced aspect photography, stop motion animation, matte photography; all of these ideas are played with here, and as silly as they may appear to present day theater patrons, these effects are not without their own merit. Anyone who has dabble with even the simplest of filmmaking can appreciate how difficult some of the shots are in this film. It is easy to appreciate what Harris saw in the film. He knew Muren had something special with this film.
The footage that Harris and Woods put into Muren’s film centers on a character known as Asmodeus, a mounted police man with a wicked set of eyebrows. Asmodeus was played by Woods himself. The character is a distracting, odd presence that never seems to gel with the rest of the film. There was even a “sexual violation” filmed with Woods drooling all over poor Barbara Hewitt. The tone of the Harris/Woods Equinox is uneven at points, and the way the special effects are framed within the context of the film make the experience all the more jarring.
Thank the Elder Gods that Criterion gives us both the Harris/Woods edit of the film, and Muren’s original film he sold to Harris. Equinox: A Journey to the Supernatural runs a few minutes less then its other version, but with more of a focus on the story, less editing to reshape the film, and no jolting follicular changes, the end experience is far more rewarding. Muren’s 1967 version looks and feels like a student film, but a good one. What the film loses in hammy Jack Woods shots, it gains in a few seconds of effects. Choice, spare moments of monster, inter-dimensional travel, and demonic nastiness collide to create a cleaner, meaner monster.
I remember seeing Equinox late one night, when I was an older kid. It was late, and I was unable to sleep. Once the movie started I was unable to move. I did not know if what I was seeing was real. It was hallucinogenic. It was not a good movie, but it was so weird I was unable to look away. I also remember it looking very old. The film was grainy, and there were scratches all over. This, in a very peculiar way, added to the experience of seeing Equinox. It gave the film the appearance of something that was long lost, forgotten, like a film that had been hidden away on purpose.
This new release suffers from no such effect. The picture is as far removed from any copy of Equinox I have ever seen before. Aside from a spare few areas of age, I imagine this is what Equinox would have looked like if you were a kid lucky enough to have seen it on its first run through theatres. Lucky Bastids. Several scenes within the movie have suffered from poor transfer qualities in the past. Notably, any of the darker scenes within the cave are now able to be seen with great clarity, and the animation here has detail to it that I was unaware even existed. The beasts that inhabit this world are coated in bristling hair, spikes, and have eyes where before there were just darker areas. The human animation counterparts are no longer just silhouettes, but detailed representations of the characters.
This brings up another interesting point about this release of Equinox; the better we get to see it, the more we are able to see the strings… literally. In my past experiences with this film, I was in awe of the effects, even though they were sub-standard. Now, as the digital kiss is given to the film, I see more of the fingerprints of the gods that breathed life into the film. Strings, seams, and armatures become apparent. Where degraded film fogged the curtain before, the veil is now lifted. It is great to see the film in this god bathed clean light, but at the end of it all, it is like seeing that Santa Claus is really just Dad in a suit.
Joining the two versions of the film in this set are extras that will make any stop-motion-philes wet themselves in sheer glee. Artist David Allen was gifted at bringing stop-motion effects to life. An all to early death robbed him of many more years of working within this field. Criterion’s disc features a lot of Allen centric features. A long lost Allen animated fair tale, “The Magic Treasure”, explores a more Rankin-Bass style within a juvenile plot, but none of this subtracts from the beauty of Allen’s work. Just as impressive is the Volkswagen commercial where Allen recreated the final Empire State Building scene from King Kong. The recreation is spot on with the original footage, and Allen goes out of his way to make sure that Kong is an exact replica of the Willis O’Brien original.
“Zorgon: The H-Bomb Beast from Hell” is a short film spawned by Allen and McGee. It is a silent film with a laughable monster. Rick Baker had a hand in the production, donating parts of the creature outfit from his Octaman gig. The whole thing was done for a school project, but “Zorgon” goes to show the level of movie making commitment these guys had. It was easy to see the path they would soon take to change the face of cinema.
As there are two completely different films included, Criterion was nice to include two vastly different commentaries. Jack Harris and Jack Woods tell the tale of their Equinox, while Muren, McGee, and Danforth talk about their original cut of the film. I found the self congratulatory tone of the Harris/Woods commentary to be a stark contrast to the Muren/McGee/Danforth track. Maybe it is my affinity for the 1967 Muren version, combined with a love of technical effects commentary, but I found the Muren/McGee/Danforth to be far more compelling.
The prerequisite DVD set extras are present. Stills, production shots, trailers, outtakes, and stop-motion animation test footage add to the depth of the package. Normally, these are throwaway extras, easily dismissed by all but the most fervent of fans, but with regard to Equinox, they are rare gems that should not exist. Remember, this was a small production made back when DVD sets did not exist. I am astounded that so much material exists for a film that so few people have probably heard about.
Maybe that is the reason Criterion chose to bless Equinox with this exquisite treatment. Maybe somewhere in the Criterion ranks there is a film/horror fan who knew of the richness of the stories, people, and movies that have connections to this film. Equinox may not be much of a film unto itself, but its value to the movie world is vast. Here we have the seeds of change, most of which lie within Dennis Muren. Here we have the shaping of things to come, as Muren and cohorts play gods with the realm of waking dreams. They do not allow the firmament of the world to dictate what they were or were not allowed to do. No, they took that unchanging world and made it do what they wanted. This would evolve into Muren’s calling card. In just a few years Muren would be key in the effects developed to create Star Wars. Once that happened, the world of movie making would never be the same.
Effects would come to dominate films, and as the public demand changed to better quality so would the effects themselves. In an interview on the Criterion disc, Muren remarks on how obsolete Equinox is to him. He sees the images as dated. They look confined to him, for he knew what he wanted them to look like but was unable to achieve. To a guy like Dennis Muren, Equinox was but a small stepping stone. To those of us who study film, those of us who follow its ever changing state of being, Equinox is far from just curio. It is a harbinger of things to come. The Old One’ s magic being used to create openings, rifts that would eventually allow for more powerful beings to pass through. Equinox opened a lot of doorways, and ultimately changed the world we live in.
New restored transfer of the 1970 release
The 1967 version, Equinox: A Journey into the Supernatural
Two audio commentaries: one with producer Jack H. Harris and director Jack Woods on the 1970 version, another with effects photographer, producer, and director Dennis Muren, writer/co-director Mark McGee, and matte artist/cell animator Jim Danforth on the 1967 version
Video intro by Forrest J. Ackerman
Optional English subtitles
Interviews with Dennis Muren, Frank Bonner, Barbara Hewitt, and James Duron
Deleted scenes and outtakes from the 1967 version
Archival stop motion test footage
“The Magic Treasure,” a rare animated fairy tale by Equinox effects animator David Allen
Allen’s King Kong Volkswagen commercial
“Zorgon: The H-Bomb Beast from Hell” (1972) a short film featuring the Equinox crew
Gallery: stills, promotional materials
Trailers and radio spots
4 out of 5
Discuss Equinox in our forums!
And for another point of view in full-color, four-panel comic style,
don’t miss Rick Tremble’s take on the film in Motion Picture Purgatory!
Desolation Review: Campers + Lunatic = Simplicity, But Not Always a Better Product
Starring Jaimi Page, Alyshia Ochse, Toby Nichols
Directed by Sam Patton
I’m usually all in when it comes to a psycho in the woods flick, but there was just something about Sam Patton’s Desolation that seemed a bit distant for me…distance…desolation – I’m sure there’s a connection in there somewhere. Either that or I’m suffering from a minor case of sleep-deprivation. Either way, make sure you’ve got your backpack stuffed, cause we’re hitting the timber-lands for this one.
The film focuses on mother and son tandem Abby and Sam, and the tragic notion that Abby’s love and father to her son, has passed away. The absence has been a crippling one, and Abby’s idea of closure is to take her adolescent offspring to the woods where her husband used to love to run and scatter his ashes as a memorial tribute. Abby invites her best friend Jenn along as emotional support, and together all three are planning on making this trip a fitting and dedicatory experience…until the mystery man shows up. Looking like a member of the Ted Kaczynski clan (The Unabomber himself), this creepy fellow seems content to simply watch the threesome, and when he ultimately decides to close the distance, it’ll be a jaunt in the forest that this close-knit group will never forget.
So there you have it – doesn’t beg a long, descriptive, bled-out dissertation – Patton tosses all of his cards on the table in plain view for the audience to scan at their leisure. While the tension is palpable at times, it’s the equivalent of watching someone stumble towards the edge of a cliff, and NEVER tumble over…for a long time – you literally watch them do the drunken two-step near the lip for what seems like an eternity. What I’m getting at is that the movie has the bells and whistles to give white-knucklers something to get amped about, yet it never all seems to come into complete focus, or allow itself to spread out in such a way that you can feel satisfied after the credits roll. If I may harp on the performance-aspect for a few, it basically broke down this way for me: both Abby and Jenn’s characters were well-displayed, making you feel as if you really were watching long-time besties at play. Sam’s character was a bit tough to swallow, as he was the sadder-than-sad kid due to his father’s absence, but JEEZ this kid was a friggin malcontented little jerk – all I can say is “role well-played, young man.”
As we get to our leading transient, kook, outsider – whatever you want to call him: he simply shaved down into a hum-drum personality – no sizzle here, folks. Truly a disappointment for someone who was hoping for an enigmatic nutbag to terrorize our not-so-merry band of backpackers – oh well, Santa isn’t always listening, I guess. Simplicity has its place and time when displaying the picture-perfect lunatic, and before everyone gets a wild hair across their ass because of what I’m saying, all this is was the wish to have THIS PARTICULAR psycho be a bit more colorful – I can still appreciate face-biters like Hannibal Lecter and those of the restrained lunacy set. Overall, Desolation is one of those films that had all the pieces meticulously set in place, like a house of cards…until that drunk friend stumbled into the table, sending everything crumbling down. A one-timer if you can’t find anything else readily available to watch.
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Children of the Fall Review – This Israeli Slasher Gets Political
Starring Noa Maiman, Aki Avni, Yafit Shalev, Iftach Ophir, Michael Ironside
Directed by Eitan Gafny
Reviewed out of Utopia 2017
Slashers are a subgenre of horror that are often looked down upon. After all, what can a movie about a killer slaughtering multiple people have to say about, well…anything. Those of us in the community know full well that this is nonsense and that any kind of horror movie can be a jabbing (no pun intended) commentary on society, culture, politics, art, etc… And that’s precisely what Eitan Gafny aims to do with Children of the Fall, one of the few Israeli slashers ever created.
Set on the eve of the Yom Kippur war, the film follows Rachel (Maiman), a young American woman who comes to Israel to join a kibbutz after suffering some serious personal tragedies. Her goal to make aliyah (the return of Jews to Israel) is however hampered by some rather unpleasant encounters with local IDF soldiers and members of the kibbutz. Pushing through, she makes friends with others in the commune and her Zionistic views are only strengthened, although they do not go untested. Once Yom Kippur, one of the holiest holidays in Jewish culture, begins, a killer begins picking off the kibbutz workers one by one in violent and gruesome ways.
Let’s start with what Children of the Fall gets right, okay? As slashers go, it’s actually quite beautiful. There are wonderfully expansive shots that make use of the size and diversity of the kibbutz. The film opens with a beautiful shot of a cow stable, barn, water towers, and miscellaneous outbuildings, all set against a dark and stormy night. The lighting of this scene, and throughout the film, is also very good. I found myself darting my eyes across the screen multiple times throughout the film thinking I’d seen something lurking in the shadows.
The kills, while unoriginal, are very satisfying. Each death is meaty, bloody, and doesn’t feel rushed. In fact, the camera has no problems lingering during each kill, allowing us to appreciate the practical FX and copious amounts of blood used. And if you believe that a slasher needs to have nudity, you won’t be disappointed.
The acting is middle of the road. Maiman is serviceable as Rachel but the real star of the film is Aki Avni as “Yaron”. His range of emotion is fantastic, from warm and welcoming to Rachel when she arrives to emoting grief and pain during his Yom Kippur announcement where we learn that he was a child in a concentration camp. The rest of the cast are perfectly acceptable as fodder for the killer.
So where does Children of the Fall stray? Let’s start with the most obvious part: the runtime. Clocking in at nearly two hours, that’s about 30 minutes too much. The film could easily have gone through some hefty editing without affecting the final product. Instead, we have a movie that feels elongated when unnecessary.
Additionally, the societal and political commentary is very in-your-face but the film can’t seem to make up its mind as to what it’s trying to get across. Natalia, a Belarussian kibbutz worker, raises the concept of Israeli racism, misogyny, and xenophobia, her hostility unabashedly pouring out in the midst of IDF soldiers, locals, other kibbutz members, and more. Is there validity to what she’s saying? Undoubtedly. But there is also validity to Rachel’s retorts, which include calling this woman out on her own vitriolic views. This back-and-forth mentality frustratingly prevails throughout the film, as though Gafny was unwilling to just commit.
The dialogue is also quite painful at times, although I attribute this to difficulties with translating from Hebrew to English. Even the best English speakers in Israel don’t get everything perfect and the little quirks here and there, while charming, are quite detracting. Also, why is this movie trying to tell me that Robert Smith of The Cure is a character here? While amusing, it makes absolutely no sense nor does it fit in Smith’s own timeline.
Had this film gone through a couple rounds of editing, I feel like we’d have gotten something really great. Eitan Gafny is definitely someone that we need to be watching very closely.
While Children of the Fall has a lot going for it, it has just as much working against it. Overly long, you’ll get a really great slasher that is bogged down by uneven social and political commentary.
Madam Yankelova’s Fine Literature Club Review – A Charming, Quirky Dark Drama
Starring Keren Mor, Yiftach Klein, Hana Laslo, Ania Bukstein
Directed by Guilhad Emilio Schenker
Reviewed out of Utopia 2017
One of the great joys I have in being a horror fan is seeing horror films from around the world. I view these films as a chance to learn about the fears, folklore, mythology, and lore of varied cultures. Films like Inugami, Frontier(s), [REC], and the like transport me across oceans and into places I might never get the chance to visit otherwise. Hence my interest in the Israeli dark drama Madam Yankeolva’s Fine Literature Club, the feature debut of director Guilhad Emilio Schenker.
The film follows Sophie (Mor), a member of a strange, female-only reading club – who believes that love is a lie – that we soon realize brings men into its midst only to have them killed. The woman who brings the most fitting man is awarded a trophy for her fine taste. When a member reaches 100 trophies, they get to enter a coveted and highly esteemed upper echelon of the reading club’s society, one that includes lavish surroundings and an almost regal lifestyle. Sophie starts the film earning her 99th trophy but her plans towards the all-important 100th trophy are thrown askew when she ends up developing feelings for her latest victim. She must now decide if the mission that has been so dear to her for so many years is something she wishes to see through or if she’s ready to take a huge risk and fall in love.
Now, if this seems like a strange story for a horror website, I don’t disagree. Madam Yankelova’s Fine Literature Club is certainly not your traditional horror film. In fact, I’d liken it far more to the more playful works of Tim Burton and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s The City of Lost Children than something more grotesque and violent. It’s very playful and quite charming, although there are times when the presentation feels amateurish and certain moments when things become wildly unbelievable. That being said, the film aims to be a dark fairy tale come to life, so a healthy amount of “I’m okay letting that go” will not go unappreciated.
The film is shot in such a way that it’s very soft around the edges, almost like we’re constantly in a dream. This is aided by composer Tal Yardeni’s score, which obviously takes inspiration from Danny Elfman, playfully weaving its way through each scene.
While there’s a lot to love about Madam Yankelova’s Fine Literature Club, it’s certainly not a flawless film. As mentioned previously, there are times when it feels quite amateurish, as though no one thought to look at how a scene is being filmed and say, “People, this isn’t how things would go down. We can have fun but this just doesn’t sit right.” Additionally, the story moves very quickly. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve heard of love at first sight. But that’s not how this story plays out, so the wildly strong feelings that develop between Sophie and Yosef (Klein) seem strangely out of place.
All things being what they are, Madam Yankelova’s Fine Literature Club is a charming film that can definitely appeal to horror fans if they’re willing to stretch their boundaries to include films that have absolutely no scares or gore but imply quite a horrific situation.
Charming, quirky, but not without its faults, Madam Yankelova’s Fine Literature Club is a dark drama for fans of Tim Burton and Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Don’t go in expecting any scares or gore. Rather, anticipate a fairy tale that might be just a bit too gruesome in tone for young children.
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