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!