Director : Jack Woods
Screenplay : Jack Woods (story by Mark Thomas McGee)
MPAA Rating : PG
Year of Release : 1967 / 1970
Stars : Edward Connell (David Fielding), Barbara Hewitt (Susan Turner), Frank Bonner (Jim Hudson), Robin Christopher (Vicki), Jack Woods (Asmodeus), James Phillips (Reporter Sloan), Fritz Leiber (Dr. Arthur Waterman), Patrick Burke (Branson), Jim Duron (Orderly)
In the era before the Internet and DVD making-of featurettes, Forest J. Ackerman’s Famous Monsters of Filmland was the Bible for aspiring fantasy and horror filmmakers because it not only gave them insight into the inner workings of the industry, familiarizing them with latex, optical printing, and stop-motion animation, but it also elevated such work to an artform. It transformed B-grade sci-fi schlock into an object worthy of not only admiration, but emulation.
So, in the summer of 1965, a group of Southern California teenagers named Dennis Muren, Mark McGee, and David Allen, all of whom were avid readers of FM and were subsequently high on the cinematic ambitions it fostered, decided to make their own feature. Having seen the sci-fi cheapies Hollywood kicked out as an afterthought to fill double-bills at drive-in theaters and read about how they were made, these So-Cal kids decided they could do just as well themselves. Most of them had been toying with home movies since they were old enough to work a camera, and they possessed an insider’s knowledge of special effects gleaned from magazine articles, careful study of their favorite movies, and, in one case, a personal visit with stop-motion wizard Ray Harryhausen.
The result of their two-and-a-half-year effort was The Equinox . . . A Journey Into the Supernatural, a hokey, but immensely clever 71-minute movie shot on a 16mm Bolex camera, whose wind-up mechanism could not produce a shot longer than 30 seconds in length. It featured a silly plot, flat characters, bad acting, and even worse dubbing, but also some truly amazing low-budget special effects that employed virtually every trick in the book, including traditional stop-motion and cell animation, optical printing, matte paintings, and forced perspective. The completed film was later purchased by producer Jack H. Harris (The Blob, Dark Star) and reworked into a feature-length film that was distributed theatrically in 1970 as Equinox.
The story, which was scripted by McGee, involves a foursome of teenagers (Edward Connell, Barbara Hewitt, Frank Bonner, Robin Christopher) who venture into the woods and discover an ancient book that opens a portal between our world and a demonic netherworld. In the process, they unleash a number of otherworldly creatures, including a 30-foot dinosaur-like monstrosity, a towering green-skinned ogre, and a winged demon. The storyline is quite simple, although it is told through multiple flashbacks that make it seem much more complicated than it actually is.
Since its theatrical release, Equinox has gained a substantial cult following, largely because it proves that the dreams of movie-fed fans can become a reality. Fans are often disparaged and looked down upon as sad sacks who fill the empty void of their lives with banal pop culture, but Equinox provides evidence to the contrary. It shows that, in fact, many fans are artists in the wings just waiting for the opportunity to contribute to that which they love so much. Such was the case with the young filmmakers behind Equinox, almost all of whom went on to substantial Hollywood careers. In fact, their combined filmography reads like a compendium of must-see effects films from the 1980s and 1990s.
The preeminent member of the group is Dennis Muren, who codirected (along with Mark McGee) and produced The Equinox . . . A Journey Into the Supernatural, as well as designed many of the visual and optical effects (which included the then-groundbreaking technique of front projection, which Douglas Trumbull would use to great effect a few years later in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey). Muren, who was 19 at the time Equinox was shot, would go on to become one of the chief wizards of Industrial Light & Magic, where he worked on the Oscar-winning visual effects work for numerous FX milestones, including all the Star Wars films, Terminator 2 (1991), and Jurassic Park (1993).
Most of the stop-motion effects in Equinox were designed and implemented by 21-year-old David Allen. Allen’s name carries a special reverence among effects enthusiasts because he is seen as the heir of the great work pioneered first by Willis O’Brien in the original King Kong (1933) and then perfected by Ray Harryhausen, who produced the effects for a series of sci-fi and fantasy movies in the 1950s and 1960s. Allen went on to do the effects for such films as The Howling (1981) and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (1989). His stop-motion work in Equinox was enhanced by the matte paintings by Jim Danforth who, being in his late 20s, was the elder statesman of the group. He had already done some work on Hollywood productions, and would also go on to be a significant contributor to numerous films over the next few decades.
When Equinox was released theatrically, Jack Woods, who had worked in the industry as an editor and sound effects recorder, was credited as the writer and director. However, his contributions, substantial as they are, are ultimately secondary to the feverish work originated by Muren, Allen, McGee, and Danforth. Granted, Woods cleaned up the editing, padded out the running time with some extra scenes and a new character played by himself, reshot some of the original footage, and re-recorded all the dialogue and music. But, that’s just the surface. The film’s geeky heart--its soul and essence--belongs to the kids who started it. Their work was rougher and more amateurish, to be sure (the dialogue is particularly hammy at times), but it glows with the unsullied light that comes from pure, unbridled love and devotion to their work. They weren’t doing it for money or for fame or for anything other than a desire to re-create what they loved seeing on the silver screen. As a result, Equinox may very well be one of the best home movies ever made.
|Equinox Two-Disc Criterion Collection DVD|
|This two-disc DVD set contains two versions of the film: the 1970 version titled Equinox and the 1967 version titled The Equinox . . . A Journey Into the Supernatural, which has never been available in any medium.|
|Audio||English Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural|
|Distributor||The Criterion Collection|
|Release Date||June 20, 2006|
|VIDEO & AUDIO|
|Virtually everyone who has seen Equinox has seen it either on a low-definition, faded, fuzzy VHS tape or on late-night TV, where it doesn’t look much better. The high-definition transfer of the film on this DVD makes the film (dare I say it?) look very good. Of course, all the digital technology in the world cannot obscure Equinox’s ultra-low budget origins, nor should it. The transfer was taken from a 35mm color negative, which was struck from the restored 16mm blowup of the film. Two different digital processes were used to clean up the image, although not so much that it doesn’t retain some of the imperfections inherent to the amateur filmmaking process (e.g., a hair caught in the camera gate, the speckling that resulted from optical printing done with homemade equipment). The overall image, though, is bright and well-detailed. It is, in fact, something of a shock to see it in such relatively pristine condition. The monaural soundtrack, which was transferred from the same 35mm color negative, sounds quite good, as well. |
The original 1967 feature The Equinox . . . A Journey Into the Supernatural makes its literal world debut on this DVD, having never been released theatrically or on video. The film was transferred from two sources: the 16mm duplicate negative and a 16mm composite print of recuts. It doesn’t look nearly as good as the 1970 theatrical version. No digital restoration was done, so the image includes consistent black scratches and damage, although I would by lying if I said the less-than-stellar condition of the film didn’t add to its homemade charm. The transfer has still resulted in a sharp, well-detailed image, and none of the damage is so severe that it detracts from the viewing experience. There are also two brief sequences (for a total of about 20 seconds) that had to transferred from a fan-circulated VHS tape because the film elements have sadly been lost.
|At the risk of repeating what I’ve written in other reviews, I’d just like to take a moment to say how much I appreciate Criterion not just releasing films like Equinox, but putting so much time and care into their presentation. The fact that there is a label with enough room for the works of Stan Brakhage, Akira Kurosawa, Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini, John Cassavetes, Orson Welles, and a film like Equinox provides an unparalleled opportunity to see the continuities that stretch across cinema, erasing such subjective boundaries as national origin, genre, or status as “art.” |
The first disc opens with an appreciative introduction by horror/monster movie icon Forest J. Ackerman, whose Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine was responsible for both inspiring and bringing together the young men who made Equinox (Ackerman also used FM to promote the film when it was released).
There are two screen-specific audio commentaries, one for each version of the film. Equinox features a commentary by writer/director Jack Woods and producer Jack H. Harris, who were recorded together discussing how they reworked the original version into something that could be released theatrically. The commentary for The Equinox ... A Journey Into the Supernatural includes writer-codirector Mark McGee and matte artist, cel animator, and effects technician Jim Danforth, who were recorded together, and effects photographer, producer, and director Dennis Muren, who was recorded separately. Muren’s commentary is used primarily during the effects sequences, while McGee and Danforth fill in the rest of the commentary reminiscing about the film’s production and occasionally taking good-natured jabs at the amateurishness of their work. Both commentaries are essential listening for both fans of the film and anyone interested in special effects, independent filmmaking, and/or the logistics of film distribution.
The second disc contains a wealth of material about the making of Equinox and the young men behind it. The first section on the disc, titled “Monstrous Origins,” contains seven minutes of outtakes that are in surprisingly good condition. The outtakes include bits from scenes in the film, as well as fragments of lost deleted scenes, including a pool party the four teens were supposed to be looking for in the original script. This section also includes two minutes of test footage of the Taurus and other brief FX experiments by David Allen.
Following that are two new video interviews. The first is with Dennis Muren (8 min.), in which he discusses his childhood interest in special effects, his work on Equinox, and the differences between stop-motion animation and CGI. Most intriguingly, the interview contains tantalizing glimpses of the primitive stop-motion animation and other effects films he made as a kid (it’s too bad they weren’t included in their entirety). The second interview (9 min.) is with three members of the cast--Frank Bonner, Barbara Hewitt, and James Duron--who reminisce about their experiences making the film and how their lives have turned out.
After that is Zorgon: The H-Bomb Beast From Hell, a silent 1972 student film whose title promises much more than it delivers. The film was made by Kevin Fernan for a college class, and it features Mark McGee and David Allen, as well as Rick Baker who would go on to prominence as an Oscar-winning make-up artist in the 1980s.
David Allen is featured prominently in a section aptly titled “David Allen Appreciation.” The real gem here is the inclusion of The Magic Treasure, a beautiful, sweet-natured stop-motion children’s film that was Allen’s personal labor of love for more than a decade. Unfortunately, it never found proper distribution, so its inclusion on this DVD marks its first chance to reach an appreciative audience (as is explained in an accompanying essay by James Duron, who coproduced the film). Also included in this section is the infamous “King Kong” Volkswagen commercial for which Allen produced the effects, as well as test footage and an explanatory essay by Chris Endicott, an animator who worked with Allen.
The supplements are rounded out with “Equiphemera,” an exhaustive stills archive of production photographs, promotional art, magazine articles, storyboards and sketches, and press book clippings--basically the entire history of the film and its makers in a nutshell. There is also a ridiculous trailer for the film’s theatrical release (“It begins where Rosemary’s Baby left off”--how’s that for a stretch?) and two radio spots.
Copyright ©2006 James Kendrick
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