Wednesday, August 16, 2006

It Came from Netflix! Equinox (1967 / 1970)

Art house DVD specialists Criterion have occasionally dipped their toe into low budget genre films in the past, putting out highly nifty editions of films like Fiend Without a Face and the original The Blob. Recently they returned to those waters with a great two-disc edition of the drive-in classic Equinox.

Equinox was no doubt deemed worthy of the Criterion touch for two reasons. First, the original version of the movie, a basically homemade affair (that obviously inspired Sam Raimi’s similarly scraped together The Evil Dead) was the work of several young men who went to have impressive Hollywood careers. The film’s director Dennis Muren does visual effects work on films like The Hulk and War of the Worlds, and has been nominated for many an Oscar for his work, and has taken home the award an astounding seven times.

Second, the theatrical version of the movie was shepherded by producer Jack H. Harris, who also did The Blob and did a commentary for Criterion’s DVD of that film. Since they obviously have a good relationship with the guy, it’s kind of a no-brainer to showcase other of his films.

Aside from Muren, helping with original Equinox’s impressive special effects were Dave Allen and Jim Danforth. Both are well known to genre buffs today, especially as some of the last practitioners of stop-frame animation, which is heavily featured in this movie.

The guys were fittingly brought together through Forry Ackerman’s Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine (Uncle Forry does an intro on the DVD), and decided to make a movie. The result was Equinox…A Journey Into the Supernatural. In this, four friends, two men and two women, go to the remote mountain cabin of a college professor, only to find that he’s been messing around with things Man Was Not Meant to Know.

Aside from eye-popping monster f/x, especially from guys who were basically amateurs, the film presages the sort of fatalism that really gripped the horror film generally following the next year’s Night of the Living Dead. The end result was an amazingly ambitious effort for a bunch of youngsters working with a $6,500 budget.

The film lay about for a while, before producer Harris scooped it up and had it reworked for a theatrical release. Marvelously, the Criterion set features both films, so that you can contrast them. When I started watching Harris’ version, I was at first upset to see another director credited for what I assumed would be but a gloss on Muren’s original.

However, it is in fact a completely different film. 95% of what was kept from the original version was the special effects scenes. Otherwise, the original small cast was rounded back up, and the rest of the movie was completely reshot. The major change is that the supernatural forces now have a malign personification, in the form of a sinister forest ranger named Asmodeus. That alteration really helps give the film some narrative momentum, although some of the scripting and character motivations were tightened as well.

In the end, both versions are pretty good and well worth watching, but Harris’ is, in fact, more professional. It is kind of funny how the actors (including a young Frank Bonner, who went on to sitcom immortality as the crass Herb Tarlek on WKRP in Cincinnati) look obviously older, despite returning for Harris’ version only two or three years later.

I haven’t rented the second disc yet, which features a bunch of documentaries and other bonus materials. However, the first disc has both versions of the movie, and also commentaries for each. Muren, scripter Mark McGee Danforth comment on the original, while Harris (a hilariously bluff old school showman with a plumy Don Pardo-like voice) and Jack Woods, who wrote and directed the theatrical version, reminisce about that movie.

Those interested in buying the set will also get a thick booklet about the movie(s). This is essential stuff for any monster movie buff, and again especially important due to the obvious influence on Raimi’s Evil Dead movies.


At 11:16 AM, Blogger Marty McKee said...

I enjoyed these movies, although I wouldn't call either of them good. I think the original non-Harrisfied version is slightly better. It has more visual effects, and we get to know the characters better. The performances aren't all that great, but the actors are likable, and we don't want them to get hurt. I also thought Jack Woods' decision to cast himself as a park ranger named Asmodeus was laughable. His performance is worse than any of the kids', and it feels like he only wrote himself in so he could make out with the girls. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that those scenes had a lot of rehearsal.

Watch the second disc. There are a lot of extras, many of them dedicated to the late David Allen and his visual effects genius.

At 12:14 PM, Blogger Ken Begg said...

Actually, thanks for the advice. I wasn't sure whether to rent the extras disc or not, but now I will.

I think Equinox falls into the "pretty good considering" catagory, and at least it's made by the sort of people who know what horror fans are looking like. Neither version is a classic, but they're fun watches.

At 2:48 PM, Blogger Sandy Petersen said...

Not a classic, but those involved get the "nice try" award. At least they knew enough to let the obviously undefeatable villains win.


Post a Comment

<< Home