Equinox (1970), Lookback

Review Jim Knipfel 5/8/2013 at 8:59PM

A look back at a very familiar classic.

 

A group of young friends drive to a dilapidated cabin deep in the woods thinking they’re gonna have a good time. The place is empty, but while there they do discover an ancient Book of the Dead, a work of demonology filled with rites and spells and bizarre symbols written in a strange language. A now-missing professor had been studying the book and his notes reveal that he’d accidentally summoned a couple demons he could not control. Well, it seems the demons are still around and one by one they torment, possess and destroy each of the youngsters. In the end only one of them gets away...almost.

 

Yeah, it sounds familiar, right? Especially with the Evil Dead remake getting so much press these days.

 

In a 1998 interview, Sam Raimi cited Night of the Living Dead and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre as the two primary influences on his 1981 franchise-building cult classic. I always wondered about that a little bit.

 

The parallels between The Evil Dead and 1970’s Equinox are what you might call “curious,” or perhaps even “striking.” Now, I’m not saying anything, not making any accusations or casting any aspersions.  I’m just saying, is all.

 

Like The Evil Dead, Equinox began life as a little, no budget 16 mm movie made by a bunch of bored teenagers on a goof.

 

Inspired by King Kong and Ray Harryhausen when he was a kid, Dennis Muren started making 8 mm stop-motion films in his parents’ backyard. He stayed at it, eventually graduating to 16 mm. Then with no plans for the summer of 1965, he rounded up a few friends and they decided to make a horror movie with some stop-motion monsters. A few different ideas were bounced around, but given how much they all loved Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Jacques Tournier’s Night of the Demon, they settled on the evil book/demonic possession story.

 

There was a lot working against them. They had no lights so could only shoot in the daytime. The camera was a wind-up Boloflex, which meant they could only shoot 30 seconds at a time before the spring ran out. They had no sound so would need to dub everything in later. And worst of all none of them knew what the hell they were doing.

 

But to their advantage they had some halfway decent amateur actors (including a future Rose Bowl queen and Frank Bonner, who would later star in WKRP in Cincinnati). They had a great matte painter and a couple very good stop-motion animators. Plus they had the encouragement of Forry Ackermann (who lent his voice) and science fiction author Fritz Leiber, who appears in a brief but pivotal role.

 

The Equinox cost a whopping $6,500 and took about two and a half years to complete. The finished, hour-long film had its share of problems (it’s very talky, the pacing is terrible and most of the story doesn’t make the slightest bit of sense). But for a first film by a bunch of kids who had no idea what they were doing, it’s not bad at all. The animation is fantastic and they jerry-rigged a few ingenious tricks to get the effects they wanted. Then it sat on a shelf.

 

Around 1970, Muren used The Equinox as a sample reel when he was trying to get an effects job with legendary low-budget sci-fi producer Jack Harris (The Blob and later Dark Star). I don’t know if Muren got the job, but Harris bought the picture. He then handed it off to editor/sound man Jack Woods.

 

Woods re-edited the film, fixed the pacing, fixed the sound (including re-dubbing most of the actors with different actors) and clarified the storyline as best as he could. The latter involved bringing the actors back to re-shoot a few scenes, shooting new scenes and inserting a major new character played by Woods himself. He left the basic story and structure alone, and didn’t lay a hand on the special effects. The new version was about 15 minutes longer and was released as simply Equinox, with Woods receiving sole directing credit.


I generally get a little queasy and itchy when it comes to producers meddling with a director’s film (and lord knows other directors have had their problems with Harris) but Equinox was one of the rare instances in which the re-edited version with the new scenes really was a vast improvement.

 

After a beautifully atmospheric credits sequence (borrowed from George Pal’s The Time Machine), the film opens with a nod to Body Snatchers as David (Edward Connell) scrambles frantically through the woods, finds the highway and is promptly run down by a driverless car. When someone stops to help, he’s raving about the “Forces of Evil”. So instead of the hospital David’s delivered to an asylum where he spends the next year raving in a padded cell. After a bit of exposition between a doctor and a reporter, we fade to the flashback that will dominate the rest of the film.

 

When David receives an urgent phone call from a former professor (Fritz Leiber) begging him to come to his secluded cabin in the middle of the scary woods to see something important, three of David’s friends (Bonner, Barbara Hewitt and Robin Christopher) decide to come along to have a picnic.

 

(See first paragraph.)

 

In between the talking, the picnicking and the hiking, they encounter a cackling old hermit in a cave who hands them the Book of the Dead; see a giant, winged demon and a mysterious castle that appears and disappears randomly; find invisible barriers to another dimension; and are menaced by a 30-foot gorilla which they eventually kill with rocks and sticks. They also meet a creepy forest ranger named Azmodeus (Woods), who is awfully insistent that they turn the book over to him, offering all kinds of rewards in exchange.

 

At one point the missing professor leaps out of the woods, snatches the book, flees back into the woods, hits his head on a rock, dies and vanishes. At another point we get a flashback within the flashback as the professor’s research notes are read aloud (a scene replaced in Evil Dead with a tape recording). Other demons appear and chase the group around, people wander off alone, stupidly and the girls start having “very bad thoughts.” Yet for some reason they never get in their car and hightail it back to town (they brought all that food for the picnic after all) and for some reason it takes them until the end of the film to finally recognize the name “Azmodeus.” And when they do, well, everything just goes to hell, leaving David the sole survivor.

 

Then we return to where we began for a quiet twist of an ending.

 

A decade later Sam Raimi’s film (which evolved out of his own short, Within the Woods, though I won’t read too much into that title) was a darker, messier, funnier picture with wilder camera work, gruesomer makeup,  a bigger budget and Bruce Campbell. It was, however, sorely lacking in the 30-foot demon gorilla department.

 

Accepting the odd similarities of the two stories, Equinox is without question much simpler, goofier, even more kid-friendly in evil book/demonic possession terms. In a strange way it it’s almost like what you’d end up with if Bert Gordon had set out to film a remake of The Evil Dead.  For all its silliness, its plot holes and the “hey guys, let’s make a movie!” enthusiastics; the special effects remain mighty impressive given that a group of teenagers were behind it. Pulling off a believable, giant, winged demon in broad daylight is no mean feat and they did Harryhausen proud.

 

It’s maybe no surprise then that Dennis Muren was hired by  George Lucas to work on Star Wars, became one of the founding animators at ILM and now has several Oscars on his shelf at home.

 

Jack Woods, meanwhile, never received another directing or acting credit, but has done the sound design on several of the Star Trek films, Look Who’s Talking, Too and Xanadu.

 

Which just goes to show, well, something.

 

Den of Geek Rating:  3.5 out of 5 Stars

 

 

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