Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Equinox (1970) The Movie That's So Awesome It Doesn't Care If You See The Strings

Every so often, you hear about or read about or catch a glimpse of a movie that is full of beans and spunk that if it was a living person, you'd want to party with it. And if you told it you could see the strings supporting its special effects, it would belch in your face then win a bar fight with a broken pool cue. The 1970 drive-in classic Equinox is just such a film. It doesn't care that you can practically taste the stop-motion on the animation. It scoffs at the fact that you can see the strings in special effects shots. When you nervously chuckle that it looks as though it was made like a student film, it suggests you pull its finger.

Truth be told, your assessment of it as a student film wouldn't be far off. Much of the film was originally made in 1967 as a short film project by Dennis Muren (Star Wars fans might recognize his name - he won his first of six Oscars with one), and only cost around $6500. Once it was picked up, film editor Jack Woods (who also plays Officer Asmodeus in the film) was credited with directing the additional parts. It played in drive-ins and on late-night TV for years. It's been said that it has inspired, in part anyway, much of the Evil Dead franchise, and it's not hard to spot the similarities. Finally released in 2006 as part of the Criterion Collection, you now can hold the magic in your hands and lovingly gaze upon it with your own eyes.

Equinox is told mostly in flashback, as four college kids head into the woods for a picnic, and to meet one of their professors, Dr. Watermann (sci-fi author Fritz Leiber). There's a bit of a prologue that shows one survivor scurrying in fear onto a highway before being run down by a driverless car. Before that, it was Dave (Edward Connell), Susan (Barbara Hewitt), Vicki (Robin Christopher), and Jim (Frank Boers, Jr.). You might know Frank Boers, Jr. under a different name: Frank Bonner. You might know Frank Bonner better as this guy:

That's right. Herb. Freakin'. Tarlek. You know, WKRP In Cincinnati.

While wandering around the woods, they find Watermann's cabin demolished and empty. They also see a strange castle on a cliff in the distance, cliffs that are "too steep for the girls to climb" according to Dave. They find a cave and hear distant cackling inside. Eventually running into a bizarre old man, they're put off by his apparent good-natured insanity until he hands them an ancient book. As strange as finding an old cave, a mysterious castle, a skeleton, and a goofy old codger might seem to the rest of us, our brave students take it all in stride by having their picnic. Upon investigating the book, they find that Dr. Watermann has tampered with the forces of evil, engaging in the occult version of "I'll just try a little bit, just to see if I like it." This is part of the reason his cabin is such a mess.

Never let Cthulu borrow your summer place.

Dr. Watermann suddenly appears and tries to steal the book back before falling into a small creek and dying. His body disappears, leaving the students wondering what weirdness will occur next. Not to mention the devil's own Smokey the Bear, Officer Asmodeus, is popping up once in a while with PSA's about clean campsites and not seeing anything unusual.

Things get curiouser and curiouser as Officer Asmodeus attacks Susan with an Evil Make-Out Session, but is chased off by the cross she wears. Knowing certain symbols of good might protect them as they're pursued by the forces of evil who want the book, the four set out to see if they can solve the mystery of this weird tome. Before too long, they meet this guy:

Cloverfield + Dr. Zaius = the Equinox Beast-Ape-Thing

In a surprising upset, they manage to kill the thing before splitting up so they can prepare to leave, and to maybe gather some proof that something weird is going on. Susan loses her cross and starts with the possessed attitude, being all "c'mere, Vicki, I'm going to get evil all over you." Another symbol of good knocks her to her senses and they figure they'd better act fast.

Asmodeus tries to step in where he can, even offering a deal to Jim - all the women, money, and southern Ohio radio sales he can imagine. Okay, maybe not that last thing, but Jim does resist and tries to reunite with the others to make an escape. Dave wants to keep the book to help cure Susan, but Jim wants to leave the book behind. On an open plain where the dimensions cross - the Equinox - they battle a

In this corner, Andre the Giant meets Grape Ape.

While fighting this big boy, Jim accidentally runs into the barrier separating the worlds of good and evil - yes, that same Equinox - and Dave sprints inside to save his friend. What we know, and what Dave doesn't, is that Jim has already run into Asmodeus and it didn't go well. Dave finds who he thinks is Jim and pulls him out of the parallel world. Jim exhibits strange speech patterns, stiff body language, and bruised eyes, which are apparently signs of evil. Asmodeus reveals himself and beats down Dave before changing into his favorite park ranger persona, then that of a strings-be-damned flying demon:

Soaring onto teens' death metal shirts the world over.

Asmodeus claws his way into Vicki's heart and severely injures Susan before Dave rescues her by forcing a cross into Asmodeus' view. Susan struggles with her dark side as they escape into a cemetery, and take refuge behind a huge cross as Asmodeus explodes against it. Susan apparently dies in the resulting series of supernatural explosions as we now pick up where the prologue started. Dave sees an ominous dark figure that warns him that he'll be dead in "a year and a day." Then, running, driverless car, injured Dave - and we return to the present, back at the loony bin where Dave's been since his brush with the forces of evil.

He loses his cross while having a crazy spell and we find out that it is indeed now exactly a year and a day since Dave was found. The reporter working on the story that required the flashback leaves the screaming Dave behind as another visitor approaches the sanitarium: Susan.

We hear more screaming from Dave as the end title card reminds us that this is "The End...?" Yes, a question mark. Way to punctuate yourself into my heart, movie.

It was like time stopped while watching this movie. I was a kid again, watching old drive-in movies on lazy Saturday summer afternoons. There was no Internet, no message boards, no source of information available to a kid about movies other than a friend saying, "You have to see this, it's AWE-SOME!" It's easy to be influenced by so many sources these days. We've all seen so much, but somewhere along the way - hopefully never lost - is that ability to throw "exacting standards" aside and enjoy something silly and full of hopeful energy.

And that, my friends, is Equinox.

The movie had its little interesting tidbits as well. The Criterion Collection DVD features an introduction by the legendary Forrest J. Ackerman, who is also the voice on the tape recorder interviewing Dave, which leads to the flashbacks. Imagine my surprise when I found that the assistant cameraman was none other than actor, activist, and Spinal Tap drummer, Ed Begley Jr.:

Equinox probably won't be for everyone. It's silly and cheaply-made and absolutely worthy of a Mystery Science Theater 3000 treatment. But the filmmakers worked wonderfully with what they had, and the film has that swagger of a friend you know is probably going to get you in trouble but you can't help but love anyway.

Creative spirit, fellow survivors, that's the key. Now go get some popcorn and enjoy.

HorrorBlips: vote it up!


  1. Bet you'd never get a response, but better late than never, right?

    I used to watch this movie out the back of my dad's car while my parent's watched their movie on the opposite side of the drive-in. Of course, our speaker was playing the movie in front of us, so I watched Equinox in silence. It wasn't until they released the Criterion set that I got to actually hear what was going on.

    But you could get the gist of it even without sound. That and the Tony Randall underwater comedy "Hello Down There!" were my childhood double feature at the drive-in.

  2. Oh, how I miss drive-ins. I know they're still around in some form, but not like they used to be - not to sound old! I remember my brother & I sitting in lawn chairs in the back of my parents' pickup truck to see "Moonraker."

    "Equinox" is the perfect drive-in movie. It may be a life dream to actually see it in that medium.