Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Equinox (Woods. Muren. 1970)

"You will not escape! In one year and one day, you will be DEAD!"

A lot of films claim to be cult classics. It has gotten to the point where pretty much any movie that is not successful upon initial release can gain new life years later by claiming to be loved by small audiences nationwide. The idea of the "cult classic" has been watered down for many years. That is how you know you have found a real gem when you find a film described as "a minor cult classic". Those are the words used by the Criterion Collection to describe the longstanding impact of a film that has stayed below nearly every radar. Equinox (originally known as Equinox...A Journey into the Supernatural) is not a very good movie, but I have not enjoyed a viewing experience more than this one in a long time.

The film was originally a concept from the mind of special effects guru Dennis Muren. The future 9 time Academy Award winner was studying at Pasadena City College in the late 1960s when he and a group of amateur filmmakers (both of whom went on to have impressive careers in stop-motion animation) were able to muster up a measly $6,500 to make a fun-filled homage to the creature features that they grew up watching at drive-ins throughout their childhood. The result was a short science fiction film that was liked enough by Tonylyn Productions that they were willing to distribute the film after making some changes. They hired Jack Woods to direct and shoot new material that altered Equinox just enough to make it a feature length film. Though the story, special effects, and most scenes were crafted by Muren, the studio only credited him as the producer rather than co-director. 

The completed version of the film follows four friends who travel to the woods of California for a picnic and to visit one of their professors. They come across an eerie book, written in a variety of languages, that seems to contain details of a supernatural "other-world" that exists alongside our reality. The story is told in flashbacks from the woods by the sole survivor of the ordeal. He has been admitted to a mental institution, and it does not take long for the audience to see that these events happened exactly one year prior to his telling of the story. 

During their trip, the teens are antagonized by a park ranger and attacked by a variety of cleverly created claymation monsters. The stop-motion animation may not be what we are used to in this day and age, but the effects in Equinox still hold up with many of today's low-budget affairs. There is a certain "throwback" energy to these monsters, and the fight/chase scenes are by far the most interesting parts of the film. In a day and age like today where we rehash old ideas constantly - it is refreshing to watch something so organic. George Lucas was said to be a fan of the film effects - which is one of the reasons that Muren was selected to be a part of the Star Wars special effects team later in the same decade. 

A group of friends travel to the canyons of California in order to enjoy a nice picnic. They stumble upon a strange book that reveals details of a monster world that exists alongside the human world. After reading from the book, the friends accidentally unleash a slew of monsters. Sound like something you have maybe seen before? Special Effects and Makeup Artist from the Evil Dead movies, Tom Sullivan, talked about the comparisons and similarities between the two films in an Equinox Criterion insert. He says:

"I had seen Equinox at least twice in drive-ins before making Evil Dead. I don't recall having discussed it with [director] Sam Raimi, but the similarities are remarkable. I think they come from the low-budget nature of both films. That is, a few characters, an isolated, inexpensive location, and ambitious special effects. All in all, Equinox did inspire me to continue my goal of making movies. 'If they can do it...'"

Equinox was released thirteen years before Sam Rami's Evil Dead franchise, and though the plots are very similar, the campiness in Dennis Muren's independent directorial debut cannot be matched. If you are in the mood for something life changing, this is not your movie. If you're looking for a fun, impressive, and simple way to spend an hour and twenty minutes, it may be hard for you to find a better option. The story greatly lacks depth, but the effects continue to inspire artists in the world of science fiction.

Plus, look at this guy!! Spooky stuff! 

Equinox: C

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