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The Criterion Collection presents

Equinox (1970)

"It's not easy to lose a dead body and a castle in one day."- Jim Hudson (Frank Bonner)

Stars: Edward Connell, Barbara Hewitt, Frank Bonner, Robin Snider
Other Stars: Jack Woods, Jim Phillips, Fritz Lieber
Director: Jack Woods, Dennis Muren, Mark McGee

Manufacturer: Malibu Digital
MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (violence, disturbing imagery)
Run Time: 01h:22m:21s
Release Date: 2006-06-20
Genre: cult

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer


DVD Review

One of the biggest influences on monster-loving kids of the 1960s and '70s was Forrest J. Ackerman's Famous Monsters of Filmland, which helped inspire many to become filmmakers as adults, including Spielberg and Lucas, among others. But the magazine also inspired many youngsters to emulate the horror films that they read about and saw on the late show, especially when it would pull back the curtain and let the reader know how the special effects were accomplished in these pictures. Any reader worth his salt that had access to a movie camera made some kind of amateur horror flick. But it took a special breed to be ambitious enough to create a feature film, in color, laden with special effects, including stop-motion animation. But that was what Dennis Muren, Mark McGee and David Allen, three teenagers and FM readers managed to pull off in 1965. The result, The Equinox...A Journey into the Supernatural, was bought by empresario Jack H. Harris, who rehired the actors, and with Jack Woods at the helm shot an additional 15 minutes or so of footage, re-editing the picture into the now celebrated cult film, Equinox.

Four young people, David Fielding (Skip Shimer, billed as Edward Connell), Susan Turner (Barbara Hewitt), Jim Hudson (Frank Boers, Jr., who changed his name to Frank Bonner and would later appear in WKRP in Cincinnati and his girlfriend Vicki (Robin Snider) head off to the secluded cabin of Dr. Watermann (fantasy author Fritz Leiber) at the professor's anxious request. Instead of Watermann, they are greeted by an old man in a cave (Louis Clayton, director Dennis Muren's grandfather and principal financier of the movie) who safeguards a mysterious book. The kids run afoul of the Taurus, a 30-foot reptilian ape; a green giant; a vanishing castle; invisible walls and a flying demon as they try to uncover the mystery of the book. Meanwhile, a bizarre park ranger named Asmodeus (Woods) is determined to get the book for himself for his own agenda.

Since the film is primarily made by amateurs, it's not too surprising that the performances tend to be amateurish. Part of that may be that the models were the B-movies of the 1950s, which weren't exactly notable for their acting chops. On the other hand, the work of the professionals that was grafted on isn't significantly better. In particular, Woods' turn as the park ranger is just as clumsy as the acting of the youngsters, though it's undeniably disturbing in it outlandishness. Shooting the film silent and dubbing all of the sound in later didn't help matters any, though it did provide a certain level of convenience for the filmmakers.

What really elevates Equinox are the enthusiastic special effects. Although there was one professional effects person, Jim Danforth, in the crew, his participation was apparently limited to doing some matte paintings (which are splendid; the castle in particular is a beautiful piece of work) and some brief bits of cel animation. The stop-motion animation of Dave Allen is first-rate, particularly of the Taurus. Allen had been doing test footage of the Taurus puppet for several years already, so he was able to inject a level of character to the stop-motion performance of the creature and a credibility rivalling Harryhausen. The flying demon, created for the film, doesn't work quite as well (especially since on DVD his wires are all too visible), but there are some extraordinary sequences. Director Dennis Muren, who would go on to Industrial Light & Magic and has since won 9 Oscars, developed a number of methods of in-camera effects for the shooting of this picture. Although not always the most convincing (such as the invisible wall), they do contribute an air of other-worldliness to the proceedings that is quite in character. Some terrific forced perspective work is one of the highlights, making the kids standing around the body of the Taurus quite credible indeed. The vision of the underworld is chilling, in a montage that is highly ambitious. The effects work is quite amazing considering the $6500 budget and the fact most of it was done by amateurs.

As a special treat, Criterion includes on the disc the original version of the film, before Woods and Harris got involved. This cut dispenses with the park ranger and makes the nemesis an unseen and unnamed evil that really is even more effective. There's also a bit more of the animation here. About 10-15 seconds of the original cut are extant only on VHS, but they're here for completeness' sake. The kids here are just stopping off to visit Dr. Watermann on their way to a pool party, which doesn't make quite as much sense as the Woods revision that sends them out specifically to see Watermann. The addition of protective amulets being found in the book was also a positive for Woods, but on the whole the original cut comes off quite well indeed. It's helped by an original score (the theatrical cut uses library music) featuring a theremin to increase the creepy mood.

Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: B


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Both cuts are presented in their original full-frame aspect ratio, preserving the 16mm originals. The theatrical cut is quite impressive in its detail and attractive color. There's grain and minor flickering as one would anticipate given the source material and the micro-budget. Both prints do have extensive damage in spots, which Criterion has cleaned up to some extent, but these probably shouldn't look flawless. They're certainly much better looking than prints I've seen of this before.

Image Transfer Grade: B

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: The 1.0 mono sound is limited in its range and presence, given the source materials. There's some mild hiss throughout that's probably part of the elements. It's certainly not a showpiece, though the theremin on the original cut has a piercing quality.

Audio Transfer Grade:

Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
Production Notes
2 Featurette(s)
2 Feature/Episode commentaries by 1) Dennis Muren, Mark McGee and Jim Danforth; 2) Jack Woods and Jack H. Harris
Packaging: Double alpha
Picture Disc
2 Discs
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extra Extras:
  1. Booklet
  2. Bonus short
  3. Galleries
  4. Radio spots
Extras Review: Criterion packs in the material, which should make any fan of the film very happy indeed. True to the Famous Monsters origin, Forrest J. Ackerman (who contributed his voice for a tape recording used in the film) provides an introduction (7m:15s) in his inimitable and corny style. Muren, writer and co-director Mark McGee and Danforth contribute a thorough commentary to the original cut, laughing at their missteps and more than honest about the shortcomings of the picture. The commentary on the theatrical cut by Woods and Harris is less successful and more self-congratulatory; it isn't nearly as intriguing, though the thought process about what was changed and why is certainly worth checking into.

The bonus disc has oodles of stuff, including outtakes and scenes dropped from the final original cut (including scenes of the pool party in best 1960s style) and some of Allen's test footage of the Taurus, as the creature escapes from the local zoo. A pair of featurettes contains present-day reminiscenses from Muren and several members of the cast. A section in appreciation of David Allen, who died of cancer in 1999, includes his charming short fairy tale film The Magic Treasure (19m:05s) as well as his legendary Volkswagen commercial featuring King Kong. There's also Kong test footage and production notes for both pieces. Allen also makes an appearance in the 1972 student short film Zorgon, the H-Bomb Beast from Hell, as the title monster, an octopoid ape. It also features several other notables from Equinox, making it more than relevant. An extensive gallery of 'equiphemera' hosts a series of stills and photos with copious explanatory notes that is well worth visiting. A trailer and two radio spots help round out the publicity materials for the picture. A thick booklet contains an appreciations from George Lucas and Ray Harryhausen as well as an extensive essay by Brock DeShane. Criterion does not disappoint, even with an item easily could have been given short shrift.

Extras Grade: A

Final Comments

An outstanding example of what can be accomplished with determination, enthusiasm, and a 16mm camera, Equinox is a beloved cult effort and it still holds up quite well. Criterion gives it the royal treatment too, with just about every extra one could possibly hope for.

Mark Zimmer 2006-06-19