Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Hubrisween 2017 :: E is for Equinox (1970)

Our grainy little ditty of devils, demons and dubious audio-dubbing begins with the credits already rolling over the gears and mechanisms of a clock about to strike midnight, giving one the impression time is running out for someone -- hopefully not the viewer. Then, we fade right into some intrigue as a man desperately runs away from something chasing him through the woods. He also shouts for someone named Susan; and as we get a glimpse of some bloodied, feminine legs intruding into the frame, I think we can safely assume that this is (what's left of) her. Making it to the nearest road, the man tries to flag down a passing car -- realizing too late there is no one behind the wheel! And when the possessed sedan clips the man, it then circles back to run him over again! Luckily for the victim, another car happens by; this time filled with concerned motorists, who rush to the victim's aid while the antagonistic phantom car roars off.

We then jump ahead one year and find the victim has been institutionalized since this incident. The patient is identified as David Fielding (Connell), a near catatonic, who only speaks of evil things that are after him; but the patient only turns violent whenever someone tries to take away a small silver cross he’s been death-gripping since those other motorists found him. Now, an apparent slow news day brings in a reporter named Sloane (Phillips), hoping for an interview with the patient. You see, Fielding’s bizarre roadside encounter was only the capper to a really dire day. Remember Susan? Well, she and two others, all friends of Fielding, met a violent end in those same woods; a baffling murder mystery that has yet to be solved.

Fielding, of course, is the key witness but he still ain't talking -- until the reporter shows him a picture of a Dr. Waterman: "sort of a weirdo professor from the University." And after reacting violently to this photo, the patient is quickly subdued by a couple of burly orderlies. Thus, having struck out with the patient, the reporter turns to his doctor, who chucks patient confidentiality right out the window and cues up a tape-recording of his first session with Fielding after he was committed. And as the magnetic tape turns, we flashback to Fielding getting a call from this Dr. Waterman, who wants his prized student to come to his isolated cabin deep in the woods immediately so he can share a wonderful new discovery. Fielding agrees to come and invites his buddy, Jim Hudson (Bonner), to tag along. A take charge kinda guy, Hudson decides to turn the excursion into a picnic by inviting his girlfriend, Vicki Dale (Christopher), and a Susan Turner (Hewitt) as a blind date for his terminally square pal, David. And when his friend protests, citing Watermen didn't sound quite right on the phone, Hudson assures everything will be just fine -- he typed ominously.

Anyways, this all leads to an interminably long travelogue sequence, whose eerie resemblance to the beginning of Manos: The Hands of Fate (1966) may cause an adverse, spastic fit for some viewers. But they soon run out of road and must hoof it the rest of the way to Waterman’s cabin, which our troupe finds completely destroyed! Hudson figures something must have exploded inside, but Fielding feels the structure looks caved in, not blown up. Either way, Waterman isn’t there. Then suddenly, a park ranger pops up from out of nowhere. Apologizing for the startle, the man introduces himself as Asmodeus (Woods). And if the name didn’t already give it away, we quickly deduce from this guy’s odd behavior he is pure evil. Evil! Eeeeviiiilllllll!!! And with that firmly established, Ranger Danger assures the kids Dr. Waterman is fine, saying he went back to town long before the cabin met its untimely end. Thus and so, the group decides to go ahead with that picnic, but then things get even more weird. To start, they spot a medieval castle nestled on a cliff that no one noticed coming in. Impossible. Then, they find a crazy old coot living in a cave, who makes them take a sealed book he’s been hiding before kicking them out. And then Waterman (Leiber) bolts through the scene, snatches the book, and scampers off only to apparently drop dead when Fielding tackles him -- only his body disappears when no one is looking, so the rumors of his death are thus far inconclusive.

Then, determined to have that damned picnic, as the girls lay out the food, Hudson manages to pry open the book revealing an old tome full of ancient writings, symbols, and pictures of demons, whose pages also reek of sulfur. Further exploration finds several notes from Waterman wedged inside the book, which turns out to be The Rainy Day Book of Spellcasting and Demon Summoning for Dummies that the good doctor found in the woods. He then tried to cast a few spells, resulting in a giant squid destroying his cabin -- a creature he has been on the run from ever since, apparently, bringing an end to this flashback within the flashback.

Meanwhile, back at the old coot’s cave, Asmodeus conjures up another monster, which resembles a cross between a gorilla and a Harryhausen Cyclops, and demands the hermit turn over the Book, which, of course, he no longer has. And so, after killing the old man, the beast turns his attention on The Not Quite Scooby-Doo Gang when it sees they now have the Book. And while they fight and kill the beast and stumble upon a doorway into another dimension, Asmodeus culls Susan from the others and assaults her -- this assault consisting mostly of him just snicker-snagging evil drool all over her face. And before things can be taken any further, the small silver cross Susan wears around her neck frightens the attacker off. (The same cross Fielding winds up with.) But then the poor girl can't seem to remember what happened when the others find her. (Evil drool will do that to you, ya know.)

But this goo eventually turns Susan evil, too, and she attacks Vicki. And while Fielding tries to sort them out, Hudson runs into Asmodeus, who wants to make a bargain for the Book. When he refuses, Asmodeus summons a fifteen foot ogre to persuade him otherwise. This attack scatters the group. Hudson winds up sucked into that other pocket dimension; and while it appears he comes back out it’s quite obvious he’s been replaced by an evil doppelganger conspiring to get the Book for his boss. And when he fails, Asmodeus finally reveals his true form: a giant winged demon, who chases the three survivors down, taking out Vicky first, then zeroing in on Fielding and Susan, who take refuge in a cemetery, hiding behind a tombstone adorned with a large stone cross. And when the demon swoops in for the kill, when it touches the tombstone it detonates in a fiery explosion. Fielding recovers, calls for Susan and spies her bloodied legs. Then, a huge wraith appears and declares the boy will die one year and one day from now. From this horror, Fielding flees, makes it to the road, sees a car coming -- aaaaaand this is where we came in, one year and one day later...

Like a lot of other kids, when I first saw Ray Harryhausen’s work in Jason and the Argonauts (1963), all notions of being a fireman or a cowboy were chucked out the window as right then and there, as the Children of the Hydra broke out of the ground and attacked, I knew I was going to be a stop-motion animator and monster-maker for the movies when I grew up -- just like Harryhausen did, following in Willis O’Brien’s footsteps, after being similarly infected by watching King Kong (1933). And like with a lot of kids, those dreams were soon dashed against the rocks of reality -- not necessarily due to a lack of talent or imagination, but a lack of opportunity or the proper equipment or training to follow in those mammoth footprints. Still, others who latched onto that dream managed to prevail -- and prevail most righteously. And one of those Monster Kids who managed to see it through and make good was Dennis Muren.

Muren became obsessed with movie magic at a young age and was soon determined to unlock the secrets of these special-effects; and those he managed to resolve usually wound up replicated in his home movies, first in 8mm and then 16mm. One of his bibles at the time was Famous Monsters of Filmland Magazine, which spoke to a whole generation of monster fans and offered up some arcane secrets on what made their beloved monsters go. And, as it turned out, the main force behind the magazine, Forrest J. Ackerman, the beloved Ackermonster, lived just up the road from the Muren homestead, who was most generous in answering a lot of the young enthusiast’s questions, showcasing Muren’s makeshift Monster Museum in an early issue of Famous Monsters; and even arranged a meeting with his hero, Ray Harryhausen, who was duly impressed with the young man’s burgeoning technique. But perhaps most importantly, Uncle Forry would arrange public screenings, where fellow amateur filmmakers could share their projects and get feedback on their progress from other monster-addled fanatics.

And this is how Muren became acquainted with Mark Thomas McGee, who wrote for FM and shot his own home movies, too. And then this duo became a trio when they answered a personal ad in FM placed by David Allen, looking to correspond with others who loved King Kong and the fine art of stop-motion special-effects. From there, these three would bounce ideas off each other, hone their craft, film the results, and then critique each other’s work. They also spent a lot of time in McGee’s basement watching monster movies he’d rent on his 16mm projector or catch them on the late late show. And by 1965, it was Muren who first had the notion they should pool their talents and make a full length feature film over the summer break, feeling they could do better than some of the turgid movies they’d watched -- or at least couldn’t do any worse.

Turning to his family for some financial support, Muren was given the option of spending the $3500 his grandfather had set aside to help pay for college on the project, which he did. And his grandfather’s reward? He (Louis Clayton) got to play that crazy old hermit in the cave. And through several other backers, they soon had raised a little over $6,000 for their feature. As to what they would spend that money on; the original idea was to have a group of kids marooned on an island where a mad scientist was making all kinds of monsters to torment them. This was then simplified to a group of teenagers getting lost in the woods on a way to a party, which would eventually morph into the tale of some teens lost in the woods who come under the influence of evil forces emanating from an ancient book of spells.

Drawing inspiration from two of their favorite films, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) and Curse of the Demon (1957), Muren would produce and co-direct, Allen would provide FX, and McGee would be listed as the other co-director and credited screenwriter; though the script was just basically an excuse to tie about a half-dozen fairly ambitious FX set-pieces together: the giant mollusk that destroys the cabin, the ape-like Taurus, the Ogre, the dimensional breach, the wraith, and the winged demon. And to help save money, most of the stop-motion and miniature models used for the film had already been built by Allen and only the winged demon would be an original piece. And to help bring them to life the production got a huge boost when Jim Danforth got involved.

Muren had met Danforth while he was working on Jack the Giant Killer (1962) and struck up a friendship. Since he was a teenager, Danforth had been working for Projects Unlimited, a freelance special effects company founded in 1957, which had won an Oscar for The Time Machine (1960); a project Danforth had worked on. Danforth would then be nominated for another Oscar for animating the shape-changing Loch Ness Monster in The 7 Faces of Dr. Lao (1964). And while Danforth would not animate anything for this amateur film, he did provide some stellar matte paintings and model work for the production, served as multiple extras, and provided a 35mm stop-motion camera for Muren and Allen to use to animate their monsters, which was a huge step-up from their usual primitive equipment.

And combine that with some kit-bashed and innovative front projection techniques, which allowed for some dynamic action instead of the usual static shots when the live-action portion was combined with the animated stuff, the end results were rather impressive. Note how many scenes involve one of the actors moving directly in front of the miniature, which was almost unheard of when using rear-projection. This front projection method would later be perfected with a lot more money for Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).

It was Allen who animated the squid and the Taurus, while Muren animated the winged demon. And while watching these finished segments, it’s easy to see Allen was the far superior animator but Muren’s action seemed a bit more ambitious in the set-ups and the frenetic pacing, splicing it all together with some cell animation (-- courtesy of Danforth) and the live action elements. The Ogre, meanwhile, was all Muren and was accomplished with a man in a suit, a picnic table, and some fairly nifty forced-perspective work. The dimensional rift appears a little hokey by today’s standards but the technique of using several mirrors, also Muren’s idea, was highly innovative at the time. And frankly, one of the coolest shots in the whole film is the massive ghostly specter that curses Fielding, which was accomplished with Muren’s new front projection technique.

However, while all the special-effect set-pieces were highly engaging in Equinox, the story to tie them together is a highly convoluted mess that comes off rather dry and dull and dimwitted in service of the action. Not helping matters any was the spring-loaded, 16mm Bolex camera used to shoot the live-action stuff, which only allowed about 30 seconds of shooting before the film ran out. (The film was also shot without sound and was later dubbed over, and then spot-scored by Muren’s college music professor.) And so, if the actors didn’t get their lines out or just part of them, there was no time or money to do it again as the film kept pressing forward, shooting in several scenic Southern California locales without permission or permits (-- including Bronson Canyon), or in makeshift sets built in Muren’s backyard.

As for the cast: the male leads answered an ad while the two female leads were cast with high school friends of Muren and McGee. (Ackerman got them noted author Fritz Leiber to play Dr. Waterman.) All seemed pretty game when dealing with the ad-hoc nature of the production that was only supposed to last two weeks but instead dragged on for nearly two years, shooting over weekends between monthly hiatus as the script changed constantly to fit the F/X. (You can actually see the actors age on screen as their hair changes from scene to scene.) The only member of the cast that went on to any success was Frank Bonner (-- here billed as Frank Boers Jr.), who went on to minor renown as sales manager Herb Tarlek on WKRP in Cincinnati. And frankly, you have to admire the sticktoitiveness of the cast to stay with the production for that long for no pay upfront. And even when the film was finally finished, turns out it wasn’t quite done with them yet.

See, when The Equinox ... A Journey into the Supernatural (1967) wrapped Muren and company had hoped to sell it off to some late night creature feature program. (The nonsensical title came from McGee, who felt the Q and X gave it a mysterious quality.) When that didn’t pan out, a determined Muren started shopping it around several studios but got nary a nibble until he screened it for Jack H. Harris, most famous for producing the independent horror classic, The Blob (1958). Harris loved the picture but felt it needed a little polish and about ten more minutes of screen time. He offered Muren first crack at expanding the film but he turned the opportunity down, wanting to focus on the FX side of filmmaking, having had his fill of directing.

And so, Harris turned to Jack Woods, a seasoned editor and post-production supervisor, who hired all the actors back, cast himself as the lead demon, shot some new footage, restructured all of the old footage, re-dubbed it, re-scored it, and chopped the name down to just Equinox (1970). And honestly, all this tinkering did was make a confusing movie even more so; as what was once ambiguous was now overloaded with exposition. Lots and lots of exposition. And having finally seen both versions -- courtesy of the excellent Criterion Collection release, I am puzzled as to why several fairly stellar F/X pieces were left out of the theatrical version to put those sexual assault scenes in. (The winged demon really takes a hit.) Still, both versions manage a few chills and thrills, and I really dug the Body Snatchers ending, when it turns out the reporter’s whole mission was to get that cross away from Fielding, opening the door for Evil Susan to fulfill the specter's prophecy.

In the film, the equinox is described as the boundary between good and evil, Heaven and Hell. And Equinox the movie, either version, kinda falls into a same nebulous gray area between good and bad. For it isn’t a very good movie but there’s just a nugget of a something something that elevates it above its like minded amateur or even some professional z-grade brethren. It’s innovative but simple in its achievements. The film is flawed and crude and yet shows some polish and ambition. Therefore it is both excellent and amateurish. It shows some imagination and industriousness, but also looks really cheap and appears to be held together with spit and bailing wire -- and winds-up more often than not sacrificing continuity for creativity.

Muren, of course, went on to become a staple at ILM and Lucasfilm, working on things ranging from Star Wars (1977) to Jurassic Park (1993), adapting as he went with the advent of CGI. Dave Allen would continue to work in stop-motion on films like The Howling (1981) and Q the Winged Serpent (1982). Mark McGee would see a modicum of success on the big screen but is probably best remembered for writing the definitive history of American International Pictures. Jim Danforth would be nominated for yet another Academy Award for When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth (1970), and would assist Harryhausen on Clash of the Titans (1981), and would excel as a matte painter for fantasy and sci-films like Conan the Barbarian (1982) and The Thing (1982). And Jack Harris, perhaps emboldened by this risk that paid off, wound up taking on a few more first-time filmmakers, including John Landis’ Schlock (1973) and John Carpenter and Dan O’Bannon’s Dark Star (1974).

I guess in the end, then, Equinox was made by monster movie fans for fans of monster movies -- monster movies that inspired them to make one of their own. A cinematic circle of life that the makers of Equinox passed on to yet another generation of filmmakers in the “If they can do it, we can do it” as the film had a huge influence on Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead (1981) -- most notably the lead FX man on the film, Tom Sullivan. Not too bad a legacy for a movie that is admittedly impressive, but just not very good.

What is Hubrisween? This is Hubrisween. And now, Boils and Ghouls, be sure to follow this linkage to keep track of the whole conglomeration of reviews for Hubrisween right here. Or you can always follow we collective head of knuckle on Letterboxd. That's five films down with 21 films yet to go! Oy. Up next: I Spit on Your Kangaroo.

Equinox (1970) Tonylyn Productions Inc. :: Jack H. Harris Enterprises / P: Jack H. Harris / AP: Dennis Muren / D: Jack Woods, Mark Thomas McGee, Dennis Muren / W: Mark Thomas McGee, Jack Woods / C: Mike Hoover / E: John Joyce / M: Jaime Mendoza-Nava / S: Edward Connell, Barbara Hewitt, Frank Bonner, Robin Christopher, Jack Woods, James Phillips, Fritz Leiber


Bill Mulligan said...

Thank you so much for the behind the scenes shots!

W.B. Kelso said...

You're welcome. The majority were screen grabs from the extras on that fantastic Criterion disc. Highly recommended. Thanks for reading!

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