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EQUINOX (1970)
Directors: Jack Woods, Dennis Muren, Mark McGhee (uncredited)
The Criterion Collection

It took the pages of Famous Monsters of Filmland to bring together Dennis Muren and David Allen, two talents who would later go on to become innovative forces in the special effects arena. As motivated young men in the mid 1960s, they set out to make a feature similar to the numerous monster films they’d been exposed to, and the results would be what we know today as EQUINOX. A favorite amongst monster movie and stop motion animation fans who either caught it on the big screen, gazed at it on late-night local television, or owned the 10-minute Super 8 film version, EQUINOX has finally made it to DVD in a deluxe two-disc edition; an incredible, loving presentation from The Criterion Collection.

A reporter visits David Fielding (Edward Connell) who is an asylum a year and one day after some tragic, mysterious events. Listening to a tape recording of David talking to a doctor, we learn that he and three friends – Jim Hudson (Frank Boers Jr., aka Frank Bonner), Susan Turner (Barbara Hewitt) and Vicki (Robin Christopher) – had gone deep into the woods to visit college professor Dr. Waterman (famed sci-fi writer Fritz Leiber) at his cabin. When they arrive, they discover that the cabin has been destroyed, and Waterman nowhere to be found. After exploring a dark cave, they are given an ancient book by a giggling old man, and when they open it, a Pandora’s Box of devilish nightmares occur. Demonic forces come in the form of several gargantuan creatures, a satanic park ranger, medieval castles that disappear and wall of mist that apparently leads to another dimension.

That is the basic plot of EQUINOX, at least the version released theatrically in 1970. Beginning in 1965, Dennis Muren (who served as effects photographer, producer, director and co-writer) along with friends Dave Allen (who conceived most of the stop motion animation), Mark McGee (who wrote the bulk of the script and co-directed) and Jim Danforth (who is responsible for the very impressive mattes and cel animation) shot a homegrown monster film in 16mm in scenic California, with the help of some inexperienced actors and other locals. Completed in 1967 and titled “The Equinox… A Journey into the Supernatural,” the finished product ran about 70 minutes long, and Muren struggled to find a distributor interested in picking it up for theatrical release. That opportunity came when legendary producer Jack H. Harris (THE BLOB, THE 4-D MAN, DINOSAURAUS) liked what he saw, taking on the film and bringing in director Jack Woods (who also would write the new dialog and appears as a new character, Asmodeus) to shoot new scenes with the central cast, brought back after more than a few years.

The two films are very different. For the released version, some plot points were tossed out to make room for other expanded concepts, a new menacing character was written in, optical effects were added, voices were re-dubbed, scenes were re-edited, different music was utilized, etc. Actually, what Harris and Woods did was commendable, cleverly edited and revised, bringing the running time up to 80 minutes. Whatever version you might think is more worthy (here, you get to compare the two as they’re both included), it’s the special effects that make this such an admired and remembered effort. The stop-motion monsters include a Kong-inspired ape-like creature, a dragon-like tentacled creature that devours a house and demon winged bat creature, instrumental during the film’s climax. A green giant in fur skins is played by an actor in make-up and costume, but making him appear colossal while knocking down mortals is one of the film’s most innovative yet simple achievements. For most who worked on EQUINOX, this was their maiden voyage, and it shows in the film’s many flaws, and even the effects tend to be crude and far from polished. But there’s something very fascinating about it, like an attempt to clone a studio Ray Harryhausen production by ambitious amateurs with no money, throwing in any ideas they could muster up from the old horror films they grew up on, with a dash of H.P. Lovecraft tossed into the mix. And that’s basically what it is, and it’s a charming, inspiring spectacle of low budget fantasy movie history.

The 1970 theatrical version of EQUINOX is presented full frame (any matting would have marred the image drastically) and looks quite good, especially considering that it was shot entirely on 16mm and then blown up to 35mm. The image has been cleaned up considerably and there is a great level of picture detail, with bright, corrected colors. Anyone used to old video versions or TV airings will be elated by this new high definition transfer. The audio is also extremely clear, with only minimal background hiss to be found. The 1967 version, “The Equinox . . . A Journey into the Supernatural,” apparently has been transferred from different sources, including a 16mm duplicate negative and 16mm composite print (both supplied by Muren), and for a few brief shots, a VHS tape. Naturally, this version looks rougher and not nearly as good as the theatrical version, but it’s still very watchable and its inclusion on this set is invaluable.

Extras on the first disc include a video introduction by legendary Famous Monsters founder/editor Forrest J. Ackerman. At almost 90 years of age, Uncle Forry is still as enthusiastic about monster fandom as ever, talking about how he met the young makers of the film through his magazine, that he suggested Fritz Leiber to star in it, and his bit part in it, doing a doctor’s voice heard on a tape recorder. Two commentaries are included. The original 1967 version features Dennis Muren, and recorded separately, Mark McGee with Jim Danforth. The three gentlemen cover every basis about making the film with zero money, revealing the techniques behind the special effects and matte shots, construction of the sets (it’s amazing to learn they built a convincing cave in Muren's backyard!), the cast, locations and much more. Proud of their accomplishments, they shed a humorous light on the film’s shortcomings and its original $6,500 budget (much of which was donated by Muren’s granddad, who also appears as a crazy old hermit). The other audio commentary is included on the 1970 version, and features producer Jack H. Harris (no stranger to special effects movies) and writer/director Jack Woods, who discuss why they decided to distribute the film and the new footage that they shot for it. Giving us a different perspective on what became the final released version, they share some good anecdotes, and Woods at one point remarks that he shot expanded TV scenes for some of Roger Corman’s Allied Artists films!

The second disc compliments the two versions of the film with an abundance of fine supplements. Silent outtakes (7:05) from the original version not only display different takes from the shooting, but also shows the cast and crew having a few laughs, as well as a deleted poolside party where a bikini-clad blonde dances on top a diving board before a group of beer-swilling youths. Test footage (1:49) of the “Taurus” (the off screen name given to Dave Allen’s ape-like creation) has him escaping from Griffith Park, followed by his assault on a nearby suburban neighborhood. Forry Ackerman can be seen briefly at the beginning. Also tagged on here is some test footage of Allen’s animated skeleton (the first stop-motion model that he actually built). A video interview with Dennis Muren (7:29) has him discussing his childhood fascination with special movie effects, leading to his short experimental films, setting out to make a full-length effects-laden feature with his buddies, going to Jack H. Harris to release it, and later, meeting George Lucas and getting involved with STAR WARS, which lead to him being one of today’s leading visual effects artists. A section of cast interviews (9:37) includes Frank Bonner (who went on to become a star on “WKRP in Cincinnati” as well as a prominent TV director), Barbara Laughray (formerly Hewitt) and James Duron (who was heavily made up as the film’s Green Giant). They talk about their roles in the film (and in Bonner’s and Laughray’s cases, getting the call-back years later to reprise their parts), working for no money, and all seem to imply it was great fun working on it. They all seem impressed by the film’s cult status and happy to have been involved with it. “Zorgon: The H-Bomb Beast From Hell” (8:45) is a short silent student film by Kevin Fernan which includes some key EQUINOX talent (Mark McGee, Dave Allen, and Jim Danforth playing a drunken old man), as well as Rick Baker. Parts of Baker’s OCTAMAN and SCHLOCK costumes can be found on the film's monsters, who dwells around Bronson Canyon (on some of the same locations where EQUINOX was shot). A section entitled “Dave Allen Appreciation” includes “The Magic Treasure” (a rarely seen 19-minute animated children’s film by Allen), an essay about “The Magic Treasure by James Duron, Allen’s famous “King Kong” animated Volkswagen commercial (featuring Fay Wray’s daughter), silent test footage from the commercial, and lastly, “Kong at Cascade,” which is an essay by Chris Endicott about Allen’s days as an animator at a commercial house in California. The “Equiphemera” section is one of the most impressive galleries you’ll ever witness, containing everything from Famous Monsters clippings to behind-the-scenes photos, rare photos of the puppet models seen in the film and much more, all accompanied by textual information. The original Jack H. Harris trailer (“Begins where ROSEMARY’S BABY left off!”) and two different radio spots round out the extras.

Inside the packaging is a thick booklet which contains messages from George Lucas and Ray Harryhausen, as well as all-inclusive liner notes by Brock DeShane. Not only is this one of the finest DVD releases of the year, Criterion’s tribute to “the little monster movie that could” will go down as one of the all-time best presentations of a cult movie on the format. (George R. Reis)