Monday, June 16, 2008

Movies: Beyond the Valley of the Jolly Green Giant.

The Criterion Collection has a strangely schizo relationship to the horror genre. Horror flicks make up only a tiny percentage of the collection (it is handily beat by mystery/crime and sci-fi, but still towers over porn, which is represented by the I'm Curious box set and a couple stray "erotica" titles). What they do have tends to be separated into three general categories. The first consists of horror flicks that are genuine cinema milestones, the sorts of flicks that people tend to think of a singular achievements rather than reflections of a genre. Films like M and Peeping Tom go in this category. In the next category you get meta flicks that use the horror genre as little more than a steeping stone for staging their own art house provocations. Paul Morrissey's surreal black-comedy takes on Dracula and Frankenstein are emblematic of the flicks in this category. Finally, there's a tiny collection of cult whatsits that reside on the list. Carnival of Souls and The Blob are the most famous of these films, but this category includes such oddities as The Fiend Without a Face (a 1958 monster movie featuring an invasion by brain creatures with spinal-cord tails) and the subject of today's review: the 1967/1970 monster movie Equinox.

What's interesting about this tripartite breakdown is that the flicks in the last category often seem to get the best treatment. M and Peeping Tom get nice transfers with the requisite commentaries and whatnot. They're quite spiffy. But, by way of comparison, Carnival of Souls gets a 2-disc box with a couple of hours worth of extra stuff. Arguably Carnival fully deserves the attention. It is truly one of those rare genre cheapies that completely deserves its worshipers. But even Equinox, probably one of the most obscure titles in the entire collection, gets a similar 2-disc rollout – including an alternate version of the flick, a wealth of production resources, and two short films: one animated flick and a sci-fi/horror monster short. Perhaps the makers and fans of these cult and sub-cult flicks simply keep more of the ephemera around, providing Criterion's people with unusually rich stores of potential special features. Maybe it is some sort of pre-emptive effort to head of criticism of including such weird flicks in the collection: by piling on extras and bonus stuff and whatnot, the sheer wealth of material acts as a sort of argument against the flick's irrelevance. It might simply be that the folks over at Criterion have a sincere soft spot for these often clunky but usually charming films. I don't know. But, whatever the reason, these film curiosities are frequently given the royal treatment.

Does Equinox deserve the deluxe treatment?

Equinox began life in 1967 as a sci-fi/horror short cobbled together by first time-director and then full-time business student Dennis Muren. Muren shot the film on a shoe-string budget of $6,500 dollars. The short was picked up by a distribution company that hired new talent to shot new material that would pad out the flick to feature length. In 1970, the longer, re-organized film was released onto the drive-in circuit. Muren would go on to do effects for an astounding number of flicks, many of them considered major turning points in the history of film effects, including Star Wars, E.T, Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Abyss, Terminator II, and Jurassic Park. Horror scuttlebutt claims the flick went on to become an influence on the gents behind Evil Dead, with which it shares certain plot points and a goofy, slightly mad DYI attitude.

Though the shorter, original flick is available in the 2-disc set, we'll discuss the longer theatrical release. The film begins with a bang, literally: an unexplained explosion fills the screen, throwing an unnamed young man to the ground. He gets up and begins calling for his friend. We soon see her body, immobile and covered in blood, not far from him. Deciding his friend has died, the young man makes a panicked dash for the nearest highway. Once there, he tries to flag down a car. Unfortunately for him, the first car to come by is an empty sedan being steered by some unseen force. The driverless auto rams the young man, leaving him injured in the middle of the road.

One year later, a reporter comes to see the young man in a mental asylum. The head of the hospital's department of exposition tells us that the young man was found by motorists and brought in for care. They treated his physical injuries, but he was hopelessly loony by that point. He raved on about forces of evil and refused to surrender a small crucifix that was found on him. The reporter tries to speak to the young man, but the man attacks him. The doctor, apologizing for the patient, shares a recorded interview he had with the young when he was first brought in. Cue extended flashback.

The young man, David, his blind date Susan, his buddy Jim (an early role for WKRP's Frank Bonner), and Jim's girl Vicki all head into the California hills for a picnic and meet-up with Dr. Waterman. Waterman, according to David, has made some sort of mysterious find in the hills. Our quartet arrive to find Waterman's cabin completely demolished and, shortly thereafter, is given a mysterious book by a crazed local. The book turns out to be a Bible of Evil (basically the Necronomicon; though it is never so named) which Waterman was studying. From some research notes, the four friends learn that Waterman summoned monsters that he couldn't then control. What follows is the single worst picnic to ever be put to film as the foursome battle giant stop animation monsters, a guy who looks like a cross between Captain Caveman and the Jolly Green Giant, and Satan himself, who is skulking around California's state parks in the guise of thuggish park ranger. Before the battle is through, Satan's powers will have turned friend against friend. Though we know that only David makes it out of the woods from the exposition in the hospital, it is still bizarrely effecting when this otherwise goofy fantasy film actually starts dispatching characters.

There's no good explanation for the inexplicable watchability of Equinox. The effects, while good for a budget of less than seven grand, are still mighty laughable. The story is loopy, full of distracting plot holes, and very uneven in tone – the grim fate of several of the characters works against the fun feel of the earlier parts of the flick and seems like overkill. The acting is wooden and unconvincing. Plus, the couple of Jim and Vicki are perhaps the least pleasant screen couple I've witnessed in a while. Jim snipes at Vicki so regularly that you almost expect him to just start saying things like, "Dammit. Are you still here, Fatty? I was hoping that giant demon bat thing ate you."

Still, there is something weirdly compulsive about this flick. Despite these flaws, it is clear that this flick is the work of inspired, talented amateurs giving something everything they've got. The actors are not equal to their parts, but they are always game. The effects are extremely lo-fi, but the monster designs and psychedelic visual effects have a kitbashed coolness that is disarming. The pleasures Equinox delivers are real, if remarkably specific and limited. It's like being surprised by the inventiveness of some friend's homemade flick (if your friend went on to make some of the biggest effect flicks of all time). There's something completely garage rock about Equinox. It speaks to the fantastic notion that simply by loving something enough to give a crap about it, you could do it yourself. The fan could just pick up the guitar. The kids watching the late night creature features could pick up a camera and just make one. That this fantasy is never as easy as it sounds doesn't detract from the essential core of what makes it so attractive: we know it is true.

Does that deserve a 2-disc extravaganza? I say sure. Why the hell not? If that isn't worth celebrating, then I don't know what is.

3 comments:

Sasquatchan said...

It would seem Dennis Muren was also did a lot of work with the late Stan Winston.. Was reading the short obit for Winston, and thought the list of movies sounded very similar.. Their IMDB bios have a ton of cross over.

Also, Muren looks like one of the bizarre assassin duo from "Diamonds are Forever", Mr. Kidd/Mr. Wint (I think Mr. Kidd is the long haired one..)

Anonymous said...

Not even a single mention of the huge similarities between this film(s) and Sam Raimi's "Evil Dead"?!?

You just KNOW that Sam watched this flick before he began...

Not that there's anything wrong with that...!

But it might be a cool postscript that an ultra-low-budget passionate cheapie could influence a low-budget passionate cheapie, which could, in turn, influence investors to support a great horror flick: "Evil Dead II"!

CRwM said...

Anon,

There are definitely similarities, though I left them out of my review because I'm not so sure I'm ready to subscribe to the whole idea of influence. In the Criterion DVD set, the Evil Dead effects guy - Tom Sullivan - specifically states that while he saw the flick in drive-in before making Evil Dead, he doesn't recall ever discussing Equinox with Raimi.

Add that to the fact that we have a "source" (or more like "rough draft") for ED in Raimi's own Within the Woods. We kinda don't need an "inspiration" for ED 'cause it already has a predecessor.

This doesn't change you main point, that there are some interesting similarities. I'm just not ready to say that Equinox influenced The Evil Dead.