May 17, 2015

Equinox (1970)

Long before I became a pretentious twat and discovered the wonders of European arthouse cinema and the internet made extremely rare films fairly accessible, I could never really predict a great cinematic experience as most of the films I watched were random works that I would catch on cable TV by happenstance during same late ungodly hour when most kids my age were asleep dreaming about touching their teacher's boobs. Admittedly, due to the rather intimate and revelatory nature of some of these late night viewings, I could almost liken them to religious experiences as they completely changed the way I looked at cinema, especially of the horror oriented sort, which was a genre that no one aside from myself seemed to be so obsessed, thereupon giving me all the more delusional impression that I was in my own little hermetic world that only I, and no one else, had access to. Undoubtedly, one of the things that made these experiences even more mystifying was that I would often miss the beginning of these films and never learn the title of these movies, so it would oftentimes be many years before I actually discovered the name of these works so that I could watch them again and recommend them to people. One of the films that certainly had a deep impact on me was Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm (1979), which I credit as for priming me at a young age to later appreciate surrealist cinema ranging from classic European arthouse works like Fellini Satyricon (1969) to the aberrant artsploitation of Russian auteur Andrey Iskanov (Visions of Suffering, Philosophy of a Knife). Out of all these films, the one took me the longest to discover the title of was the cult horror flick Equinox (1970), which I saw when I was about 10 or 11 but did not learn the name of the film until I was in my 20s when it was somewhat shockingly released as a lavish 2-disc DVD set by the Criterion Collection in 2006. 

 Arguably the greatest and most epic home-movie ever made, the film was created by a small group of complete amateurs, including future famous Hollywood special effects man Dennis Muren (Star Wars, Terminator 2: Judgment Day), for a mere $6,500 in 1967 and released under the title The Equinox...A Journey Into The Supernatural, only to be picked up by B-movie producer Jack H. Harris (The Blob, Dark Star) in 1970 and go under a sort of ‘Hollywoodization’ process involving the shooting of new scenes by writer-director Jack Woods, adding of a new villain, and extensive reediting, among other things that somewhat changed the emotional impact of the film. Admittedly, when I re-watched the film for the first time in over a decade in 2006 and then again a couple years after that, it did not nearly have as big of an effect on me as it did when I first saw it as a highly impressionable kid with an unhealthy addiction to all-things-horror, which caused me to speculate that I might have actually seen the 1967 cut before, thus leading to recent my decision to watch that version.  While I ultimately discovered the 1970 version was indeed the same film I saw as a kid, I also discovered that I, like a number of fans of the film, actually preferred the original amateur cut as opposed to Harris' curious edit, so my efforts were luckily not in vain.  A work with flagrant Lovecraftian overtones, including an evil Necronomicon-like book and a notable performance by ‘Cthulhu Mythos’ writer Fritz Leiber as a scientist/teacher who dooms himself and some of his students to hell upon doing dubious research in the black arts, Equinox also makes for mandatory viewing for any vaguely serious horror fan in that it is the virtual blueprint for Sam Raimi’s classic flick The Evil Dead (1981) as a stop-motion-animation-driven celluloid nightmare about a couple young students who unwittingly find themselves being chased and murdered by pernicious demonic beings upon get their hands on an ancient manuscript that belonged to a dead civilization that found the portal between earth and hell. 

 It should be noted that my review is mainly going to cover the original 1967 version The Equinox...A Journey Into The Supernatural, which I also found to be at least somewhat more eerie and foreboding due to its unwavering rawness, as if it is an authentic document of four teenagers’ rather eventful summer vacation in hell. Aside from being about 15 minutes longer and featuring a somewhat revamped opening title sequence, the 1970 version is notable for the inclusion of a demonic park ranger named ‘Asmodeus’ that was played by the film’s main director Jack Woods (special effects man/producer Dennis Muren and co-writer Mark Thomas McGee are also considered uncredited co-directors). While I found Asmodeus—a character’s whose name was apparently taken from a sort of devil/demon-king in some deutero-canonical literature, including the Book of Tobit of the Catholic and Orthodox biblical canon—somewhat intriguing when I originally saw the 1970 cut, I realize now that he was just added to the film to give it a sort of sleazy sexploitation vibe, which is especially apparent in a scene where he hypnotizes and more or less rapes one of the female characters. Obviously heavily influenced by French-born auteur Jacques Tourneur’s UK cult classic Curse of the Demon (1957) aka Night of the Demon and the singular stop-motion animation special effects of Ray Harryhausen (who, along with George Lucas, would later go on to praise the film), The Equinox...A Journey Into The Supernatural is unbelievably hypnotic and otherworldly cinematic horror in its purest and most unadulterated form as a piece of preternaturally primitive celluloid art created in the pre-Night of the Living Dead (1968) era before the genre-debasing rise of gratuitous nudity and violence and retards in masks.  Personally, I consider the film in the spirit of early German Expressionist works like Robert Wiene's The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and Hans Werckmeister's Algol: Tragedy of Power (1920) in that sense that the film's visuals demonstrate are certain inordinate romantic obsessiveness.

 The Equinox...A Journey Into The Supernatural begins completely abruptly with protagonist David Fielding (Edward Connell) running away from some gigantic cloaked entity (notably, this scene was cut out of the 1970 version) in the woods, running to a highway, and being picked up by a young couple in a convertible, but not before being run over by a car that mysteriously lacks a driver. Flash forward exactly one year and one day later, a sleazy yellow press journalist named Sloan (James Phillips) visits David at a mental hospital where he is heavily sedated and confined to a padded cell.  While described by the head doctor as a melancholic, Davey boy clearly has much worse problems.  In an attempt to get David to talk to him, the journalist asks him “What’s the cross for? To protect from you curse?” and then unwittingly incites him to attack him upon showing him a photo of an old man. The old man is question is a teacher named Dr. Arthur Waterman (Fritz Leiber) and he was ultimately the one responsible for unleashing the evil forces that attacked David and his three less fortunate friends on that fateful day one year and day ago. After his failed attempt to converse with David, Sloan listens to a tape recording of the protagonist’s testimony in regard to what happened to him and his friends the day that the latter mysteriously disappeared from the world. 

 It all started when David’s friend Jim Hudson (Frank Bonner) called their mutual friend Eddie to find a date for him for a party. Eddie’s such a good friend that he brings by a hot Nordic blonde named Susan Turner (Barbara Hewitt) for David, which Jim seems slightly jealous of since his girlfriend Vicki (Robin Christopher) is not as hot. In a cheesy scene of foreshadowing, David says to his friends after snapping of photo of them, “…in a moment my dear friends, you will gaze upon the faces of the dead,” which inspires Susan to sarcastically whine, “That’s a nice way to start off the day, calling us the dead.” When David makes the ultimately fatal mistake of convincing his friends to stop boy their teacher Dr. Waterman’s cabin before heading to Eddie’s party, he unwittingly seals the fate of everyone involved. While the characters are on their way to Waterman’s quaint home, a giant Cthulhu-like creature with large tentacles crushes the cabin, so when they eventually arrive they are somewhat baffled by the curious sight. Of course, things get even more curious when Vicki wanders on her on and spots a beauteous Gothic castle. Naturally, the foursome reluctantly decides to go checkout the castle in the hope of finding Waterman there and on the way they pass an ominous cave where they heard some sort of unnerving presence inside that sounds hardly human. Although somewhat petrified by the sounds emanating from inside the cave, the friends go inside and are quite startled to happen upon a skeleton and eventually an elderly old fart (fittingly played by Muren’s grandfather, who provided most of the funding for the film) of the sinisterly goofy sort who has a proclivity towards laughing in a maniacal fashion. After asking the teens if they are “afraid of the demons and his friends,” the unsettlingly goofy geezer accuses them of attempting to steal his book and then absurdly gives them said book, which he has hidden under a bunch of rocks. Of course, little do David and his friends realize that the ancient book will be the source of sinister forces that will soon begin to stalk and kill them. 

 After having a quaint little chicken-wing picnic, the girls go on a walk and noticed that the castle has inexplicably vanished into thin air. Meanwhile, while David is attempting to read from the book, Dr. Waterman appears out nowhere and snatches it from his hands. When David and Jim chase after Dr. Waterman, he eventually trips while running through a small creek and somehow magically dies in the process. After walking away from the body for a minute or two, David and Jim are more than a little surprised to discover that Waterman’s corpse, like the castle, has also completely disappeared without of trace, though a sulfur-like smell pollutes the area. Not long after that, David and Jim discover an ‘invisible barrier’ to what seems like another dimension, though they opt to not tell their lady friends about it. Needless to say, when a giant apish King Kong-esque chases down the eccentric old man down and murders him by repeatedly slamming his frail old body into the ground as if he were a ragdoll, David and Jim go in hero mode to save their damsels in distress from the extra bestial being. While the monster manages to grab the book, Jim soon murders it by piercing its heart with a large stick. While the friends question if the gorilla-like beast has something to do with Waterman and/or his destroyed cabin, they never consider that it might have something to do with the mysterious occult text they are carrying around, at least not until later. Indeed, after doing some walking on his own so he can find his camera and only finding some ruined film and a recently deserted camp site, Jim goes back to his friends and says, “I think the book has something to do with the forces of darkness.” At this point, the foursome finally begins to realize the magnitude of the malevolent menacing that has been stalking them. 

 Upon looking through the ancient occult grimoire, the friends are baffled as they cannot understand the archaic language and symbols inside, which included Hebrew letters and Star of David symbols (somewhat curiously, in the 1970 version of the film, it is mentioned that the so-called ‘Star of David’ can be used to battle the monsters). Luckily, the friends eventually find a note left in the book by Dr. Waterman where he calls the book as an “accursed tabloid” and describes how he wants to, “warn the world that the forces of darkness are far from dead.” As the note describes, seven months ago Waterman’s archeologist colleague found the book while conducting an excavation of an “unknown civilization near the Persian Gulf” and against his friend’s advice, the teacher became “blinded by curiosity” and began studying the text in the hope of learning of the secrets of immorality. Ultimately, with the book, Dr. Waterman was able to open a portal near his cabin where he was able to witness the dead journey to hell, which he describes as, “A horrifying sight which only increased my desire for the secrets of the Equinox.” Naturally, demons eventually caught wind of what was Dr. Waterman was doing and decided that they not only wanted the book, but also his soul. Ultimately, Mr. Waterman’s note warns the reader to not attempt to fight the demons and to destroy the book. Not long after reading Waterman’s note, a gigantic green caveman-like creature appears from the invisible barrier, which Jim soon gets trapped in while battling the creature. With his arm outside the barrier, Jim is able to hand the book to David, who gives it to the girls and tells them to run to the car and drive away. In a desperate attempt to rescue his friend, David enters the invisible barrier and discovers a place that resembles the normal world, albeit somewhat distorted with a more hellish tint and the castle they saw before. It does not take David long to find Jim, though it is not really Jim but a demonic doppelganger. 

 Indeed, David unwittingly leaves his dying friend behind and crosses back to earth via the invisible barrier with the insidious imposter. After he attempts to pull a cross necklace out of his pocket and pseudo-Jim stops him, the protagonist soon questions the doppelganger about his true identity and he arrogantly replies, “Don’t you know David, or are you afraid to draw the obvious conclusion?” After crediting Waterman for opening the invisible barrier and explaining how he “found all the answers” but “did not know what to do with them,” the demon explains that they were responsible for reanimating the teacher’s corpse and sending him back to earth in the hope of getting their book back. Eventually, David gets tired of listening to the demon ramble on, so he starts a fistfight with him and the evil entity eventually takes on his real physical form as a harpy-like red devil with wings. After knocking David out, the demon flies away and chases the girls, ultimately killing Vicki and knocking out Susan. When David regains consciousness, he manages to stun the demon long enough with his crucifix to grab Susan and begin running back to the car. Although somehow losing the cross while running from the hellish harpy, David and Susan manage to cause the demon to burst in flames upon ducking in front of a cross-shaped tombstone that they spot while passing through a graveyard. Unfortunately, not long after that, a ‘demonic explosion’ occurs that kills Susan and the film comes back to the exact same scene from the very beginning of the film where David is saved by a couple in a convertible after being run over by a driver-less car. At the end of David’s recorded testimony, the protagonist reveals that he is supposed to be killed by the demons exactly one year and one day after the events occurred. After listening to the recording, Journalist Sloan complains he can’t use David’s testimony for a story because “It’s a year old” and then tells an attendant at the mental institution to let him know if the protagonist ends up killing himself since it will give him what he needs for a newspaper headline. Upon leaving the nut ward, Sloan unwittingly passes Susan, who is not really Susan but a demonic doppelganger who has come to kill David, who no longer has cross to protect himself with because the reporter accidentally got a hold of it during their scuffle. 

 Undoubtedly, if I were to somehow open a school of horror filmmaking, I would make The Equinox...A Journey Into The Supernatural (and not the 1970 version) mandatory viewing for all students, as it is unequivocally a film dripping with inspirational energy as a work that could have only be sired by hardcore horror fans with a pure and untainted love for the genre and all its idiosyncrasies. Indeed, as an unrepentant cinephile with reasonably eclectic taste in film, I would have to say that what most of my favorite films have in common—be it Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s In a Year with 13 Moons (1978), Adriaan Ditvoorst’s De witte waan (1984) aka White Madness, Demetri Estdelacropolis’ Mother’s Meat & Freud’s Flesh (1984), or Jörg Buttgereit’s Nekromantik (1987)—is that they are, quite unlike virtually all Hollywood productions, blatant labors of love created by men that were completely infatuated with the art of cinema. Of course, Equinox is also such a film, but what distinguishes it from most films in general is that it was created with a sort of charming youthful naivety that was inspired by communal readings of Famous Monsters of Filmland (in fact, the editor of the magazine, Forrest J Ackerman, provided his voice for the hospital tape recorder scene), which was to the makers of the micro monster movie what Cahiers du cinéma was to the filmmakers of the French New Wave. Notably, aside from obvious influences of Lovecraft, Harryhausen, and Tourneur, one of the film’s most important special effects men, David Allen (Flesh Gordon, Q: The Winged Serpent), was a classically trained pianist and student of Teutonic Romantic literature who attempted to incorporate Richard Wagner’s theory of ‘gesamtkunstwerk’ (aka ‘total work of art’) into the film. Undoubtedly, with its Gothic castle and cemetery scenes, the film certainly gives off the impression of being a poor man’s attempt to recreate a Caspar David Friedrich or Arnold Böcklin painting in 16mm celluloid form. While Equinox certainly deserves its reputation as being ‘so-bad-its-good’ (in fact, it is only one of a handful of films that I think genuinely deserves this obscenely overused designation), it also screams sincerity and purity of spirit in such a way that makes me simply incapable of thinking of it the same way I do a Troma flick. Indeed, the film may be tasteless teenage trash with embarrassingly bad acting, but it’s tasty teenage trash that reminds the viewer why the word ‘nostalgia’ was coined. While I will probably never watch a single Friday the 13th film ever again, Equinox is somewhat timeless and a work I will never be embarrassed to show any kids that I might have.  In fact, I would argue that it is the perfect film to show to a young child that has never seen a horror film.

-Ty E

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