Forgotten Horrors: Equinox
In 1965, a group of friends and special effects enthusiasts who were all children of the Famous Monsters of Filmland generation, decided to make a monster movie of their very own. Dennis Muren, Mark McGee, Jim Danforth, and Dave Allen, were all just budding talents at the time but they were destined for greatness that would inspire subsequent generations. With help of unpaid friends, family, and peers with the same desire to make a movie, they completed a fun little tale of black magic called The Equinox….A Journey into the Supernatural.
The basic plot concerns four college students on a double date who decide to visit one of their professors at his remote cabin. What they didn’t count on was that the professor had located an ancient text, presumably the Necronomicon, and opened a gateway to another dimension. After his cabin is trashed and the professor is killed, the book ends up in the hands of a crazy hermit who, in turn, passes it off to the students, proving that maybe he isn’t so crazy after all! For the remainder of the film, the quartet is assaulted by all manner of evil creatures until the final survivor ends up in a mental institution with a curse on his head.
This version of Equinox was filled with ambitious and often impressive special effects, notable for both their creativity and variety. These included a cool ape monster, a not so jolly blue giant, and a flying horned demon. Unfortunately the story lacked structure, most of the dialog had to be re-recorded, and the running time was short. The finished product lacked professional polish and it failed to interest distributors. It would languish on Dennis Muren’s shelf for several years until producer Jack H. Harris discovered it.
Harris, best known for pitting young Steve McQueen against The Blob in 1958, knew an exploitable movie when he saw one. He also recognized Equinox as the collection of effects pieces it was and realized that the connecting story would require shoring up. He contacted Jack Woods, a talented editor, for help in expanding the central plot and lengthening the running time. Woods not only concocted a revised story, but also directed the new footage and starred as a newly added villain!
In the new story, the original plot is retained up to the point where the group receives the book. They then run afoul of a satanic park ranger portrayed, surprisingly well, by Jack Woods. In the new version, the ranger spends his time trying to retrieve the book and the monsters, from the salvaged effects footage, are shown to be summoned by him to do his bidding. When he’s not busy controlling his creatures, the stranger ranger also tries to possess the teens and even makes a really bizarre rape attempt on one of the young ladies.
Some additional padding was also filmed of the group having a picnic lunch and trying to open the book. A sub plot was added about mystical objects protecting them and they are shown making talismans out of twigs and string. A few of the special effects scenes were enhanced or re-edited to improve the presentation and better integrate them with the new scenes. A lengthy dialogue piece was lost at the end to incorporate the ranger character transforming into the final demon but most viewers never missed the exposition or questioned the plot holes.
In the end, very little footage from the non-effect sequences of the original version of Equinox was retained. Fortunately all four of the principal actors were able to return for the new shoots, so continuity loss was kept to a minimum. Since the original film was shot over the course of a year and the re-shoots were done almost five years later, you can see the hair lengths and styles change multiple times in the same scene! There was also only one set of the original wardrobe available so the actors had to be careful not to damage any of their clothes while climbing up cliffs and running from monsters.
Jack Harris shortened the film’s title to simply Equinox and it was finally released to theaters in 1970. It played for several years, first in stand alone billings and then on the bottom half of double features with other horror movies, including the Jacksonville, Florida lensed ZAAT. After that, the GP rated tale of demons, satanic cults, and attempted rape made the kiddie matinee circuit where I first saw it on the big screen as part of a children’s summer movie series! Needless to say, we howled like the uncivilized monkeys we were during the rape scene where Jack Woods slobbers all over poor Barbara Hewitt.
Equinox made a big impression on me as a kid and I would not get to see it again until many years later when it was released on home video. By the time I was reunited with the film, Dennis Muren had already graduated to a little film called Star Wars and continues to work on Hollywood blockbusters to this day. His partners in crime did not fair quite as well but all went on to pay the bills by working steadily in film production. Jim Danforth and Dave Allen are both heralded as successors to the special effects legacy pioneered by Willis O’Brian and honed to perfection by Ray Harryhausen. Of the actors, only Frank Bonner continued after this film but he is best remembered for his stint on WKRP in Cincinnati as Herb Tarlek.
If the plot of Equinox sounds vaguely familiar, it bears a striking similarity to the cult classic Evil Dead that was made a little over a decade later. The group of college friends, the professor discovering the book and awaking evil forces, and even some of the drawings used to illustrate the Necronomicon are all right out of the first part Equinox. The second half of Equinox is an homage to the science fiction movies of the 50’s where director Sam Rami chose to take Evil Dead into the realm of extreme violence laced with slapstick comedy but it’s hard to imagine him not having seen Equinox at some earlier point in his life.
For anyone who has never seen this little independent oddity or those that need an excuse to revisit it, Criterion has released an excellent two DVD set for the film. The first disc contains both versions of the movie so that fans can finally compare the young filmmakers’ original vision to the more theatrically viable edition. The second disc is loaded with extras related to the film and also to the careers of some of its participants. This serves as an excellent reminder of the creative talents that joined forces on this supernatural labor of love.