Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Equinox: A Journey Into The Supernatural (1967)

Written by: Mark McGee
Directed by: Dennis Muren, Mark McGee
Starring: Edward Connell, Barbara Hewitt, Frank Bonner

There are some movies that are more notable for their influence than for being a particularly good movie. This is one of them. Made by a group of friends including Dennis Muren and Dave Allen, the flick was inspired by their collective desire to be creators of special effects like the ones they saw in their favorite monster movies, and in the pages of Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine. It's essentially a test reel for various special effects techniques they were experimenting with, but despite the fact that those effects are the movie's primary reason for existing, it's the minimal story stringing them together that makes the movie influential.

Dave, Vicky, and Jim are three friends who are going up to the woods to have a party at the cabin of one of their professors, a Mr. Waterman. New girl in town Susan is brought along as a date for Dave, and after Dave takes their picture with his giant 60's Polaroid and pronounces them soon to be dead (real smooth way to impress your non-creepy psycho credentials on your date, dude), they're on the road. Something odd happens when Jim looks at the picture Dave took. I think we're meant to take it as Jim chastising Dave for being weird with that comment about being the dead, but he says, “You just can't do anything right” after looking at Dave's picture, and the look on his face could be interpreted not as thinking Dave is a tactless dork, but that the photo showed some look at the future hinting at their fate. It's never brought up again, which makes me thing it's nothing more than a fluke, but perceiving the photo as a premonition rather than a social faux pas adds another nice layer.

While all this is going on, we are privy to the spectacle of a giant, ammonite-like creature destroying Waterman's cabin. When the kids arrive and find their lodgings smashed to kindling, they are naturally concerned for their professor's safety and go searching for him. They spot a huge castle in the distance, and on their way to it pass a cave from which is issuing a sound like a cross between a witch's cackle and the barking of fighting dogs. And as any rational person would when hearing such a sound coming from a dark and menacing cave, our intrepid teenagers rush toward the danger! Once inside, they meet a crazy old man who couldn't possibly be responsible for those sounds, but he does have the best dubbed young-person-pretending-to-be-an-old-guy voice I have ever heard. And by best, I of course mean he sounds like a gold prospector from an old Warner Brothers cartoon. He's babbling something about “the demon” and how he has to guard some book from said apparition. Apparently convinced of the kids' non-demon status, he gives them the book and sends them on their way.

No sooner have they got the book than a man knocks Dave down and steals the book from him. It's Waterman, but before they can ask him what the hell is going on, he disappears, leaving nothing but a smell of sulfur, and then things get really weird. They discover an invisible gateway, and as they're reading through this book (which is filled with seemingly every unconnected occult symbol the filmmakers could think of, including several stars of David and what looks to my admittedly untrained eye like Hebrew letters!) a giant Yeti thing comes charging out of the gateway and kills the old man from the cave before attacking the kids. Jim manages to kill it with a makeshift spear, but is then dragged through the gateway by some sort of giant blue caveman.

Dave goes in and rescues Jim, but once they're back in the normal world, Jim reveals himself to be a flying red devil, presumably the demon the old man was babbling about. He and his minions want to use the book to permanently open the portal to hell and invade our world. He kills Vicki, chases Dave and Susan into a graveyard, and collides with a huge cross-shaped headstone. The contact with the holy symbol causes him to explode, which kills Susan, and Dave is menaced by a huge, robed specter telling him he'll die one year and one day from that moment.

Which brings us back to the present, exactly a year and a day from the scene in the graveyard, where Dave is in an insane asylum where the doctors can't make heads or tails of his crazy story. As a reporter there to do a follow up story on the dead teenagers is leaving, he passes a demonically smiling Susan walking in to keep Hell's appointment with Dave. Cue obnoxious tea kettle-whistle/theramin sting, the end.

The main thing everyone mentions when talking about this movie is how much The Evil Dead borrowed from its plot, and this is absolutely true. Especially the backstory given to the book, where we see an expedition to the ruins of an unnamed civilization and the subsequent experimenting by Professor Waterman with the spells in the book, is almost identical to the same sequence from Evil Dead 2 (and science fiction luminary Fritz Lieber, as Professor Waterman, looks just like Larry Blamire, creator and star of The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra).

As I said before, it's the plot and not the monsters that make this flick unique. Everyone had seen more and better stop motion monsters before (the coolest and most atmospheric special effect by far has nothing to do with yetis and cavemen, but is something called The Migration of the Dead in a flashback sequence), and the spam-in-a-cabin plot had been at least hinted at in previous monster movies, but those monsters were usually aliens or atomic bugs or some such thing. As far as I'm aware, this movie is responsible for introducing a blatantly supernatural and even Satanic bent to the contemporary trapped-in-the-woods-with-a-monster style horror movie, as well as the particular formula of teenagers on a weekend excursion to do some drinkin' and at least hinted-at canoodling with no adult supervision.  Teens partying, of course, was nothing new, but having them head off to an isolated location with no adult presence as the driving force behind the entire movie's events was certainly unusual. Except that they're also looking for their professor and maybe looking for some extra credit or something. The characters' motivations are a little vague, and there are plenty of plot holes to go around. The story is clearly not the important thing, more just a way to move the characters from setpiece to setpiece. Which, in a way, almost makes it more impressive that a bunch of friends making a monster movie in their garage offhandedly and almost by accident shaped many of the future major plot points and formulas of horror and exploitation movies for decades to come.

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