Friday, October 10, 2014

HubrisWeen, Day 5: Equinox (1970)

Stop-motion monsters are awesome. That's just a fact of life.

So naturally, whenever I discover a new source for stop-motion monsters, I jump at the chance to watch it. Or, at least, hop slightly.

Thus many years ago, during the waning years of the 20th Century, I encountered a review of the film we are discussing today and wondered at the fact that I had never heard of it. In point of fact, I had, even longer ago when one of my favorite books to pore through was Jeff Rovin's Encyclopedia of Monsters. Many movies I would come to love I first heard of in that book, and several of them I completely forgot I had read about in there. Encountering the book again at a different library, sure enough I recognized one of this film's monsters amongst its pages.

However, the menagerie of stop-motion critters is not the only reason this film appeals to a lover of genre films, and certainly they aren't the reason Criterion of all distributors decided it needed a special edition DVD. The reason for that ought to become apparent as my review continues, for the film's plot is likely to sound very familiar.

You see, without this film, we would not have had a huge section of our horror films of the last 30-odd years, from The Evil Dead to The Cabin In The Woods. What Joe Bob Briggs referred to as "Spam in a Cabin"? Well, while it's far from the first film to feature a bunch of expendable characters fighting for their lives while trapped in a cabin or camping area, it is still safe to call it "Spam Zero."

We begin, more or less, at the end. Like The Alligator People, nobody involved in this film considered how much of a suspense killer it was to start the film this way. But at least this end begins with a bang, as an explosion in a wooded area tosses aside a burned and confused young man (Edward Connell), whom we will later come to know as David Fielding. He picks himself up and calls out for "Susan,"but the pair of bloodied woman's legs just out of his sight don't seem to be answering. The sound of flapping wings drives the terrified David away.

He finds a road and attempts to flag down the first car he sees. Unfortunately, he can't see the insert shots that reveal the car has no driver (pay no attention to the human head in the wide shot!) and he is run down. Before the driverless car can turn around to finish the job, an actually occupied car pulls up beside David's prone form and come to his aid.

Cut to a reporter, Sloan (Jim Phillips) complete with trilby atop his head, as he drives to a mental institution. Thanks to his narration, we find out that a year and one day ago, David was picked up after his car accident yelling his head off about "the forces of evil" being out to get him. He was locked up for a nut, but the police looked into the case and found three bodies, though they were unable to turn up a body for one Dr. Watermann, "some kind of weirdo from the University." Sloan covered the story for his paper but lacked a good angle. He's hoping to find one now.

David has been in a depressive state for the past year, borderline catatonic. Despite multiple shock therapies and treatments, David refuses to respond to outside stimuli in any significant fashion--except for the cross he carries with him at all times. touch that and he turns violent. Despite the head doctor's warning not to expect anything, Sloan still sits down in David's cell and attempts to question him. Specifically about "the curse." That elicits a tic but it's showing David the picture of an old man (Fritz Leiber), whom will later turn out to be Dr. Watermann, that breaks through,

David has a vision of Watermannn fleeing from a car wreck with a briefcase, losing the case, and then being set upon by a growling POV cam. David attacks Sloan and the staff have to restrain the poor bastard. Sloan is seen to by a nurse, and admits to the head doctor that he somehow ended up with David's cross. David has noticed this, if his desperate wails of "My cross!" are any indication as he is stuffed into a straitjacket.

It's of no matter, as the doctor decides to play for Sloan the tape of the initial interview with David. You'd think this would be old news to Sloan, but a bit of dialogue suggests it was initially taken as evidence by the police and only recently released. The tape begins with the doctor (who is voiced by an uncredited Forrest J. Ackerman) and a police detective coaxing David into telling his story. It doesn't take much.

It all started when David received a call from Dr. Watermann, his geology professor, urgently requesting David come to see him at the professor's mountain cabin. David promised to be there by the next afternoon, and decided to bring along his friend Jim Hudson (Frank Bonner, credited as Frank Boers, Jr) and Jim's girlfriend, Vicki (Robin Christopher) and Vicki's friend, Susan Turner (Barbara Hewitt). Susan was meant as a blind date for David on the picnic they originally had planned. The matchmakers, seeing no reason to cancel their plans, invited her along.

When the four arrive at the point where they think the cabin should be, but the road ends. They decide to hoof it to the cabin, even though Jim and Vicki forgot to fill the water jug before they left. Little do they know a suspicious-looking park ranger (Jack Woods, the director...sort of, but we'll get to that later) on horseback is watching them from a nearby ridge.

The group finds a stream to fill their jug, but they also find Watermann's cabin--or what's left of it. It's been caved in by some unknown force. The mysterious ranger suddenly makes himself known here, introducing himself as Asmodeus. The students see nothing amiss about this, but even as someone who didn't know how to say "Beelzebub" for years, I would be in a hurry to get away from anybody named that. Asmodeus claims no knowledge of what happened or Watermann's whereabouts, and suggests they might find him back in town before departing. Only now the group notices Vicki is missing.

Vicki, presumably having wandered off to heed the call of nature, discovers a matte painting of an ancient castle. Now, there aren't many Old World castles in the middle of the California wilderness, so when the others rejoin her, they express disbelief at what they're seeing.David has only been to the cabin once before, but is certain he didn't remember there being a castle the last time. The group decides to go check it out, but are distracted from their goal by the sound of maniacal laughter and flapping wings from a nearby cave.

When Jim asks, "Anyone want to go in there?" the answer is oddly not, "No, no, NO," but that they don't have any way to see in the cave since no one has a flashlight. Jim has some matches, though, and they decide to make torches. Vicki discovers some large cloven hoof prints nearby, but Dave writes it off as part of some elaborate practical joke, which the cave laughter is part of. The group enters the cave, torches blazing--and Vicki promptly gets separated. She first finds a withered skeleton and then a cackling old man,

When the others come running after her scream, they find the old man--who gleefully insists that they've come for the book and ignores their protests with, "You're here, you have to take it!" Cackling, he leads the group deeper into the cave and presents them with an ancient tome, secured with a clasp. They take the book and leave the cave, writing off the old man and Vicki's claims of seeing a skeleton as a problem for the authorities when they get back. In the meantime, they're gonna have a picnic and open that book.

Jim manages to unlock the clasp with his switchblade, but opening the book reveals that it is written in an unknown text--and reeks of sulfur. Luckily, there are some scientific notes tucked inside that might offer a key to understanding it, While David reads the notes, Jim marvels at the strange creatures and geometric patterns in the book. Jim hands the book back to David so he can dig into the Kentucky Fried Chicken and potato salad that Vicki brought, whereupon David notices that there's a passage he can read because it's in Latin. Susan turns out to be the one to draw a line in the fucking sand when she realizes that the seeming nonsense David's reading aloud is actually the Lord's Prayer backwards.

It's ultimately irrelevant. After the group finishes eating they head toward the castle again--and Dr. Watermann appears out of the bushes and snatches the book from David. Jim and David, typical late 60s males, tell the women to stay put while they give chase to Watermann. David catches up to Watermann in a stream and tackles the crazed man--who somehow is killed in the fall. David, stricken with guilt, declares they'll take the girls back to town and make a police report. However, Watermann's body disappears as soon as they turn their backs, with no footprints to mark his passage--but there is a strong smell of sulfur, and then Asmodeus appears and while Jim tries to explain the story, David cuts him off each time. However, Asmodeus does show a lot of interest in the mention of the old man in the cave and declares he'll go check on him.

Susan and Vicki get tired of waiting and Susan goes to pick flowers. Whereupon Asmodeus, with dark patches under his eyes, appears and puts a strange ring on his finger before attacking her. He kisses and gropes her, after mesmerizing her with the ring. But her cross necklace drives him off, leaving Susan very confused. The others find Susan, but she has no idea what just happened.

They begin discussing the odd encounter with Dr. Watermann, when Susan realizes the notes in the book belong to Watermann. He had been translating the book with no small amount of difficulty, given the book changes languages with no rhyme or reason and Dr. Watermann was supposedly a geologist. Watermann believes the book to be thousands of years old and that it is a veritable bible of evil. This bible suggests that good and evil are two forces, and the followers want to cancel each other out. One way to do this is via the use of symbols for good and evil that can counteract each other--the symbols for good including the cross and Star of David amongst many others.

Watermann felt the book's philosophy was almost scientific, and being a scientist, he decided to conduct some experiments as per the book's instructions, He successfully manifested something during his final test--but he couldn't control it. In flashback, we see that this something was a land squid/nautilus that smashed Watermann's cabin with its tentacles. Watermann barely escaped alive, but the notes end there.

"Have you sworn obedience to your Lord and Destroyer, Cthulhu?"
The group decides that they should still go to the castle to find more answers--but it's gone. Quickly, they make some symbols of good to protect David, Jim, and Vicki since Susan still has her cross. Once again the women are told to wait behind. Vicki decides to amuse herself by taking Susan's picture by the stream as the menfolk climb up the cliff.

Asmodeus decides to go bother the old man in the cave, ignoring the codger's protests that, "I ain't got it, I told ya!" Well, Asmodeus summons a gorilla lizard to rough the old man up, anyways. (This creature being the one featured in Jeff Rovin's book)

"Where's my banana, old man?!"
On the ridge, Jim and David discover some kind of dimensional gateway, which is what's hiding the castle. The girls' photo shoot is interrupted by the fleeing old man's cries for help--and then by the lizard ape when it grabs him and smashes him against a rock. It then chases after the girls--and the book--while Jim and David try to distract it by throwing rocks at it. After squeezing through a crevice the beast can't enter, the group fashions a spear. The ape manages to grab the book using a tree branch to pull it out of the crevice, but taking a spear to the chest foils its plans to make off with the book.

Jim decides to grab his camera to get a picture so no one can doubt their story. Vicki gets spooked by the dead beast twitching and drops her protective amulet. The whole group leaves the scene, so they don't witness the lizard ape glow and vanish. Susan's cross falls off, without her noticing. Jim finds his camera smashed. David foolishly leaves Susan and Vicki alone, so Susan can sprout dark eye patches and attack Vicki. David returns in time to use his amulet to knock Susan out.

Jim runs afoul of Asmodeus, who begins demanding the book until Jim flashes the amulet at him. Asmodeus then decides to pull the ol' "let's make a Satanic deal" move. Jim is ultimately unswayed, despite Asmodeus assuring him that they'll all die if he doesn't agree. Jim rushes back, arguing that they should leave the book behind and skedaddle, but David disagrees. Suddenly, David pointlessly remembers that, "Asmodeus is another name for the devil," just as Asmodeus summons a giant caveman ogre. The ogre is forced perspective instead of stop motion. This makes it unique in the film.
The local library decided to take on a zero tolerance policy for overdue books.
The ogre is after the book, so Jim at first offers it to the beast in the hopes Asmodeus will bugger off, but he gives up on that when the ogre makes it clear that it would rather just kill him. Jim makes a run for the dimensional gateway, forgetting that he has no idea what's on the other side. Chasing after him, David manages to grab the book when Jim peeks back out--but then Jim is dragged back through the gateway. David gives the book to the women and tells them to get to the car, before he goes after Jim.

The other side of the barrier is where the castle vanished to, and aside from the fact that everything is tinted red, the place is no different from the rest of the countryside. David searches for Jim, but Asmodeus finds Jim first. So when David does find Jim, it's a little suspicious--especially when, under the guise of grabbing onto him for support, Jim crushes the protective symbol hidden in David's shirt. So David leads Not-Jim out of the Red Zone, failing to see the dying Actual-Jim only scant feet away.

In the ordinary light, David is able to see the dark patches under Not-Jim's eyes--but it's the insistence Not-Jim has on finding the girls and recovering the book that tips David off. Not-Jim beats David into submission, turns back into Asmodeus, and then reveals his true form--and takes off after the girls as a winged demon.

"Rawk! Polly wants your soul!"
The demon catches Vicki and shreds her flesh before Asmodeus briefly returns to human form something to her. Susan flees, climbing up the steep cliff face to where David lies unconscious. So much for the repeated assertion that the climb was "too steep for the girls." She drops the book and tries to rouse David, only for the winged demon to catch up to her and scratch her up good. David wakes up and grabs her cross to scare the winged fiend away. The two flee into the woods, finding themselves in what appears to be a ruined churchyard.

The demon has followed them but can't get through the thick branches--until the yard opens up amongst some old headstones. David and Susan cower behind a giant cross headstone and the demon kamikazes right into it...

"Huh, one of those symbols that has the capacity to cancel me out. I'm sure divebombing into it is a great idea!"
...which causes the explosion from the opening, though oddly not immediately. It's a secondary blast after the fiery demise of Asmodeus sets the graveyard ablaze that's oddly stronger than the one from his impact. Susan is apparently killed by the explosion and David is suddenly confronted by an enormous, hooded figure in flowing, ethereal black robes. The figure assures David that he will die, in exactly a year and day. David flees, is hit by the driverless car, and we're back in the room with Sloan.

Sloan's frustrated because he's come up with nothing new. The story on the tape was told a year and a day ago, and tells Sloan nothing new. The doctor isn't sure what Sloan expected--but oddly doesn't ask why he wasted 70 minutes listening to the damn thing if he knew all it had to tell him. Sloan leaves, dejected, as David in his cell cries out for, "My cross!" And in the parking lot on the way out, Sloan passes by a familiar-looking blonde. Susan smirks evilly as she looks towards the institution.

Cue trademark Jack H. Harris, "THE END" card morphing into a question mark.

Equinox began life as a student film, directed by Dennis Muren and featuring effects by Muren, Dave Allen, and Jim Danforth. (It also has a camera operator credit for Ed Begley, Jr!) The original film, Equinox: a Journey Into The Supernatural, is actually contained on Criterion's disc. It's largely the same with some vital differences, such as some of the effects footage, music, the order of scenes, and the absence of the Asmodeus character. Producer Jack H. Harris, much like he would later do with John Carpenter's Dark Star, saw promise in the film and bought the distribution rights to it--along with hiring a director to shoot new footage, who ended up being credited in place of Muren (as well as playing Asmodeus). Muren retained credit for effects, writing, and producing the film, however.

The film suffers in both versions from a horrid sense of pacing, no doubt a consequence of its low budget and its creators perhaps knowing more about effects work than storytelling. Much of the film is its protagonists wandering around with no clear sense of why or where they're going. However, when the film clicks it clicks well. And, admittedly, that is mostly with its monsters.

The acting, aside from Frank Bonner as Jim, is pretty unremarkable. That the film was shot silent and had its audio dubbed over, owing to cost, surely doesn't help. The music is nothing to write home about, either. The cinematography is actually pretty inventive at several points, foreshadowing Sam Raimi's famous gonzo camera angles in The Evil Dead. Just another way this film may have inspired that one.

Is Equinox an important film? Yes, I'd say it is. It clearly was an influential release. Is Equinox a good film? No, I can't quite say that it is. However, it is a very enjoyable one, especially if you are a fan of old monster movies. I must again reiterate that its non-monster scenes can be deathly dull, but if you can withstand that it's a good time.

Just make sure to hang onto your damn protective symbols, you knuckleheads.

Welcome to day 5 of 2014's HubrisWeen! Click on the banner above to check out what the other maniacs chose, won't you?

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