Dir. Dennis Muren, Mark McGee, Jack Woods U.S., 1967/1970
by Andy Stark
There’s a red herring near the end of both The Equinox... A Journey Into the Supernatural (1967) and its longer re-vamp Equinox (1970; Criterion’s release contains both cuts) that’s boisterous enough to sway most any cinephile into re-watching and reconsidering the films, maybe even re-imaging them so as to fit them into its implications: Attempting to dodge a winged Satan, David (Edward Connell) and Susan (Barbara Hewitt) duck behind a giant cross in a cemetery, and below the cross is the name “Hawks,” etched into the stone in all caps. Maybe this hypothetical cinephile begins to get sweaty-palmed at the idea of these movies inhabiting a Hawksian zone of scaled-down performances against a loud genre background, buddy-buddy female characters, unforced back-and-forth interaction among members of a community....
Well, they don’t. But what’s intriguing is how close in aesthetic Dennis Muren and Mark McGee—the late-teens/early-twenties creative instigators of the 1967 version—are to that of Jack Woods, the re-writer and re-shooter hired by marauding producer-distributor Jack H. Harris for the 1970 version; closer to each other than any outsider like Hawks, definitely. Behold the same lackadaisical medium and wide shots of all the characters bunged up in the frame, unsparing use of close-ups that would make Peter Bogdanovich weep into his ascot, exposition-heavy dialogue, odd-duck “casual” banter (upon finding a castle, Jim [Frank Bonner] says, “Hey, tell me I don’t see that”; “A castle,” Susan exclaims; “I asked you not to tell me that,” Jim replies) and a misapplied hammering of incidentals (count the copious, inapplicable mentions of “the picnic” in the ‘70 version), and performances that, despite spanning multiple years and two different sets of moviemakers, are so unwavering and dedicated in their loginess they could make anyone a believer in nature over nurture. Maybe Harris was a savvy enough scout of talent to pick a guy whose abilities were more or less equal to Muren and McGee’s; maybe it’s that Woods just happened to have the ability to cinematically mesh well with others. Whatever the reason(s), watching the 1970 cut without knowing of the earlier one or the change in filmmakers would make a viewer believe it’s the product of one-count ‘em-one eye-patched director’s bloody-minded vision.
Not to be too David versus Goliath about it or anything, but the decisive difference between the two films can be found in sensibility of the narratives, an amateur’s versus a professional’s. However rickety it is, the 1967 version—four young suburban types (Connell, Hewitt, Bonner, Robin Christopher) stop off at a professor’s house (the character, not the house, played by Fritz Leiber) in the woods to eat en route to a party, and get their picnic sidetracked by supernatural bugaboo—seems ingenuous in light of the novice filmmakers’ backgrounds and passions. Watching the curiosity of the four characters get the jump on them, a viewer, if they hunker down and project to an absurd degree, can imagine young Muren and McGee in the lunchtime school cafeteria, fingers gooey with ice cream sandwich, flipping through creased back issues of Famous Monsters of Filmland and daydreaming up a stop-motion fantasy of living a story similar to the film’s. See how, even factoring in the shorter running time, they cut to the monsters earlier than Harris and Woods do—youthful impatience and glee running amok.
Comparatively, Harris and Woods have an old-hat “hold ’em back and build suspense” mentality with respect to the monsters, and a simultaneous sense of narrative urgency. In theirs, the story is goosed forward by a panicked phone call from the professor, and that, not a side-stop, leads the four into the woods. The two also added a malevolently eye-browed demon named Asmodeus (played by Jack Woods) who moonlights as a park ranger, presumably in aid of suspense. Seeing Woods, Herr Director, touch skin with the female leads while they’re in prone positions adds, perhaps unintentionally, a creepy mouth-breather vibe to the whole remake enterprise. It could be argued that Muren and McGee’s version is completely sexless, but hey, don’t hold it against ’em, they grew up a couple of monster movie freaks, and perhaps the charms of the opposite sex wasn’t as much of an interest as the lost spider scene in King Kong. Given that conclusion, though, would it be far off to think that maybe the Harris/Woods film is true to those two, actress-rubbing and all? As Harris might tease, “The End...?”
Lavishing it with attention as though it were the first talkie, Criterion’s DVD of Equinox is a monstrous (haw haw!) two-disc set featuring what one hopes to be every last bit of Equinox-related detritus. The booklet features short messages of appreciation for the film by George Lucas and Ray Harryhausen, and a not completely preposterous essay on the film and its creators by “filmmaker, actor, and writer” Brock DeShane. (And let’s not forget Criterion’s customary “About the Transfer” description, which verges closer and closer on movie-nerd erotica.) Included on the first disc are both the 1967 and the ten-minute-longer 1970 version, with audio commentaries on each: Muren, McGee, and Danforth on the first; Woods and Harris on the second. The first group, while expressly proud of their achievement, aren’t above some self-deprecation, which lends their praise no small amount of charm and authenticity. Woods and Harris are just proud. Hmm. Also included on the first disc is an introduction by Famous Monsters of Filmland editor Forrest J. Ackerman, although all he really introduces is Forrest J. Ackerman and, as an aside, Forrest J. Ackerman’s influence. The second disc includes recent interviews with actors Bonner, Hewitt, and James Duron, who roundly seem bemused about the film and its cult following, while Muren talks about his monster-movie upbringing and his post-Equinox career, and puts in a good word for the supposed life-likeness of stop-motion over CGI. Footage of the cast and crew engaging in various on-set tomfoolery can be found in a scant seven-minute deleted scenes and outtakes section (when there’s not much to work with there’s not much left over, eh?); also included is test footage the filmmakers shot of the stop-motion effects. A mini-tribute to the late David Allen features The Magic Treasure, a kiddie puppet-animated short he made (completed sometime in the late-Seventies/early-Eighties), accompanied by a written memoir by Duron; a Volkswagen commercial he made in the early Seventies featuring a spiffily-engineered King Kong (supplemented by the obligatory test footage); and a biography of Allen by Chris Endicott.
For the true Equinox aficionado, Zorgon, The H-Bomb Beast From Hell (1972), a silent short film made directed by Kevin Fernan and featuring McGee, Danforth, and David Allen, is included. (The written intro boosts that Fernan’s film teacher gave it an “A-”; proof that the American education system started going down the crapper far longer ago than some of us guesstimated.) The “Equiphemera” section boasts an entire attic’s worth of photos, artwork, and advertising from the film. Finally (!), a trailer and two radio spots are included, the trailer being worth it just to experience the outmoded practice of previews harping on the title of the movie over and over: “Equinox! Equinox! Equinox! Equinox!”