The secret to enjoying EQUINOX, the 1970 creature-feature throwback made by a teenage Dennis Muren and friends, is to understand that the film is exactly that: a loving tribute made by a bunch of kids to the kinds of films they grew up devouring, particularly the stop-motion monster features like THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD, THE BEAST OF 20,000 FATHOMS, and the granddaddy of them all, KING KONG. Made over the course of a summer, Muren, Mark McGee and David Allen took what they learned working in their basements and backyards and crafted a silly, fun little supernatural horror adventure that has a bit of everything - mutant apes, giants, alternate dimensions, a Lovecraftian tome, and the Devil to boot.
The movie open with David, a young geologist running for life through the woods, from what we have no idea. he makes it to the street where he's immediately hit by a car with no driver (never mind that in one scene we can clearly see a driver). He's taken to a hospital where he lies essentially catatonic for a tear when a reporter shows up to see if he can get a follow-up to David's story. Unresponsive except to gaze intently at a small crucifix, the reporter instead listens to a tape recorder made the day David was admitted to the hospital, and the film rewinds to the beginning where David receives a call from his old Geology professor asking him to meet him up in his cabin in the woods. David, along with his friend Jim and two lovely ladies make the trip, only to find the cabin in ruins, no sign of the professor, and an ancient castle no one recalls ever seeing before:
The first 45 minutes are a bit of a rough ride - you have to remember this is essentially a kid's film, despite being picked up and supplemented with additional footage by Jack Woods, who bought the film for distribution and also plays the key role of Asmodeus, the "friendly" forest ranger. There's a lot of walking around, really bad dialog, and a definitely sense of padding. Stick around though, and you can see why this film has the reputation it does, and why it was picked up and released in a beautiful package by Criterion: once the first monster shows up, EQUINOX literally turns into another movie, one that is frantically paced, full of ingenious effects, creatures, and set-pieces, and delivers a clever, sinister little story that not only has a couple genuinely creepy moments, but turns what we saw before on its head by the film's end. There's a great little sequence where David's protection is unknowingly destroyed, the end of the film has a wonderful twisted close that brings home the sheer joy had at making something for the love of it.
Muren, who later went on to work with George Lucas on STAR WARS and would eventually win eight Academy Awards for Special Effects, wasn't alone in this labor of love. A close look at the names associated with the production reveal all sorts of delights - the missing Professor is played by SF legend Fritz Leiber. Voice over work and (one would assume feedback and criticism) was provided by Forrest Ackerman. The film co-stars Frank Bonner in a role that echoes his later star-turn on WKRP in Cincinnati. Even Ed Begely jr. makes an appearance, behind the scenes of all things as an assistant camera operator.
But the stars of the film are the three kids who went ahead and didn't let something as silly as experience or money dissuade them from chasing their leviathan dreams. For anyone who wants to make films but is too busy "waiting" for everything to be just right, EQUINOX is a film to check out. I don't know that I would recommend ever buying the film, but if you love Criterion you probably (hopefully) subscribe to Hulu Plus, where EQUINOX and hundreds of other films are ready to go for instant streaming. Definitely worth a check-out!
There's a great essay about EQUINOX courtesy of the Criterion Collection here.