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Review ‘Equinox’ (1970) – Low Budget Monster Madness

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Review: 'Equinox' (1970) - Low Budget Monster Madness

Movies are rarely, if ever, given the same kind of leeway music gets. When a song or an album uses unprofessional recording methods, it’s oftentimes heralded as “lo-fi” and “DIY.” These attributes birth genre descriptors like “indie,” and critics often use these terms to describe what they feel is music more authentic than other more polished albums. Home recordings produced on inexpensive equipment usually get a pass; we don’t take shortcomings like tape-hiss into consideration when evaluating an album’s quality. In fact, artists like Pavement, Daniel Johnston and Guided by Voices are praised for avoiding the recording studio bloat of some of their peers and forebears. Journalist Matt Diehl, in an Oxford student’s thesis regarding this very topic, writes that “In a world of sterile, digitally recorded Top 40, lo-fi elucidates the raw seams of the artistic process.” Why then, is this same forgiveness not extended to film, and in particular, horror movies?

How frequently have you heard of a horror movie being derided for cheap-looking effects? Mainstream critics are particularly damning when it comes to low-budget horror, throwing around words like “hoaky” and “schlocky,” when what they mean is “produced outside of the Hollywood system for not very much money.” Granted, there are many examples of excellent horror movies produced by big studios which cost $100 Million+. Sleepy Hollow, Signs,  and I Am Legend are all huge movies that are nonetheless super-satisfying for genre fans. However, when looking through the list of the most expensive horror movies of all time, a real trend becomes clear. Big budget does not equal a big response from horror fans. The reasoning seems obvious enough: The more money spent on a motion picture, the more people it will have to please for the studio to recoup its investment. The inverse is also true. If a horror movie doesn’t cost very much money to produce, it can instead target a hyper-specific audience. It doesn’t matter if these movies are ignored by most of the general public. All the film must do is please its target audience, and word-of-mouth will lead to the reception the movie deserves.

Take, for instance, the 1970 sci-fi/horror movie Equinox. Despite its small budget, Equinox is pure entertainment, outpacing its first-impression as a charming passion project. The picture, made for about $6,000, succeeds in its exciting, suspenseful action. The scope of the story perfectly fits the budget’s limitations, never once feeling cheaply made. Better still, the movie is grounded by likable characters, with performances by thoughtful actors committed to their work. But the stars of this effects-driven creature feature are definitely its monsters.

Equinox 1970 Still

Four teenage friends, David, Jim, Susan and Vicki search for their scientist friend in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains in San Fernando Valley, California. What they find instead is a babbling, cackling old man in a cave who gives them a book containing ancient cantations. And the old runes and symbols conjure all these monsters, like a bluish-green giant guy with a furry sweater-vest and this one huge ape with gills. It’s incredible. Equinox features some of the most fun Ray Harryhausen-style monsters outside of Harryhausen’s own movies.

Dennis Muren is the reason these monsters are so memorable- he’s this director on this one. Muren was 24 when he made Equinox with a group of stop-motion artists and actors. The result is a very sincere love letter to monster movies of the past. It’s packed with effects: this one castle disappears and reappears; there’s a park ranger named Asomdeus who becomes a whole winged-demon monster; alternate dimensions are introduced. After this, Muren’s special effects wizardry goes on to net him nine Academy Awards.

Equinox is 1970, the very next year, Dennis Muren is an uncredited assistant on Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Then he does the mothership in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Then he changes the world with miniatures and optical effects in Star Wars. Then he wins Oscars for E.T., Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Innerspace, The Abyss, Terminator 2 Judgement Day, and Jurassic Park.

There’s this raw innovation happening in Equinox as these filmmakers push the boundaries of what a movie could be with such a limited budget. And there’s such a clear reverence for monster movies and creature effects of the 50’s and 60’s on display. Effects work that would’ve cost a fortune in those movies is achieved here for a fraction of that price. That’s the real value of this movie: it changed what was possible for a horror movie made outside the studio system. It’s quite possible that without Equinox, there is no Evil Dead, no Blair Witch Project, no Paranormal Activity. This is the progenitor, the OG independent horror movie that gained studio attention and was distributed to a wider audience. And it all comes down to the ingeniousness of its effects team, recreating for a few thousand what would’ve cost exponentially more in the past.

David and Jim, our two male leads, are seemingly named after Jim danforth and David W. Allen. Allen and Danforth were friends with Muren and worked closely to create some of the stop-motion effects. Danforth, in particular, was this Harryhausen disciple. He worked on a movie When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth that was a sequel-of-sorts to Harryhausen’s own One Million Years B.C. In addition, a few years later, Danforth would assist Ray Harryhausen in the production of 1981’s Clash of the Titans. Allen, on the other hand, sustained a varied career in visual effects until his death in 1999, working extensively with Empire Pictures and Amblin Entertainment, adding movies like The Howling, Q: The Winged Serpent, Bride of Re-Animator, and Puppetmaster to his credits list.

So why then is this movie not given the credit it deserves as forward-thinking entertainment? Well, it’s beginning to. Criterion Collection has released the movie under their umbrella, putting Equinox on shelves all over suburban Barnes and Nobles the world over. Hopefully that will earn the film the audience it deserves, and the recognition it has earned as a truly innovative monster movie.

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