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An earlier post here rashly declared the Dennis Muren/Jack Woods trash horror classic Equinox, 1970, the "best film ever made." The new Criterion Collection double-disc reissue only makes that assessment more sound. If I ever taught a film course I'd skip Alexander Nevsky and the films of Ernst Lubitsch and start with this. The DVD includes the 1967 original, made by a group of teenagers on a $6500 budget over several years, plus the Jack Harris/Jack Woods theatrical (drive-in) version, which recut the kids' movie and added scenes with the same (but noticeably older) actors. It'd be a great way to show students what can be done with no money and then to demonstrate, shot by shot, how a more experienced filmmaker tightens it up, splices in new dialogue, and even adds a character not in the original. Why is it superb? It has jaw-dropping bad, Plan 9 moments, Night of the Living Dead creepy moments, unexpectedly striking, Ray Harryhausen-style special effects (Muren went on to do Star Wars, Dragonslayer, The Hulk, and many other films not as good as this one), but mostly because it never stops surprising you. The motivation of the characters is baffling throughout, but the plot never loses forward momentum. On the commentary track you hear one of the now-grown-up makers of the original ask, about one of the protagonists in his own movie, "Why did he do that?" and another replies "I don't know--it's one of the mysteries that is Equinox."

As the essay accompanying the DVD notes, the "kids who go in the woods, find a weird book, unleash demons from Hell" plot prefigured Evil Dead by 10 years. Equinox marks the beginning of the modern, Chainsaw type horror film simply because the makers lacked the budget to establish Gothic, haunted house suspense with lavish sets and camera work. Yet the evil is all the more disconcerting for occurring in the absolutely banal context of teenagers having a picnic in the country with a bucket of Kentucky Fried. Much of the dread (and humor) springs from, as someone once described Dario Argento's films, "people behaving strangely for no reason." The characters may have been babes in the woods but the filmmakers weren't: although young, they were movie geeks and in the commentary talk about how they obsessively analyzed films such as Don Siegel's Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Their love of film can be felt in the finished product, which has many edgy and precocious shots.

(Science fiction/fantasy fans should watch for cameos by novelist Fritz Leiber as the elusive "Dr. Waterman.")

Trailer on YouTube.

- tom moody 9-23-2006 11:10 pm [link] [add a comment]