Equinox and the Odd Story Behind a Fan-Made, Theatrically-Released Horror Film

If you follow the film industry as much as I do, then you'll know how often directors clash with studio executives when determining the final cuts of big-budget films. Such conflicts between the artists who create the art and the people who fund the art and mistakenly think that they are artists too have resulted in a long, long list of expensive failures. (Alien 3 (1992) and The Invasion (2007) immediately comes to mind.) Of course, it continues to happen--so much so with Hollywood productions that it's almost inevitable at this point--but how would you feel if the same thing happened with the theatrical release of a low-budget, fan-made film?

Such was the case with Equinox. It began as an amateur horror fan film made in 1967 (its original title: The Equinox: Journey into the Supernatural), and then it was re-edited, partially re-shot and distributed theatrically by Tonylyn Productions in 1970. For a long time, the Tonylyn version of Equinox was the only version that was available to the public; when Criterion released their two-disc set of Equinox back in 2006, they included both the original 1967 cut with the theatrical cut on the same disc (both with commentaries) for direct comparison. While neither cut are examples of horror filmmaking at its finest, the differences between the original edit and theatrical edit are astonishing and reflect how much the fans got right--fans who meticulously studied the craftsmanship that went into their favorite movies--and how much the so-called professionals got wrong.

Read on for my complete comparison of the two versions of Equinox, and how no movie is too small for creative differences between creators and producers.

In both edits, Equinox is about a group of college students who travel to the cabin owned by college professor, Dr. Arthur Waterman (Fritz Leiber Jr.), to check up on him because of his recent absence from their campus. They arrive to find that the cabin has been torn apart and Waterman is missing. Their search for the professor leads them to a mysterious text called the Book of the Damned that is filled with ancient inscriptions and spells intended to open a portal to a demonic parallel world--a portal that Waterman has already opened....

What Equinox is widely known for is that it features the early work of three special effects artists who would later work on some of the most popular films of the 70s, 80s, and 90s. These artists were Dennis Muren (Star WarsClose Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T., Terminator 2, Jurassic Park, A.I., War of the Worlds), Dave Allen (The Howling, Willow, Ghostbusters II, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, The Arrival) and Jim Danforth (Clash of the Titans, Creepshow, The Thing, The Neverending Story, Day of the Dead, Prince of Darkness). Muren produced the film for only $6500 and he co-directed the original cut of Equinox with Mark Thomas McGee, who also wrote the film's script. Muren and Allen worked on the stop motion effects, while Danforth provided the cel animation and matte paintings.

A forced perspective shot from Equinox.

Essentially, Equinox is a demo reel for the early effects work of Muren, Allen and Danforth; that the demo reel also happens to have an intriguing and creative story--albeit a poorly acted, poorly scripted and somewhat disjointed story--is simply a bonus. Considering that the film was shot on a tiny budget with amateur talents, the end results are very impressive.

Many aspects of Equinox echo the influence that the horror and sci-fi fan culture of the early-to-mid 20th century had on budding young filmmakers; depending on how you look at it, Equinox is a love letter of sorts to the creature features of that era. Muren and Allen were devoted fans of pioneering stop motion animators Willis O'Brien and Ray Harryhausen, and several of the effects scenes in Equinox are clearly influenced by O'Brien and Harryhausen movies such as Mighty Joe Young and It Came from Beneath the Sea.

Forrest J. Ackerman makes an uncredited cameo in Equinox by lending his voice to an audio recording that plays early in the film (he also provided a video introduction for the Criterion Equinox set). Ackerman's contributions to the horror and science fiction genres were numerous, and his biggest legacy to the fans of those genres was a magazine he published called Famous Monsters of Filmland. Famous Monsters differed from other entertainment magazines of its time by focusing on the artistry that's performed behind the scenes, such as special effects and creature costume designs. Muren and his production crew must've been devoted acolytes of Ackerman's magazine and the movies it covered, because their love of classic creature features and the techniques that brought them to cinematic life is on display in each frame of their original cut of Equinox. Such open affection provides a sort of charm that offsets some of the amateur film's more uneven aspects.

The theatrical release poster for Equinox.
Dennis Muren and Mark Thomas McGee 
were not credited on this poster.

The theatrical version of Equinox saw the addition of new footage, footage that was produced by Jack H. Harris and written and directed by Jack Woods. Some of the new footage consisted of re-shoots of what was in the first version, while the other new footage added new scenes, new characters and new dialogue. Unfortunately, the new additions to the story add nothing of value to the film; if anything, Equinox becomes even worse because of it. The dialogue is more wooden and is loaded with redundant exposition, the new subplots weigh down the film's pacing, and some of the original effects footage was cut to accommodate the new footage (!). Adding insult to injury, the theatrical version of the film begins and ends the same way as the original version--which emphasizes exactly how useless the new footage is.

All I can figure is that Woods thought that Equinox would be his big break as a writer and director (hint: it wasn't), so he tried to put as much of his stamp on it as possible. It should also be noted here that the theatrical version of Equinox lists Woods as director and co-writer, while Muren's credit went from being the co-director and producer to just associate producer. Woods even put himself in front of the camera as a new character named Asmodeus, a demon who assumes the guise of a park ranger and exerts his sinister influence over young ladies by making funny faces at them before feeling them up (no, I'm not kidding). Considering that Harris made a name for himself by producing The Blob in 1958 for only $120,000, it's a shame that he was willing to let Woods run roughshod over the work that was so passionately and cost-effectively made by Muren and his crew.

Asmodeus (Jack Woods), as he grimaces, puckers, clenches 
and frowns his way into the soul of an innocent victim.

Equinox has long been rumored to have greatly influenced yet another low-budget cult classic, Sam Raimi's The Evil Dead. To be sure, the films are very different from each other, and the Evil Dead films (particularly Evil Dead 2) are much darker, scarier and better plotted than Equinox. However, the Evil Dead movies feature so many of the same details as Equinox--the cabin in the woods, the prominent role of a tape recorder, an ancient book of dark incantations that summons demonic creatures and opens portals to other worlds, a necklace that is key to warding off evil, a group of teenagers being attacked by monsters that appear and disappear, and so on--that it's hard to deny the connection. Click here to see a visual comparison between Equinox and the Evil Dead movies on The Lucid Nightmare site.

The way I see it, Equinox and The Evil Dead are low-budget bookends of sorts to the changes that horror cinema went through during the 70s. Equinox reflects the heavy influence of O'Brien, Harryhausen and Ackerman on one generation of horror film fans, whereas The Evil Dead reflects the heavy influence of George Romero, Tobe Hooper and Wes Craven on a later generation of horror film fans.

Because Equinox at its best is a cheap fan-made film, your interest in seeing it will greatly depend on how much you would like to see this kind of film from another time in film history. In other words, you don't watch Equinox to see a classic horror film; instead, you watch it to see an example of how fans from a particular era applied what they learned about the crafts practiced by their movie idols to a film they financed and produced on their own, and how that film was later changed for the worse by someone else for theatrical release.

I've seen plenty of movies that were released on DVD and Blu-ray as both a theatrical cut and a director's cut, but this is the first and only time I've seen this situation occur with a fan film. For that reason alone, I highly recommend Criterion's release of Equinox for anyone who is interested in horror and sci-fi fan culture. You should also try to see Criterion's Equinox if you believe that modern CGI-based special effects lack the creativity and finesse of older special effects techniques such as matte paintings, forced perspective and stop motion animation. Click here to read Glenn Erickson's review at DVD Talk of both discs that are in Criterion's set; however, if you are interested in seeing both versions of Equinox but have no interested in buying it, the first disc of the Criterion release is available for rental through Netflix.

In 1985, Equinox was distributed on VHS by 
Wizard Video under the title The Beast.


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