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Sunday, October 21, 2012

31 DAYS OF HORROR 2012-Day 21: EQUINOX (1970)

I caught bits and pieces of the cult horror item EQUINOX a few times when it ran late at night on one of NYC's now virtually defunct non-network movie showcases, but I never managed to see the film from start to finish until a few nights ago. Now that have finally seen it, I have to say that I don't think it deserves its reputation, though it is by no means a terrible movie. Plus, it's of considerable historical note for having been co-directed by Dennis Muren (credited as the film's producer), who would later go on to win several Best Visual Effects Oscars for his work in such films as STAR WARS: EPISODE VI-RETURN OF THE JEDI, TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY,  and JURASSIC PARK.

The plot is a bit of indie, bargain basement, kid-suitable horror that opens with an abrupt explosion and twenty-something Dave (Edward Connell) coming to in its wake, only to find his girlfriend, Susan (Barbara Hewitt), laying bloody and dead nearby. Clearly terrified by some unseen threat, Dave runs out of the barren area, up a nearby hill and onto a local roadway, where his is promptly hit by a car that has no driver behind the wheel. The narrative then skips ahead by a year and we find that Dave is now quite insane and an inmate at a mental institution. The explanation of how he found himself in this situation is revealed in flashback: Dave, Barbara, their friend Jim and Jim's girlfriend all head off into the hills of California to picnic and search for Dr. Waterman (played by famed science-fiction/horror/fantasy author Fritz Leiber), who has gone missing after engaging in experiments of a dark nature. After seeing a medieval-style castle appear on a nearby hill and stumbling upon the wreckage of Waterman's house and encountering a creepy forest ranger (Jack Woods) named — now get this —"Asmodeus," the quartet meets an old man in a cave who gives them a locked and ancient book that literally reeks of arcane evil and suchlike. (It actually smells of sulphur.)

Park ranger Asmodeus (Jack Woods).

In short order, the gang realizes that the book contains actual, working magical spells and info on how to defend against assorted evil/black magic, info that they put to practical use once Asmodeus — who is apparently the Asmodeus, you know, the ultra-demonic one from ancient deuterocanonical lore — comes after them so he can get his diabolical mitts on the tome. After facing a couple of monsters summoned by the arch-fiend and a mind-controlled Barbara enduring a creepy near-rape by him, the whole group meet assorted dire fates, with Dave the sole survivor, but Asmodeus's parting shot was to curse Dave with death exactly one year and a day after thwarting the devil's agenda. The tale then skips back to the present, exactly a year and one day after the curse is stated, and the terrified and strait-jacketed Dave screams for his confiscated crucifix while awaiting the inevitable...

EQUINOX is a film whose ambition far outstrips the budding skills of its makers, and it is to be commended for thinking big. Its very Lovecraftian flavor is quite charming, especially when unleashed in the 1960's (though released in 1970, the bulk of the film was reportedly shot in 1967, and it shows), and its basic story and structure are solid, but it does suffer from a case of taking too long to really allow anything to happen. It's nearly an hour into the proceedings before the weirder elements come to the fore, and by that time it's perhaps too little too late. The monsters are a lot of fun though, and there's a hulking stop-motion animated critter (brought to life by Jim Danforth and Dave Allen, later of FLESH GORDON infamy) that seems intentionally reminiscent of the cyclops from THE 7th VOYAGE OF SINBAD (1958).

EQUINOX is also of interest for featuring the screen debut of Frank Boers, Jr., later and better-known to late-1970's-era TV viewers as Frank Bonner, who memorably played oily radio station sales manager Herb Tarlek on the classic sitcom WKRP IN CINCINNATI (1978-1982). He plays the ill-fated Jim, and it took me until about halfway through the film before I sat up and yelped, "Hey! That's Herb Tarlek!!!"

The young Frank Boers, Jr., aka WKRP IN CINCINNATI's Frank Bonner.

It's a humble effort and definitely worth the audience's time, but one must go into it aware that it takes a long time to really get going (by which time time it's practically over), and also expecting no actual scares (or at least not scares that would affect anyone over the age of six). That said, it's a fine way to spend a rainy Sunday afternoon with the kids.

Poster from the original theatrical release.

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