Cinema Quarantino is an ongoing series of alternative streaming picks for the self-quarantined and the socially distanced, as selected by the film staff of Boston Hassle. To browse the rest of our picks, click here.
THE FILM: Equinox (1970) dir. Dennis Muren & Jack Woods
THE STREAMER: The Criterion Channel
As the existence of this column will attest, we should be thankful that these difficult times have fallen during the age of streaming, when virtually any movie or TV show you can think of can be accessed at the click of a mouse or the flick of a remote. Yet there’s something to be said for the all but lost art of channel surfing. Back before Netflix and the advent of easy-access digital cable menus, the only way to sample the entertainment being piped into your home was to manually flip from channel to channel, entering each movie or show in media res. Back when I was a budding teenage videohound in the waning days of the Old, Weird Cable, I used to stay up well into the early hours of the morning, remote in one hand and a caffeinated beverage in the other, scanning transmissions like a SETI researcher looking for extraterrestrial life. Most nights, the results were banal; reruns, sleazy infomercials, the odd Space Ghost: Coast to Coast if I was lucky. But I kept at it, weekend after weekend, because every so often my patience and delirium were rewarded with something truly indescribable, something which I never would have even suspected existed, and never would have discovered except by accident. It was under these conditions that I first discovered Equinox, a film .
Originally shot as a student film by future special effects wizard Dennis Muren, then expanded upon by exploitation superproducer Jack Harris (the man who similarly added Ed McMahon to Daughter of Horror), Equinox tells the story of four college students on their way to a leisurely picnic in the woods and a visit to the cabin of their science professor, Dr. Waterman. Unbeknownst to them, however, Dr. Waterman has been driven mad following his discovery of an ancient occult text, and his cabin has been destroyed by a gigantic, stop-motion land-squid that he’s accidentally conjured forth. They soon realize, however, that all is not as it seems: a castle appears and disappears on the horizon, a strange old man cackles at them from a cave, and they are followed by a sinister park ranger on a white horse who is literally named Asmodeus. Soon, the teens are beset by a seemingly endless parade of giants, demons, and other claymation beasties, all determined to retrieve the sinister book and claim our heroes’ souls.
Equinox might not be a great movie, but it is a perfect movie. With its exuberant sense of imagination and roughshod yet endlessly inventive special effects, it feels like a daydreaming monster-kid’s notebook doodles come to life. Clearly, Muren and his collaborators grew up steeped in monster movie history, and their goal seems to be to create the ultimate love letter to Ray Harryhausen and Boris Karloff. Yet unlike many modern genre love letters from unabashed fans, there is a refreshing earnestness to the proceedings, its awe of the occult as straighlaced as its clean-cut protagonists. It’s imbued with the sort of schlocky mysticism and gleeful perversity that informed what was then just starting to be known as heavy metal, and would soon manifest in such dorky pursuits as Dungeons & Dragons. Its innocence makes its shocks all the more satisfying.
And oh, those shocks! A stop-motion ogre hurls spears at our heroes, and a not-so-jolly green giant (played by a human actor via forced perspective) throws rocks. People turn into zombies and make ridiculous zombie-faces directly into a fisheye lens. Skeletons fall out of caves, and winged demons swoop out of the sky. If this imagery sounds familiar, you’re not crazy: the influence of Equinox is unmistakable in Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead trilogy, from the indecipherable book of the dead to the ominous message discovered on a reel to reel recorder (read, as it happens, by Famous Monsters of Filmland editor Forrest J. Ackerman). And, of course, Muren himself would loom large in the future of genre film: his work with Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and James Cameron led him to win an astonishing eight Oscars for Best Visual Effects over a span of thirteen years. It is probably this legacy that led to Equinox’s unlikely induction into the Criterion Collection, allowing it to share the streaming home of Jean-Luc Godard and Akira Kurosawa. You may be less likely to stumble across it without your trusty remote control– but I suppose that’s the whole point of this series, isn’t it?
dir. Dennis Muren & Jack Woods
Streaming on the Criterion Channel
Streaming is no substitute for taking in a screening at a locally owned cinema, and right now Boston’s most beloved theaters need your help to survive. If you have the means, the Hassle strongly recommends making a donation, purchasing a gift card, or becoming a member at the Brattle Theatre, Coolidge Corner Theatre, and/or the Somerville Theatre. Keep film alive, y’all.