Equinox/The Beast (1971) -**
You know, editing is really important. The impact of film editing on the flow of a movie is both considerable and obvious. Skillful editing can create tension and excitement in a scene where none would otherwise exist; it can drastically alter the speed at which the story moves, quickening the pace of what might otherwise be quite a dull flick; it can even be used to create entirely new movies out of bits and pieces of low-budget Spanish or Filipino films that your studio has bought in bulk and on the cheap for that very purpose. On the other hand, bad editing can render a scene-- or an entire movie-- totally incomprehensible (anybody remember Battlefield Earth?), or turn what ought to have been an exciting picture into an instant cure for insomnia. But at the moment, Iím thinking more about a different kind of editing, one that often gets forgotten in the context of the movies. Screenplays, remember, are documents like any other, and like all examples of the writerís art, they can and should be edited before they are sent off into the world to bear the scrutiny of the public. Which brings me to Equinox/The Beast, a movie that looks to all appearances to have been shot from its screenplayís very first draft. A good deal of what goes on onscreen during the 90-odd minutes that Equinox asks you to invest in it is completely unnecessary. Not only are there entire blocks of scenes that do nothing to advance the story, many scenes are so bereft of narrative purpose that one gets the impression that the filmmakers temporarily forgot that there was a story being told in the first place.
Such a thing is truly remarkable in this case, because Equinox actually has more story than it quite knows what to do with. A year before the movie really begins, something very strange happened to David Fielding (Edward Connell, who appears never to have acted again). As the dramatically unnecessary reporter who would like us to think heís the main character explains in voice-over, David had been out in the woods with some friends of his, and all concerned came to more or less bad ends. David, for example, survived, but he has been confined ever since to a mental hospital. He never speaks, never exhibits any awareness of the world around him, never really does anything at all, in fact, except fiddle with a small silver crucifix. All we know for sure about what brought David to his current state is what was revealed to us in a teaser prologue that opens the film. There was an explosion, someone named Susan was killed or at least seriously injured, and David fled from the scene (with the sound of great, flapping wings behind him), through the woods and up an embankment until he managed to reach a road. There, he tried to flag down a passing car, but luck was not with him that day-- the car had no driver, and instead of stopping for him, it accelerated of its own volition to run him down. Anyway, I suppose the film takes place in a small town where nothing much happens, because that reporter I mentioned has come to the hospital to interview David for a follow-up article a full 366 days after the unexplained events that made him the minor celebrity he is.
David, however, has better things to do than be interviewed-- he had planned on spending his day staring at his cross. So the reporter tries to get his attention by waving a photograph of fantasy author Fritz Leiber in front of his face, prompting an explosion of hostility from the disturbed young man. Now all this is pretty confusing, but Davidís doctor will soon come to our rescue by producing a tape of the one interview that David ever gave, shortly before he lapsed into catatonia a year ago, triggering the start of the movie proper.
It turns out that the reporter had a photo of Fritz Leiber for a very good reason. The man actually appears as an actor in this movie. Specifically, he plays Dr. Waterman, a college professor friend of Davidís who one day suggested that David and some of his friends come to see him to discuss a very important discovery. The friends in question are Jim Hudson (Fer-de-Lanceís Frank Bonner), Jimís girlfriend Vicki (Robin Christopher, who has since made quite a career for herself in soap operas-- ďAll My ChildrenĒ and ďGeneral HospitalĒ, for example), and another girl named Susan (Barbara Hewitt, who like Edward Connell seems to have had quite enough of acting with Equinox), and it seems to have been Vickiís bright idea to turn the occasion into an excuse for a picnic in the woods. The truly remarkable thing is that they will have their picnic, regardless of all the weird, weird shit that begins happening the moment the four friends step out of Davidís incredibly cool late-50ís Dodge.
Watermanís cabin, to begin with, has been destroyed in a manner that speaks unmistakably to the bad-movie veteran of the activities of giant monsters. The professor is also nowhere to be found, and the park ranger (Jack Woods, who not only wrote and directed Equinox, but penned Beware! The Blob as well) who seems to be in charge of the forest says heís been gone for a good long time. This park ranger is another one of those characters who have the word ďEvilĒ written across their foreheads. Not only does he have huge fake eyebrows, not only does he never make a sound moving through the woods despite the fact that he invariably does so on horseback, his name is Mr. Asmodeus for fuckís sake! We donít even need to rearrange the letters to spell evil with this guy, and yet nobody here seems to think anything of it. The events of the next half hour just reveal more sinister strangeness. First, David and company find a Gibbering Old Loony living in a cave in the woods. Then, the Loony makes them take a book that heís been hiding in his cave since who knows when-- one of those musty old tomes held shut with a locked leather strap and whose text is written in a script that looks like some kind of deranged hybrid of modern Hebrew and Akkadian cuneiform. Then, Vicki spots a motherfucking castle perched on a bluff on the other side of the valley from Watermanís wrecked cabin. Finally, Waterman himself shows up, snatches the book, runs off into the woods, and drops dead in the middle of a stream. His body vanishes without a trace when David and Jim turn their backs on it a few moments later.
Clearly, then, itís time for that picnic. Over lunch, David and Jim peruse the book, which stinks of sulfur (if some crazy guy ever tries to give you anything that stinks of sulfur, donít fucking take it!) and is filled with diagrams and illustrations of a clearly occult nature. (Is it at all possible that Sam Raimi never saw this flick?) In so doing, David finds a couple of pages of notes taken by-- thatís right-- Dr. Waterman, revealing that the book is a veritable Complete Idiotís Guide to Hellfire and Brimstone. And this is where the movie really stops making sense.
In brief: Waterman tried out a couple of the spells, and a giant squid destroyed his cabin. A huge reptilian ape kills the Gibbering Old Loony and tries to kill David and company. Asmodeus shows up and tries to rape Susan before he is driven off by the sight of her cross. Susan becomes possessed and tries to rape Vicki before she is dissuaded by the sight of her cross. The castle vanishes behind a Wall of Invisibility. Asmodeus tries to interest Jim in a Faustian bargain for custody of the book. A fifteen-foot caveman with green skin attacks David and company. Asmodeus reveals his true form, transforming himself into a flying red devil, and slathers our heroes with whoop-ass. And a huge hooded figure appears before David to tell him that he will die in a year and a day, after which there is an explosion which kills or at least severely injures Susan, causing David to flee (with the sound of great, flapping wings behind him) through the woods, up an embankment, and onto a road, where he attempts to flag down a passing car, etc. etc. I believe this is where we came in.
Well... Itís a shame Equinox so clearly betrays its true nature as a student film, inexplicably picked up for theatrical distribution in very nearly its original condition. Can you imagine trying to film the story I have just described on the sort of budget that a bunch of college kids are going to come up with? Itís no wonder the fucking movie took four years to finish! (And by the way, see if you can spot the actors aging as the film progresses.) The financial constraints mainly show where they most often do-- in the special effects (imagine Willis OíBrien trying to make a menagerie of monsters on 49Ę, and I think youíll get the picture)-- although they are also revealed by such cost-cutting measures as the obvious stock-music score and the overdubbed dialogue. But the shortcomings of the script are more damaging to the film. Despite the manifest intelligence and ambition of the story, the screenplay itself is so rough and unrefined as to work against every good idea Jack Woods tries. Itís not that thereís a shortage of talent involved here, merely a shortage of discipline and discernment-- the discipline required to pound a promising story into a viable script and the discernment necessary to recognize what elements arenít working. And apart from the actors (who are by and large every bit as bad as Equinox looks), the same criticism holds true of just about every aspect of the film. The effects work is imaginative and even impressive in light of the movieís tiny budget (though it is far from impressive in absolute terms), and Equinoxís sfx honcho would go on to work on such much-lauded films as Terminator 2 and Jurassic Park. The movie is well and tastefully shot, despite the sometimes shaky camerawork, and I have heard that the cinematographer has also made quite a name for himself in the years since Equinox was made. But the sad, hard truth is that sometimes talent isnít enough, and in the end, the weakness of the script and the ineptitude of the cast sink the film in ways that its glaring cheapness alone could not have, leaving that very cheapness Equinoxís principal saving grace.