When it comes to art, sincerity trumps all. That particularly applies to low-budget film-making. Sincerity and a real desire to make as good a movie as possible are what matters – not whether the budget is tiny or the locations limited or the cast amateurish.
You won’t find a much better example of sincere, low-budget film-making than Equinox. Originally shot as a student film for less than $7,000, it was expanded into a feature and helped set the careers of special effects maestros Dave Allen and Dennis Muren.
Mental patient David has spent the last year in a catatonic stupor, after fleeing the local woods with a tale of terror and then being hit by a driverless car. An interview David gave when first arriving at the institution gives the reason. He and friend Jim were asked by David’s geology professor, Dr. Waterman, to come to Waterman’s mountain cabin; seems the professor had found something important. David and Jim decide to turn the meetup with Dr. Waterman into a picnic, and Jim’s girlfriend Vicki and David’s blind date Susan. They find Waterman’s cabin in ruins with no sign of the professor; a mysterious, beetle-browed sheriff named “Mr. Asmodeus”, and a castle that appears and disappears without warning. And this is BEFORE they find a creepy old man in a cave, a mysterious book, and some pretty-darn-cool, Harryhausen-esque monsters. In the movies, picnics in the woods NEVER turn out well.
The plot of Equinox won’t win prizes for originality, but the movie’s rather remarkable for what it manages to achieve on an obviously low budget. It originally started as a student film, and though scenes were reshot and added to bring it up to feature length, even the student film scenes have been crafted with care. The camerawork is good (though a bit too reliant on the fisheye-lens at one point – you’ll know it when you see it). The acting is nothing stellar but is also much better than one would expect from such beginners.
What really makes Equinox stand out from other microbudget films is the effects. A nice blend of mattes, forced perspective, camera tricks, and stop-motion animation, they are crude and products of their time, but remarkably well done. The only misstep is a monster who can best be described as the bastard child of Alley-Oop and the Jolly Green Giant, and that’s a problem with the concept, not the execution.
It will be no surprise to anyone that those responsible for the effects in Equinox went on to bigger and better things, deservedly so. Dennis Muren would go on to work on most of the Star Wars movies, Terminator 2, The Abyss, and many others, and would win many Oscars. And Dave Allen would also go on to a long career in the movies, with work on films ranging from Laserblast to Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.
Criterion has created quite a lavish, two-disc set for Equinox – possibly out of proportion to the film’s actual merits, but no matter. Disc one contains both the original student film and the theatrical release of Equinox, along with an introduction by Forrest J. Ackerman, a champion of the film. There are also two commentaries for the film: one with Muren, effects man Jim Danforth and writer Mark McGee; another with producer Jack H. Harris and director Jack Woods. On the second disc are interviews with some cast members, outtake footage, and extensive looks at the special effects.
Whether you’ve got an interest in movie special effects or simply want proof that a low-budget film doesn’t have to be crap, take the time to watch Equinox.