Backyard Monsters: Equinox and the Triumph of Love
"The word amateur—in the Latin—means ‘lover.’ A work of art is made for the most personal of reasons—as an expression of love. I believe that any art of the cinema must inevitably rise from the amateur, ‘home movie’–making medium. And I believe that the so-called commercial, or ritual, cinema must inevitably take its cue from the films of amateurs rather than, as is too often the case these days, the other way around.”—Stan Brakhage, “In Defense of the Amateur,” 1971
“It’s very easy to get a film produced these days. I mean, if you don’t have enough money to do it in 35mm, you do it in 16. The problem is getting it shown after you’ve made it. You have to escape controlled means of distribution and find new ways to have your film seen.”—Jean-Luc Godard, 1968
“We all loved Ray Harryhausen’s films. But they might as well have been made on the moon, with their exotic locations and relatively big budgets. Equinox was different. It was made by kids in their backyard. We looked at it and thought, ‘Hey, maybe we can do that!’”—Ernest D. Farino, Emmy Award–winning visual-effects supervisor for Children of Dune (2003) and editor of the 1970s fanzine FXRH: Special Effects by Ray Harryhausen, 2004
By 1965, the cinema had edged toward the brink of worldwide revolution. In France, Jean-Luc Godard was leading a new wave of critics-turned-directors, bent on the transformation of traditional production theories. High in the mountains of Colorado, film poet Stan Brakhage completed his 16mm epic The Art of Vision, a handmade declaration of cinematic independence and amateur aesthetics. Closer to the commercial industry, iconoclasts Roger Corman and John Cassavetes were sidestepping a dying studio system that had fallen out of touch with a rapidly changing culture. And in suburban Los Angeles, just a few miles from the ruins of Hollywood, three kids decided to make a monster movie.
All under the age of twenty-one, Dennis Muren, Mark McGee, and David Allen were as rabid in their cinephilia as Godard and his band of Cinémathèque outsiders. Instead of worshipping at the altar of Nicholas Ray or Jean Renoir, however, these kids found nirvana in visual-effects gurus like Willis O’Brien (King Kong, 1933), Ray Harryhausen (The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, 1958), and A. Arnold Gillespie (The Wizard of Oz, 1939). They even had their own Cahiers du cinéma, in the form of a ghoulish gazette, edited by Forrest J Ackerman, called Famous Monsters of Filmland (known as FM by aficionados). Ackerman’s influential magazine, published by James Warren, was a photo-filled, kid-friendly celebration of creature features that ran articles on amateur filmmaking and fostered interaction with, and between, its young readers. McGee sometimes wrote for FM (including a career retrospective for Harryhausen’s birthday), and in January 1962, Ackerman featured a story on Muren’s collection of monster-movie memorabilia called “Horrors of the Muren Museum.” But it was a personal ad in the May 1962 issue, attributed to aspiring stop-motion animator David Allen (McGee says it was actually written by a friend on Allen’s behalf), that would bring these three fans together for the first time.
“Kalling all you King Kong lovers!” the ad exclaimed. “David Allen wants to correspond with you.” McGee, who already knew Muren, was the first to reply. Soon the trio were gathering to watch and discuss such shared favorites as The Thing from Another World (1951), Bride of the Monster (1955), and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). They were particularly fascinated with stop-motion fantasies like The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and King Kong, in which articulated puppets are animated one frame at a time and combined with live-action footage. Screenings were often held in McGee’s home, with a 16mm projector and rented movies. The boys also chewed over their own film experiments.
“Everyone would applaud an effort to make something,” remembers Jim Duron, another young buff drawn to the group. “We entered into detailed discussions regarding aesthetics and technique, without mean-spirited criticism. The group was open and helpful to anyone who wanted to share their work.”
In early 1965, the kids decided to take the amazing, colossal leap into feature filmmaking. Muren approached his family for financial help and was presented with an option: use the money his grandfather had saved for him to supplement his college tuition . . . or to make a movie. For a young man in love with monsters, the choice was easy. While Muren collaborated with Allen on visual-effects concepts, McGee set to work on a script.
The seventeen-year-old’s ambitious yet budget-minded scenario, later augmented by Muren and Allen, was largely built around Allen’s preexisting stop-motion models of a Kong-inspired simian called Taurus, a skeleton straight out of Sinbad, and a sinister cephalopod reminiscent of Harryhausen’s creatures in It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955) and Mysterious Island (1961). A Gustave Doré–esque flying demon was the only figure created especially for the film. Using techniques pioneered by O’Brien and King Kong puppet maker Marcel Delgado, Allen assembled his models with jointed armatures and foam-rubber flesh. Tusked, tentacled, and bat-winged, with skins of blue and bloodred, the homemade homunculi looked as if they’d crawled from one of FM’s gloriously pulpish cover paintings.
Essentially inspired by director Jacques Tourneur’s Curse of the Demon (1957; original U.K. title: Night of the Demon), McGee’s premise—teenagers battling satanic monsters for the possession of a magic book—provided copious opportunities for homage. Nods to Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), and Jason and the Argonauts (1963) are all on display in the script, which McGee titled The Equinox, after a suggestion by Allen. The reflexive nature of the screenplay also extended to its characters, which were partially modeled on the writer and his friends: McGee plays Eddie in the film’s original cut, and actress Barbara Hewitt’s damsel in distress is named after McGee’s then girlfriend, Susan Turner, who provided script supervision and still photography for the production. Muren’s grandfather, the film’s chief financier, is honored with the role of a hermit who’s smashed by the rampaging Taurus. Forrest J Ackerman’s voice is heard on a tape recorder in the hospital scene.
Through Ackerman, the group signed fantasy author Fritz Leiber to play the part of Dr. Arthur Watermann, a geology professor who holds secrets to the book and “the equinox,” an interdimensional gateway unlocked by the tome. Watermann’s necromantic experiments echo Leiber’s own stories and those of his mentor, famed master of “cosmic horror” H. P. Lovecraft. McGee’s tale also shares the Leiber/Lovecraft predilection for placing supernatural elements in a contemporary, commonplace setting. These aspects of the screenplay, along with the film’s legion of otherworldly creatures, have led some to brand it Lovecraftian, but McGee insists that he wasn’t familiar with the author’s work. A roundabout connection to Lovecraft can be found, however, in McGee’s affection for Curse of the Demon. Tourneur’s creepy classic, in which a twentieth-century investigator tangles with ancient black magic, was based on a story called “Casting the Runes,” by Montague Rhodes James. This British author was an important influence on Lovecraft, who ascribed to James “an almost diabolic power of calling horror by gentle steps from the midst of prosaic daily life.” If the modern backdrops of The Equinox were born of financial necessity more than design, they are nonetheless unique for an era in which fantastic films were often staged in a Gothic past or distant future, and prefigure later horror trends exemplified by Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and The Exorcist (1973).
Armed with the script, a 16mm Bolex camera, and a crew of friends (including Jim Duron and visual-effects pro Jim Danforth, whom Muren had met during a visit to the stop-motion set of 1962’s Jack the Giant Killer), the boys set out on what would become a two-and-a-half-year effort. Filming over weekends and summer vacations, codirectors Muren and McGee used nearby locales like L.A.’s Bronson Canyon (a renowned backdrop for hundreds of features, serials, and TV shows) and Muren’s own backyard as their cinematic playground. A pool house behind the Muren home became an improvised studio in which Allen and Muren shot most of the postproduction effects. Muren then edited the movie using his 16mm projector and a tape splicer. An original score, written by music professor Truman Fisher, was recorded for the final cut.
The film, rechristened The Equinox . . . A Journey into the Supernatural, was completed in 1967, for a total of $6,500. A contemporary, Harryhausen-style adventure in which live actors interact with animated beasts, the finished feature was a personal triumph for its architects. Through their young cast (which included Frank Boers Jr., who would later change his name to Frank Bonner and find fame as Herb Tarlek on TV’s WKRP in Cincinnati), McGee, Muren, and Allen had effectively superimposed themselves onto celluloid and come face-to-face with the monsters of their dreams. And while they hoped to sell their homespun creep show to a late-night TV horror program, the prime motivation was unadulterated affection. “We were all fans,” says Muren. “We were doing it because we loved those movies and wanted to be part of making them.”
When the television pitch failed, a determined Muren shopped his film print around Hollywood, eventually landing it on the desk of movie maverick Jack H. Harris. A former theater usher, Harris had worked his way into film distribution and production, hitting pay dirt as producer of the independent sci-fright classic The Blob. While Harris’s eye for young talent has been widely praised—he helped make Steve McQueen a star with The Blob and distributed the first features by directors John Landis (Schlock, 1973) and John Carpenter (Dark Star, 1974)—his support for the art of stop-motion animation is seldom acknowledged. The producer’s Dinosaurus! (1960, with puppets by Marcel Delgado), The Legend of Hillbilly John (1974), and 1988 remake of The Blob all employ the uniquely beautiful, handcrafted process.
Convinced that Muren and company’s stop-motion effects and “duel with the devil” premise would appeal to the youth market, Harris bought the film, shortened its title to Equinox, and hired Jack Woods to lengthen and restructure the seventy-one-minute narrative. A seasoned film editor and postproduction supervisor, Woods was everywhere in the sixties and seventies. He worked on sound for Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus (1960) and Bob Rafelson’s Five Easy Pieces (1970), edited director Lennie Weinrib’s rock-and-roll comedies Beach Ball (1965) and Wild, Wild Winter (1966), and helped cut Faces (1968) and Husbands (1970) for John Cassavetes. Working with Roger Corman, Woods edited the sound on Atlas (1961) and Tales of Terror (1962), and, alongside a young Francis Ford Coppola, dubbed the English soundtrack for Corman’s Russian import Sadko (1953; released in the U.S. in 1962 as The Magic Voyage of SinbadK). His other credits include dialogue supervision for the stop-motion puppet film Nutcracker Fantasy (1979) and sound editing on Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991) and TV’s The A-Team (1983–87).
For Equinox, Woods retooled McGee’s scenario, rehired the original actors, and cast himself as the incubuslike Asmodeus (an ancient demon derived from Persian mythology). Working with a crew that included cinematographer Mike Hoover and future TV and film star Ed Begley Jr. on assistant camera, Woods directed new scenes in 16mm to match Muren’s footage. In the editing room, this fresh material was used to replace or supplement the original sequences and form a revised story line. Music supervisor John Caper supplied a new score, and 35mm prints were struck for theatrical exhibition. Eerie and economical, Woods’s modified feature combines the raw charm of the Muren-McGee version with an exploitable edge aimed at post–Night of the Living Dead (1968) audiences.
Equinox was released in December 1970 to a newborn film culture. Visionaries like Godard, Cassavetes, and Brakhage had opened the world’s eyes to a more personal cinema, while the phenomenal success of the antiestablishment Easy Rider (1969), made by Corman protégés Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda, had sounded the death knell for Old Hollywood. A fervor for filmmaking spread to amateurs, independents, and students across the globe, including a University of Southern California School of Cinema-Television graduate named George Lucas. A few years later, Lucas (a Brakhage devotee and FM reader) would hire Muren to help him make a movie inspired by his love for Flash Gordon serials.
After premiering Equinox at the Loop Theater, in Chicago (co-owner Oscar Brotman dressed his staff in ape costumes for the event), Harris distributed the film internationally, earning more than a million dollars on his $150,000 investment. Forrest J Ackerman promoted Equinox in FM, which sold an 8mm abridgement of the feature, and encouraged other kids to tackle the world of moviemaking. One of them was Tom Sullivan, who a decade later would create the special makeup effects for The Evil Dead (1983), another shoestring “kids vs. demons” flick.
“I had seen Equinox at least twice in drive-ins before making The Evil Dead,” says Sullivan. “I don’t recall having discussed it with [Evil Dead director] Sam Raimi, but the similarities are remarkable. I think they come from the low-budget nature of both films. That is, a few characters, an isolated, inexpensive location, and ambitious special effects. All in all, Equinox did inspire me to continue my goal of making movies. ‘If they can do it . . .’”
Subsequent genre efforts like the Evil Dead sequels and The Blair Witch Project (1999) owe a debt of gratitude to their predecessor as well, and it’s difficult to imagine what modern visual effects would look like without the training ground provided by Equinox. Working with Danforth, whose professional skills had already been honored with an Oscar nomination for 7 Faces of Dr. Lao (1964), Muren and Allen conjured every trick in the book (animation, miniatures, and matte paintings, to name just a few) for their effort. They also pushed the effects envelope with a series of set pieces ambitious for any 1960s film, much less a home movie.
The Taurus sequence, for example, may be a cinematic valentine to the techniques found in King Kong, but it also represents the first use of moving, front-projected images in an American feature film. In this process, live-action footage of the actors is projected onto a superreflective screen from the front, on the same optical axis as the camera, by the use of a mirror. The alignment of the camera, mirror, and projector in these shots causes the stop-motion puppet—which is animated in front of the screen—to obscure its own shadow on the reflective surface. Expanding this concept, Muren devised a two-screen system that enabled him to composite the live-action footage and stop-motion on film in a single pass through the camera.
“It just dawned on me one day between classes at school,” Muren recalls. “One of those magic moments. That way, I didn’t need to do second-exposure split screens to put in the projected foreground. Plus, I could see the finished composite through the viewfinder.”
Filmed with Danforth’s custom-built equipment, these innovative shots eschew the rear-projected, split-screen methods often used for the Harryhausen films and predate Stanley Kubrick’s celebrated use of front-projection in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). The results are striking: watch as Susan (Barbara Hewitt) runs in front of Allen’s animated ape monster—no easy feat in the days before computer-generated effects. A number of other techniques, including painted backgrounds and outdoor animation, are thrown into the Taurus scenes as well. “Whatever it took to get it done,” says Muren.
Muren’s design for the climactic flying demon sequence likewise employed a variety of inventive touches, including a car-mounted tracking shot, stop-motion jump cuts, and cel-animated long shots of the fiend painted by Danforth and filmed by Ralph Rodine. A startling image of the creaturelanding on Vicki (Robin Snider) applies the same two-screen, front- projection process used for some of the Taurus composites. Freed from the locked-down look of other animated monster flicks (compare it to Harryhausen’s superior, yet proscenium-bound, harpy sequence in Jason and the Argonauts), the winged hellion swoops through trees, strafes human victims, and dives toward the camera lens. Enhanced by handheld live-action photography, these scenes capture a raw energy rarely found in creature features of the period, and anticipate the vérité sensibility found in such later Muren visions as the Return of the Jedi’s (1983) speeder bike chase and the alien assault in War of the Worlds (2005).
Another sequence in Equinox, involving an encounter with a live-action giant played by Duron, was staged on location with forced-perspective photography. This in-camera trick eliminated the need for costly and time-consuming optical effects, while adding further visual texture to the narrative. Other scenes in the film, including the actors’ interaction with the fallen Taurus, also utilize this thrifty approach.
The wild experimentation exhibited by Dennis Muren and David Allen foretold fantastic futures for the budding wizards. Soon after joining George Lucas’s fledgling effects company, Industrial Light & Magic, for the production of Star Wars (1977), Muren screened Equinox for his fellow young turks. Anything, the no-budget labor of love confirmed, was possible.
Following his work on Lucas’s landmark space opera, Muren provided effects photography for Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and the theatrical release version of the original Battlestar Galactica (1978), returning to ILM for The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Dragonslayer (1981). The cutting-edge, computer-assisted camera work found in all four of these films reflects a pivotal stage in the transition from traditional effects (as found in Equinox) to modern digital technologies. Subsequently promoted to visual effects supervisor at ILM, Muren emerged as a prime mover of the CG revolution. Spearheading state-of-the-art visuals for The Abyss (1989), Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), and Jurassic Park (1993), among others, the now famous Muren has monstered filmland into a new era. Along the way, he’s garnered nine Academy Awards and been honored with a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame. All of this by following his heart.
Allen became one of the world’s finest puppet animators. Lending his talents to more live-action features than any other stop-motion artist in history, he unleashed a menagerie of memorable monsters for such flicks as Flesh Gordon (1974), The Howling (1981), Q (1982), and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (1989). His work with Muren on Young Sherlock Holmes (1985) helped their effects crew net an Academy Award nomination. He reteamed with Jim Danforth for several films, including When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth (1970) and Caveman (1981), the former of which earned visual-effects designer/director Danforth his second Oscar nod. In 1971, Allen animated a re-creation of his beloved King Kong for a personal test film, which in turn led to a now classic Volkswagen commercial (both are included on this DVD). Years later, he gave life to Kong once again for the IMAX documentary Special Effects: Anything Can Happen (1996).
“King Kong was everywhere in his life,” says Allen’s friend and fellow effects artist Bill Hedge. “You couldn’t have a five-minute conversation about any subject without David somehow turning it towards King Kong and making a corollary or some sort of reference that was just always spot-on.”
A classical pianist and student of romantic literature, Allen brought the Wagnerian concept of gesamtkunstwerk (total artwork) to his craft. “I have tried,” he wrote in his vanguard 1972 essay “Dramatic Principles in Stop-Motion,” “. . . to demonstrate something of the complex relationship between plot, character, theme, art direction, and effects in the stop-motion film . . . I’m afraid there has been an excess of adulation given to the technical side of these films, and it is exactly that attitude which, at the production level, results in an effects-, rather than story-, oriented motion picture. Spectacle without human involvement, no matter how theatrical, has no inherent emotional meaning.”
That romantic spirit also propelled Allen’s desire for independence in his work. Presented with several opportunities to join larger effects companies, he preferred projects that, despite low budgets and frequently substandard screenplays, offered him greater creative control. Thus, while Allen’s two-decade association with bargain-basement producer Charles Band yielded a crop of cult novelties, including Laserblast (1978), Puppet Master (1989), and Subspecies (1991), his efforts on these pictures often mark high tides in a sea of mediocrity. Allen’s longtime dream project, The Primevals—a smart science-fiction epic he directed and co-wrote—ventured to realize his ideals for fantasy filmmaking, and was in production with Band when Allen died of cancer, in 1999. Among the footage completed before his death is the stunning animation of a King Kong–like yeti. Imbued with sympathy and emotion, Allen’s stop-motion character is an affectionate tribute to the great ape that haunted him all his life. The Primevals remains unfinished, but the boy who loved Kong continues to inspire animators and audiences alike with his immortal work.
True to his teenage passions, screenwriter Mark McGee has penned several genre efforts, including Bad Girls from Mars (1991) and Sorceress (1995). His acting résumé features roles in the Edgar Allan Poe–inspired Haunting Fear (1991) and a 1980 episode of TV’s The Incredible Hulk titled, interestingly enough, “Equinox.” A scholar of psychotronic cinema, McGee is the author of such first-rate studies as Fast and Furious: The Story of American International Pictures (1984; revised 1995).
Despite its remarkable legacy, Equinox is more often discussed than seen (this Criterion Collection edition marks the film’s DVD debut and the world premiere of the 1967 cut). Occasionally broadcast on late-night TV during the 1970s (much as Muren had originally envisioned), the movie all but disappeared from the airwaves in the eighties, when it received a limited, though international, release on videocassette (at one point, the now defunct Wizard Video label repackaged it as The Beast for U.S. viewers). Indeed, the film’s cult following has grown primarily from the same sort of monster mags that sparked its production. The original FM ceased publication in 1983, but over the decades, such pro and amateur zines as Photon, Cinefantastique, Fangoria, and the Japanese Stop-Motion Monsters of Filmland have championed Equinox and its creators. Today, the film is enthusiastically dissected on websites like www.stopmotionanimation.com.
Forty years after its backyard birth, Equinox has proven itself as the little monster movie that could. It paved a path to extraordinary careers for its progenitors, found theatrical success through the imaginative efforts of Jack H. Harris and Jack Woods, and forged a model of inspiration for succeeding generations of effects artists and low-budget filmmakers. Fashioned from youthful dreams, audacious ingenuity, and unflagging zeal, it is a testament to the eternal powers of determination and, above all, love.