Schlocktoberfest #1: Equinox
The Evil Dead holds a special place in the hearts of many horror fans, me included. The funnier, more polished sequels are great, but the original has that home-brewed quality, and a unique mix of dark humor and over the top concepts (like tree rape) that put it in a class of its own. Well, its tale of a book of evil spells guarded by a professor at a remote cabin who is overtaken by dark forces isn’t the first story of its kind; Equinox, made by Dennis Muren and Jack Woods over a few years with his friends as a student film, tells a similar tale. It’s older and less gory, but has its own charms and goes over the top in its own way.
Am I accusing Sam Raimi of cribbing? No, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this was an influence. The story begins with a group of students looking for their professor’s remote cabin, where they plan to stay for a weekend. The prof is nowhere to be found, but instead, a cackling madman hands them a strange leather-bound book. Then… weird things start happening. A creepy park ranger with fearsome eyebrows seems a little too interested in why they’re visiting, and warns them off.
Later, the professor appears, but seems driven mad. He grabs the book and runs, and they follow, wanting to know what’s wrong. The Prof is played by award-festooned science fiction master Fritz Leiber, of all people. He does a decent job of babbling and running, but his true talents lie in writing and not acting. Then again, compared to the rest of the cast he’s just fine. They’re all amateurs and make Raimi’s bunch seem like seasoned pros. The ranger, played by director Jack Woods, is unforgettable as his intentions become clear, and his facial expressions are so bizarre that even when you laugh, you’re more than a little creeped out.
The Ranger calls himself Asmodeus, and wants the book- but the girl holding it is wearing a crucifix, and he is driven back by the holy symbol. The kids make crude crosses out of twigs as protection, and try to make it out of the forest with the book, but Asmodeus has plenty of tricks up his sleeve. He sends a giant demonic ape after them, rendered with stop-motion effects, that looks like it would get Ray Harryhausen’s approval. Then there is a giant, and a flying devil, and we see what happened to the cabin in flashbacks- torn apart by the enormous tentacles of an unseen creature (the Ubiquipus, of course).
Uncredited co-director Dennis Muren would go on to be a special effects designer for Star Wars and Jurassic Park, and while you’ll laugh at some of the effects used here for a giant and a secret portal to another dimension, the stop-motion creatures are top-notch for the time. While it’s certainly not scary anymore, the movie’s tone sets a nice creepy mood, and you’ll never look at park rangers with bushy eyebrows the same way again.