Equinox is a very low-budget ($6500) horror movie made by a grouo of young horror fans in the late ’60s. As someone who has dedicated way too much of his life to watching shitty movies, I can attest to just how many low-budget horror movies made by young horror fans are floating around out there. And, for the most part, they’re a dime a dozen – interchangeable and forgettable. So the question is, what is it about Equinox that led it to that high level of film prestige, a Criterion Collection DVD?

For one thing, there’s how influential it is. The story of Equinox concerns a group of friends who head to a cabin in the woods, where they discover an ancient book that, when read from, unleashes demons from another realm into our world. If you’re the sort of person I want reading my reviews, then hopefully that synopsis sounds VERY familiar to you – it’s hard not to assume an influence on Sam Raimi and company when they made The Evil Dead. Watching Equinox, it’s striking just how much the story and even some scenes and imagery were later “borrowed” by Raimi for his films. (Raimi claims not to have seen Equinox when he made Evil Dead, although special effects artist Tom Sullivan had).

There is also its pedigree. One thing that separates Equinox from the majority of most other amateur horror films I have seen is that it is clearly made by talented aspiring filmmakers. While there’s nothing in the movie that wouldn’t be labeled “hokey” by today’s standards, the use of some pretty cool Ray Harryhausen-esque stop-motion animation and miniature work gives the film a certain charm to folks like me, who just love that kind of stuff. Knowing that it was done by a bunch of friends working cheaply with no studio backing only makes it all the better, because it’s pretty darn impressive. Watching the movie, you might think, “wow, if these guys were pulling this off when they were young, they probably had one heck of a future ahead of them.” And sure enough, the film’s director is future Academy Award winning special FX maestro Dennis Muren, known for his pioneering work on films like Star Wars, Terminator 2 and Jurassic Park. Not too shabby.

One thing that immediately struck me about Equinox while watching it, and that I wanted to make sure I pointed out, is that it takes place pretty much entirely in the daytime. Now, while I’m sure this was probably done more out of an inability to afford lighting than anything else, it still lends the film a unique vibe, as most horror films obviously like to keep things dark. It’s also a brave move in that the filmmakers cannot just hide the monsters in the shadows, which makes the FX work all the more impressive.

Still, although I’ve been fairly complimentary up to this point, now comes the part where I have to admit that Equinox is not exactly the most thrilling watch. It’s lacking the quick pace and demented mayhem that Raimi later brought to the same story, but IS plagued by a lot of the same problems that sink other first-timer features – particularly bad writing and worse acting. I can’t imagine anyone but the most dedicated horror or sci-fi fans getting a lot of enjoyment out of this. Heck, even I couldn’t help thinking about how much better it would be if I was watching it on a episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000.

All in all, this would be a pretty mild recommendation from me (maybe just a tad more so for Evil Dead fans who really want to see Raimi’s influences), except that I do think anyone interested in the joys AND dangers of young filmmakers selling their product to more experienced studios should definitely check out the Criterion disc, which offers not one but two versions of the film. You see, after completing the film, Muren and his friends ended up selling it to a seasoned distributor, who saw potential for an exploitation hit. A new director was hired to shoot additional footage and re-edit the film, and it is this re-worked version that eventually hit theaters and that most anyone who ever saw the film is familiar with. The re-worked version gets rid of the somewhat nonsensical and non-linear storytelling of the original (which I thought was actually kind of brave and cool for a movie made in 1967), and replaces it with way too much exposition, a more traditional narrative pace, and a new, creepy “dirty old man” character that seemingly is thrown in only to feel up one of the young actresses in a pretty unnecessary and awkward feeling scene (perhaps not surprisingly, he is played by the new director, which might go a long way towards explaining the scene’s inclusion). The original version is definitely the more effective of the two, but it’s pretty fascinating watching both and seeing how much a movie can be changed through editing and a few new scenes – sort of like watching all the different versions of Blade Runner. Except, Equinox is no Blade Runner.

This review was originally posted on April 7th, 2011 at Trevor Likes Movies.