Tuesday, June 27, 2006


First, a prelude:

In the summer of 1975, at the age of ten, I saw three movies which would literally change my life. The first was Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, which demanded active participation on the part of its audience, not passive viewing, and its enigmatic final sequence haunted me, daring me to make sense of it. Later I saw Mel Brooks' Blazing Saddles, which champions oddballs and outsiders over faceless conformity, and which introduced me to the world of schtick. It also made me laugh harder than anything I'd ever seen in my life, so hard I literally couldn't breathe for long stretches of its running time.

The third movie was the most important of all. Like any ten year old boy, I liked monsters, and the ads for the movie The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad certainly promised plenty of those. I badgered my mom until she agreed to take me, and on a Monday night at the Perry drive-in, with lightning flashes in the distance, my life changed forever.

I didn't know then that the movie was nearly twenty years old, and I wasn't familiar at that time with the name Ray Harryhausen, the stop motion animator responsible for Sinbad's monsters. But in the movie's first five minutes, as Harryhausen's cyclops came bounding across the screen, I knew this was nothing I'd seen before. The cyclops was blatantly unreal, and yet it lived--it shifted its massive weight as though it was awkward to stand still too long, its animated movement--curved back, bent wrists, splayed fingers--had the grace of Fred Astaire. But Astaire was real--what was this?

In some embryonic form, my whole worldview was born that night. In Harryhausen's work, I recognized an element of truth, and it would be my belief that truth is the essential component of all human endeavors--art, politics, relationships--that would come to define me, to accept or reject things according to this belief.

All of this is a long way to go just to say that new on DVD today--and from the good folks at Criterion, the most high-toned of specialty video companies--is Equinox, an amateur horror movie from the late sixties that was later revised and released theatrically by drive-in specialist Jack Harris in 1971. Both versions are included on Criterion's disc, and while neither one of them could really be described as a good (or even watchable) movie, this is still a fascinating release.

In its original form, Equinox was directed by Dennis Muren, a would-be effects guy who was using this partly as a test reel to show what he could do. Within a few years, Muren would be an effects supervisor for Star Wars and one of the founders of Industrial Light and Magic, so it's probably safe to say it worked.

But to what end? The goofy storyline in Equinox is clearly only there to support a few crude but exuberant special effects sequences, most of them clearly riffing on characters from Harryhausen's work. The DVD is hosted, appropriately, by Forrest J. Ackerman, erstwhile editor of Famous Monsters Of Filmland magazine, and the man largely responsible for fostering the Monster Kid culture of the fifties and sixties.

Dennis Muren was clearly part of that culture, and he and his compadres spend a lot of time remarking on how much it meant to them, and how significant Ackerman's magazine and Harryhausen's monsters were to their lives. Yet Muren has made a lot of money (and won a shitload of Oscars) working on movies full of visuals that were big, splashy, but utterly empty. He says on this disc that he loves hand-made effects and doesn't care for CGI, yet he was the effects supervisor on Jurassic Park, the movie that pretty much brought old-school effects work to an end. Yeah, the effects in that movie look real, but so what? The spark of originality, of love, of truth, that is present, however primitive the form, in Equinox has largely vanished from the screen.

Criterion's DVD is absolutely essential, if not for the movie itself then for its heartbreaking shadow, the story of kids who could make their dreams come true, but who lost their souls along the way.