Cinematic Soulmates: Equinox and The Evil Dead
The holiday season is upon us once again, and as always, we’re kicking it off with the holiday that all the cool and edgy kids like to claim is their favorite. That’s right, Halloween is almost here, and to celebrate, I will once again use both of my columns here at CBR to look at some of the best movies the horror genre has to offer. First up is a pair of films that share a lot of the same DNA, from the basic premise right on down to the disturbing but nevertheless charming stop-motion beasties that terrorize the heroes. Thus, Cinematic Soulmates turns its glowing red eyes to a pair of films that laid much of the groundwork for many of the modern horror films we know and love today, from no-budget stinkers like Demon Wind (1990) to more high profile fare like the recent (not to mention totally great) Cabin in the Woods (2011).
Directed by Jack Woods (along with Dennis Muren and Mark Thomas McGee, both of whom went uncredited), Equinox (1970) follows four 20-somethings (including future WKRP in Cincinnati star Frank Bonner) as they venture into the woods to find a missing scientist named Dr. Arthur Watermann (Fritz Leiber, Jr.). They arrive at the Professor’s cabin to find it destroyed, and they set out to investigate what happened. Eventually, they run into a creepy forest ranger named Asmodeus (Jack Woods), who terrorizes one of the girls by making weird faces at her. Eventually, the four friends spot what looks to be a medieval castle sitting on a hill in the middle of the woods, and they decide to go check it out and see if that is where the Professor is hiding. Along the way, they stumble across a cave which is home to a strange old man who gives them an ancient book containing secrets about a parallel dimension that exists just beyond our own. Asmodeus wants to get his hands on the book, so he unleashes an army of unholy stop-motion beasties to retrieve it from the plucky kids. Now they must fight to survive, and to make sure that the book never falls into Asmodeus’s evil clutches.
Meanwhile, director Sam Raimi’s breakthrough film, The Evil Dead (1981) tells a similar story. Square-jawed college kid Ash (genre legend Bruce Campbell) heads into the woods along with four of his friends, to spend the weekend drinking and fornicating in an isolated cabin in the woods. Once there, they discover an old reel to reel tape machine, as well as the Necronomicon, a strange book that looks as though it was bound in human flesh and inked in blood (because it was). Ash plays the tape, which was recorded by a professor who had gone to the woods in order to study the bizarre book. In the process, he inadvertently unleashes an ancient evil that is intent on possessing the kids and setting loose upon the Earth a horde of vicious Deadites. One by one, the group succumbs to the ancient evil, until only the cowardly Ash is left standing. Ash figures if he can just hold out until morning, he’ll make it out of the woods in one piece. However, in order to that, he’s going to have to summon up every ounce of his courage, and send the Evil Dead back from whence they came. Of course, this is a Sam Raimi film, so it’s pretty much guaranteed that Ash is going to get his lily white butt kicked in the process.
There are a number of similarities that run through both films, and I would be shocked to find out that Raimi’s film wasn’t at least a little informed by Equinox. However, there is no evidence of this, though at least one of the Evil Dead crewmembers admits to being familiar with Equinox prior to shooting. Raimi worked with special effects and make-up artist Tom Sullivan, who is quoted in the booklet included with the Criterion Edition DVD of Equinox as saying, “I had seen Equinox at least twice in drive-ins before making Evil Dead. 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.” So even if there was no direct influence, Raimi is nevertheless working within the same purview as Woods and his cohorts, and is using his film to explore the same sort of general horror story that we have seen time and time again.
Both films are built upon the same general framework. In both films we see a group of young people venture into the woods, where they run into an ancient evil that wants to either consume or destroy their souls. This evil is summoned by an old book that is highly desired by the forces of evil. Furthermore, the kids’ initial destination is a remote cabin that is eventually destroyed (to one degree or another) by that very same evil. Finally, we see one of the kids escape from the evil, however temporarily, both of whom share a number of similar qualities. Both The Evil Dead’s Ash and Equinox’s David (played by David Connell, who has no other film credits) are handsome, competent young men who possess a scholarly streak. They are the ones who become fascinated with the ancient texts of their respective films, and as such, they are responsible for unwittingly unleashing the forces of evil upon the world. They both share the burden of getting their friends killed, and potentially plunging the world into darkness, and thus they become tragic heroes. It might be one of the reasons why neither of them escapes from the evil unharmed. In fact, the only difference between the two is that David is brave, and often more than willing to run headlong into danger, while Ash is cowardly and tends to fall apart at crucial moments throughout the film.
Beyond the thematic elements, the films share a number of stylistic similarities as well. Both films feature a wealth of totally unconvincing but nevertheless charming stop-motion effects. In Equinox, there are a handful of highly imaginative monsters constructed from wire frames and sculpting materials, any one of which would make Ray Harryhausen proud. Meanwhile, over in The Evil Dead, Raimi’s Deadites perish into a gooey and hilariously disturbing mess, leaving the screaming Ash covered in a slew of blood and other bodily fluids. While the effects may not hold the same impact today (though this is arguable), if they ever truly did, they nonetheless give each film a distinct look, and set them apart from other low-budget films that set out to explore the same material.
The similarities don’t end, there, however, and extend to some visual and aural motifs that further connect both films. For instance, during Equinox’s credits, a strange clacking sound can be heard, and while it never actually makes an appearance in the film, it still manages to establish an ethereal and unsettling atmosphere that leaves the viewer on edge right from the start. This sound makes an unexpected reappearance in The Evil Dead, notably during the film’s climax when the Deadites are finally defeated. After Ash has destroyed the Necronomicon, the Deadites expire, their twisting bodies making the noise heard during the opening credits of Equinox. Again, despite the existence of concrete evidence, this would be enough to lead some fans to speculate that Raimi was crafting an outright homage to Woods’s film. However, taken on its own, this coincidence wouldn’t be enough to support this notion. Thankfully, such speculation is only fueled by a particular shot that recurs in each film. When David relates the story of the book to his friends in Equinox, we see the book come flying toward the camera shrouded in smoke. This is echoed in Raimi’s film, which offers up a nearly identical shot during a similar situation. It is these striking similarities that lead fans to believe that The Evil Dead owes at least some small debt to Equinox.
Even if the similarities are just happy coincidences that indeed resulted from the low-budget natures of both films, as Tom Sullivan asserts, they nevertheless complement one another very well. They work together as a snapshot of the evolution of horror from one decade to another. Throw in other films from different decades, such as the aforementioned Demon Wind and Cabin in the Woods, a viewer could follow the genre through its highs and lows, all the way up to its post-modern deconstruction and subsequent reconstruction. At any rate, even when taken on their own, I think it is quite unmistakable that Equinox and The Evil Dead firmly inhabit the realm of Cinematic Soulmates.
I had a thought: the fact that both main characters are scholarly types who, through their curiosity, unleash the evil could be seen as a commentary on the danger of knowledge and curiosity. This differs, then, from Cabin in the Woods, where it is the fool’s apathy that seems to be the bigger issue.
That’s actually a really good point that I hadn’t thought of.