WTF, Criterion?

This President's Day weekend, Hulu.com has made their Criterion Collection films available free, so I've been watching several movies I've wanted to see for a long time.

But what prompted this post was, while perusing the list of Critrion films available for viewing, I came across one called Equinox.  My reaction was to rear back in horror, going "Wha-a-a-a-a...?"

Way back in my mispent youth, when the local SF club CASFS was first being established, I was, for a while, the vice-president.  Like the National VP job, the position didn't have many official duties.  But one duty was to provide programming for the club meetings.  Sometimes this was discussion topics, sometimes audio (Bruce Dane provided tapes of the radio version of Hitchhikers' Guide To The Galaxy for one meeting), sometimes films.

At one meeting, where I had planned to show a particular film, the video rental store (remember those?) didn't have that particular film available.  So I perused the shelves and spotted something that looked like it might be of interest as a substitute.  That was Equinox.  From the description on the box, it not only had Harryhausen-type animation, but... hey!... Fritz Leiber was in the cast.

Fritz Leiber
Fritz Leiber was always one of my favorite sf/fantasy writers.  He also came from an acting background (his father, Fritz Leiber Sr., was a Shakespearean actor).  I'd met him once, and had dinner with him and a group of other people at the 1975 Westercon.  Leiber was a striking-looking man, with a high forehead and a shock of snow-white hair.  So I was interested to see how he came across as an actor.

It's said an actor can only be as good as the script he has to work with.  Lieber only had a few(mercifully) brief scenes in Equinox.  The movie's MacGuffin was an Evil Book Of Evil Evilness; Leiber played the professor who had discovered the EBOEE, and his main scene (dialogue-free) was basically to express dumbstruck horror at the Evil Evilness inside the book.

That scene didn't require much acting, because I'm pretty sure the book contained the script for the rest of the movie.  The years have mercifully blotted out most of the details, but Equinox was one of the most purely awful movies I have ever seen.  Clunking story, bad dialogue, worse acting, the stop-motion segments were unimpressive, and the direction and cinematography were awful.  Everything about the movie screamed cheap, amateur, and shoestring.  (It started out life as a student project.)

Showing that movie at that club meeting was one of the most embarassing moments I can remember.  As the malformed, spavined thing clunked on and on, people there kept looking at me with "What were you thinking?" looks on their faces.  And I couldn't bring myself to turn off the video player, because I kept thinking that somewhere, at some point in the movie, there would have to be some redeeming social value.

There wasn't.

So when I saw Equinox included as part of the Criterion Collection of films, my reaction was one of understandable horror and confusion.  The Criterion Collection includes a lot of "art house" films, and I've found a goodly number of those to be... well, boring.  But even with those I haven't personally liked, I've been able to recognize that there's some distinguishing value to be found.

But Equinox?  Bloody Equinox?  Stinking, clunking, wretched, abominable, painfully bad Equinox?

Criterion, really, what the fuck were you thinking?

(I've heard it said that map publishers will deliberately insert one very minor error into their maps, so that if the map is copied by others, the counterfeit maps can be identified by the presence of that error.  Could the presence of one undeniably bad film among all the other Criterion selections be something similar?)


Anonymous said...

Living in Arizona, you might not be aware of this, but I'm told (on very good authority) that ingesting a considerable amount of the smoke of a certain herb renders watching horrible movies like that absolutely hilarious.

...Don Fitch

D Gary Grady said...

If you're surprised that Criterion has released a version, it might astonish you even more to learn that it includes not just the movie itself but a full disk of extras, plus (on the main disk, I think), the original, never-released 71-minute version of the film.

The distributor hired an interesting character named Jack Woods to extensively rework the film, which among other things involved shooting additional scenes (some with himself as a new character). Forry Ackerman apparently arranged for Fritz Leiber's appearance, and Forry's voice is heard on a tape recording during the film.

Despite its widely acknowledge flaws, it's apparently considered important, or interesting anyway, for its time. You can read Criterion's description here.