1970 EXPLOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE: EQUINOX, THE VAMPIRE LOVERS, AND TROG

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The 1970s were probably the most prolific decade in production of exploitation and horror films. The decade started off with Gordon Hessler’s mediocre Cry of the Banshee, co-starring Vincent Price and Diana Rigg. Daniel Haller’s adaptation of The Dunwich Horror was also surprisingly uneven, despite its well-received source material. Hammer Studios was still in full throttle, although its output increasingly met with mixed reviews and decreasing box office. Peter Sasdy’s Taste the Blood of Dracula was considered by many to be the last decent Hammer take on the infamous Count. Roy Ward Baker’s The Scars of Dracula was universally panned by critics. Scars‘ star Christopher Lee then made a stab at the character for a different studio in Jess Franco’s [1] Count Dracula, which co-starred  Klaus Kinski and Herbert Lom. Noticeably shot on a lower budget, Franco’s Draculawas deemed a faithful adaptation of the novel, but a noble misfire. Franco and Lee also teamed up for The Bloody Judge, which was a second-rate rehash of Michael Reeves’ final film, Witchfinder General.

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Michael Armstrong’s Mark of the Devil, starring Herbert Lom and Udo Kier, was another offshoot of the late Mr. Reeves’ swan song, with the addition of graphic torture, and it’s reputation as one of the most revolting grindhouse films ever made still holds strong nearly a half century later. Piers Haggard’s Blood on Satan’s Claw was the third Witchfinder General copycat in one year. It disappeared quickly (rightfully so). At the opposite end of the spectrum is the camp-fest fundamentalist Christian exploitation Cross and the Switchblade, which aptly cast the whitest white man who ever lived—Pat Boone—as Hoosier Pentecostal preacher David Wilkerson, going to the ghetto to convert gang member Nicky Cruz (Erik Estrada). It was such a hit with the fundie circuit that they even produced a cross-promotional comic book that was littered throughout church pews to take home and keep “if you got saved.”

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The primary influence on Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead (1981), the microbudget horror Equinox has a substantial cult following, enough to receive the Criterion Collection treatment. Equinox is a holy grail for lovers of  backyard filmmaking, and is almost as famous for its making of narrative. The story began with three teenagers, David Allen, Dennis Muren, and Mark McGee, who got together and made a monster movie. Discovering the likes of Willis O’Brien and Ray Harryhausen through the pages of Forrest J. Ackerman’s influential “Famous Monsters Of Filmland,” aspiring stop-animation animator Allen placed a personal ad in a 1962 issue of FM, inviting lovers of King Kong to correspond. Muren, whose monster memorabilia collection had been featured in an earlier article of the magazine, was the first to respond, followed by McGee. Shortly after that initial introduction, the three were meeting regularly for screenings and discussions of creature features and experimenting with 16 MM shorts. In 1965 Muren received money from his grandfather to make Equinox.

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Influenced primarily by Jacques Tourneur’s Curse of the Demon (1957), the film also pays homage to Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), Robert Gordon’s It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955), and Don Chaffey’s Jason and the Argonauts (1963). The cast includes Muren’s grandfather as a hermit who is trampled on by Allen’s stop-motion demon, the Taurus. Ackerman has a voice cameo via a tape recorder playing in the hospital. Pulp fantasy author Fritz Leiber (once an apprentice to H.P. Lovecraft) plays Professor Waterman, who is in possession of a medieval book, which contains a gateway to another dimension called the Equinox. The movie begins on a picnic when David (Edward Connell) and Susan (Barbara Hewitt) discover Waterman’s book and unintentionally summon forth a demon.

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There are two versions of Equinox. In the original, the narrative is ambiguous and really just an excuse to unleash stop-motion monsters (courtesy Allen and Jim Danforth). In the second version, Jack Woods, credited as a co-director with McGee and Muren, over-explains everything to the point of tedium. Although neither cut is a long-lost masterpiece, the original, pre-tampering version is definitely superior. But it’s the winning extras in the Criterion Collection disc that are the highlight, spinning a narrative of fan love for the genre, paid homage by commentary from the surviving principals.

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Equinox has some “American dream” success stories: Muren went on to become an Oscar-winning visual effects artist for Industrial Light and Magic, and worked on Willy Wonka And The Chocolate FactoryFlesh Gordon, the original Star Wars trilogy, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the television series “Battlestar Galactica,” E.T.The AbyssGhostbusters IITerminator 2, Jurassic Park,  A.I., HulkWar of the Worlds, and Star Wars: The Force Awakens, among many others. David Allen also had a successful career, working on Flesh GordonThe HowlingQThe Hunger, Young Sherlock HolmesGhostbusters II, Willow, Puppetmaster, and Honey I Shrunk The Kids, before dying prematurely in 1999. McGee had a career in B-movies, and Woods went on to work in sound.

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25TH ANNIVERSARY: TIM BURTON’S BATMAN (1989)

BATMAN (1989) lobby card. Michael Keaton, Kim Basinger

A quarter century after its debut, Tim Burton‘s Batman (1989) is still among the brightest of the comic book genre films; an odd thing, given how dark it is. However, Burton’s Batman has a glamorous darkness. Burton was young, energetic, and at the top of his game in 1989. His interpretation of the caped crusader remains groundbreaking and is more astute than Christopher Nolan‘s The Dark Knight (2008). Nolan went the mile to distance the avenger from his comic book origins. Burton embraces the source material.

BATMAN (1989) lobby card. Michael Keaton

Upon Batman‘s monstrously hyped release, many critics lamented the dominant personality of Jack Nicholson‘s Joker as compared to the title character. In hindsight, Nicholson’s killer clown seems less innovative than Heath Ledger’s radically different interpretation. Today, it is easier to recognize Michael Keaton’s Bruce Wayne as the eye of Tim Burton’s hurricane: he inhabits the quintessential capitalist fantasy. In a case of shrewd casting, Keaton’s Batman has no extraterrestrial powers, nor does he even look like he has spent his life in the gym. Rather, Wayne is fabulously wealthy and it is all those “wonderful toys,” bought by all that wonderful money, that makes him an all-American noir Superman, free to wreck vengeance upon a fascistic Gotham’s lower criminal element. Like Humphrey Bogart and Gary Cooper before him, Keaton went through the script, pruning his dialogue down to the bare essentials, making this an internalized performance.

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CURSE OF THE CRIMSON ALTAR (1968): Karloff’s (sort of) swan song from his bizarre and final six pack

Curse Of The Crimson Altar lobby

Although Cauldron of Blood (1970), Isle of the Snake People (1971) and Alien Terror were all released later, Curse of the Crimson Altar (1968) was actually Boris Karloff`s last completed film. At 82, he caught pneumonia (reportedly as a result of his work in the damp manor scenes) and succumbed to it a few weeks after filming.

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Alas, Karloff’s swan song is not an ideal exit, even if he is the most redeemable element of Curse. That assessment is completely without nostalgic sentiment. Karloff heads a genre dream cast: Christopher Lee, Barbara Steele and Michael Gough. Stills from the film suggest a potential weird movie lover’s delight, but that potential is squandered through direction and writing that is too pedestrian to even be unintentionally bizarre.

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