Why you should care
Because movies that make you question the very fabric of sanity and reality can’t be all bad.
It might get a little bit hard to remember under the shadow of the current cinema reality where you can watch $60 million films on your $350 phone, but there was a time — specifically the early 1970s — when low budget could go big time and movies weren’t always made by corporate committees. “The world is a better place because this odd hybrid exists,” says Bob Calhoun, film critic and author of Shattering Conventions: Commerce, Cosplay and Conflict on the Expo Floor. These films’ curious blend of high aspirations and negligible funding created a genre that succeeded in scaring the crap out of a generation of viewers very possibly because of their extremely rough edges. “I always felt I was glimpsing lost treasures of some sort,” Calhoun says in almost total life-and-death fashion.
An understanding not lost at all on the lines of people spread down Queens Boulevard in Jamaica, Queens, at the end of August 1971. The occasion? A showing of Mark of the Devil, a movie that was rated V for Violence — its posters screamed Positively the Most Horrifying Film Ever Made. In a Grand Guignol turn, theaters would not admit any viewers without vomit bags (handed out with the tickets). The movie was filmed in 1969 in a castle in Austria where actual witch interrogations had taken place, and the production of its story about witch interrogations was beset with all manner of ugliness. The producer hated the director, the cinematographer hated the director, cinematographer and director filmed scenes behind each other’s backs, six languages made the production a babel of confusion and out of it all came a totally unpleasant 97 minutes of torture scene after torture scene. All for about $114,836.
The film itself? Critically lambasted, banned in lots of places and crude by today’s standards. The upside? Serious box office, being able to boast about its later, bigger stars Herbert Lom and Udo Kier, and, because we’re still talking about it 46 years later, a must-see if you’re not so hung up on that redeeming social value stuff. “Look, shock value equals box-office bucks,” says Shelby Lermo, guitarist for black/death metal band Ulthar. “But Mark of the Devil had a lot of stylistic amplifications around a core message that the real monsters are the humans, not the demons humans invoke to justify our own cruelty.”
And where Mark of the Devil was almost unremittingly grim and dark like a lot of the Hammer Films productions that inspired it, Equinox, a 1967 California creation with a budget of roughly $6,500, was a horror film that succeeded, curiously enough, with very little night and shadow.
Succeeded? Precisely because this story of four 20-something hikers on a picnic who stumble across a writ of some ancient unleashed evil that has them battling demons for 80 minutes, while an immediate sensation on the midnight movie showing, most significantly went on to influence director Sam Raimi (along with George Lucas and special-effects god Ray Harryhausen). Raimi, of the blockbuster Spider-Man trilogy, debuted with The Evil Dead, a stunner in its own right.
“Raimi got every idea he ever had from Equinox,” Calhoun says. “I mean, the plot’s the same as Evil Dead, and Equinox even has the superimposed spinning clocks and Herb Tarlek and stop-motion!”
A contention not at all denied. “I had seen Equinox at least twice in drive-ins before making Evil Dead,” Tom Sullivan, special-effects and makeup artist for the Evil Dead movies, writes in the liner notes of the Criterion DVD set Backyard Monsters: Equinox and the Triumph of Love.
It even, in a certain crazy way, presaged the Charles Manson murders by showing relatively clean-cut kids in the grips of demonic forces in the sunblasted deserts and hills of Southern California.
“They made every single connection between cheap, creepy, weird and dangerous work for them,” says poet/singer/confrontationalist Lydia Lunch, whose appearance on Sonic Youth’s “Death Valley ’69” did very much the same thing.
No mistaking, then, that all of these flicks collected around the same fateful set of years during which, it was widely held, the age of peace and love had ended. Vietnam was in full swing, corruption in high places, the aforementioned acid-fueled Manson murders and ball-busting rowdies by way of Hells Angels turned murderous in ’69 at Altamont. Which is precisely where 1973’s Brit import Psychomania (aka The Death Wheelers), the story of a cult of Satan-worshipping bikers who have decided that suicide is the key to eternal life, comes in. Not out-and-out scary, but its overriding, disturbing moral turn did what many slasher films couldn’t.
And, oh yeah, it also featured the last screen performance of the great and sardonic George Sanders, who killed himself right before the movie opened. Sanders left this note: “Dear World, I am leaving because I am bored. I feel I have lived long enough. I am leaving you with your worries in this sweet cesspool. Good luck.”
Indeed. Hell-raising and ass-kicking, all with British accents. Was there a point? Sure. What was it? Does it matter?