This week movie critic Amanda Ronan confesses that she was totally disturbed by this 1977 film, which she describes as “Silence of the Lambs meets The Saddle Club with a little American Horror Story thrown in.”
Two words describe this movie: weird and uncomfortable. The truth is I had no idea what sort of rabbit hole Netflix was leading me down, but here goes. Equus (1977) is based on a play by the same name starring Richard Burton and Peter Firth. The film was nominated for three Academy Awards including Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Adapted Screenplay.
The movie opens with a 17-year-old boy named Alan Strang (Firth) arriving at a mental hospital, shortly after his criminal trial, to be cared for by lead psychiatrist Dr. Martin Dysart (Burton).
Strang was accused and convicted of blinding six horses with a metal spike in a single night. Like I said…weird uncomfortable rabbit hole…
But let’s carry on…
Dr. Martin, in an effort to better understand his patient who at first only speaks via advertisement jingles, visits Alan’s religiously devout mother. She leads the doctor up to the boy’s room where there is a mural of assorted pictures and a creepy cardboard-framed horse photo. Mrs. Strang attempts to humanize her son by telling the doctor anecdotal stories about his childhood fascination with horses. She recalls once telling him that the pagans of the New World saw the horse and rider “as one, like gods.”
At Alan’s first therapy sessions he tells Dr. Martin about the first time he ever saw a horse. He was about six and it was on the beach. A very strange man on a tall, black horse picked him up and let him gallop in the surf. His parents, with good cause, freaked out! His father ripped Alan off the saddle, plunking him down in the sand in a ball of tears, while yelling at the stranger.
Back in the present, Alan begins telling more of his story to a tape recorder: like his belief that all horses contain a god named equus, his outrage at equestrianism and bowler hats, horse’s infinite humility towards mankind and something about cowboy orphans in Stetsons.
Then in a flashback we’re introduced to Jill Mason.
Jill gets Alan a job at her barn and teaches him to groom and care for the horses. He quickly becomes a model employee, despite the fact that he goes into empty stalls when nobody is looking and pretends to be a horse.
And then…well…things take a turn for the worse. Alan (in the flashbacks) starts sneaking out and riding the horses naked…yes I said naked. He goes to see a movie called Swede and Low. There is a “man bit” and a “chinkle chankle” involved…don’t ask. Finally, the night of his heinous crime, he returns to the barn after a particularly embarrassing moment involving his father and Jill.
Meanwhile, Dr. Marten (in the present) starts turning crazy himself after realizing that Alan in his insanity has more joy than him in his “normal” life. It all gets very psychoanalytical at this point and I was in a bit of shock at what I was watching so…
You’ll just have to watch and see what happens!
On a cinematic level this film is brilliant. The fantastically deranged portrayals by the actors, the odd camera angles, the eerie lighting and soundtrack all add up to a very emotional, truly difficult scene. The interaction between Firth and Burton during the last 20 minutes of the film is particularly haunting.
The plot could best be described as Silence of the Lambs meets The Saddle Club with a little American Horror Story thrown in. The late 1970s were all about the war against sexual repression and the “religious right,” so I expected a certain level of that in the film; a subject matter made even more famous by Brooke Shield’s controversial Pretty Baby released a year later in 1978. That being said, Equus is rated R, so young’uns should NOT watch. This movie deals with EXTREMELY adult themes…don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Fun fact for Harry Potter fans: Daniel Radcliffe reprised the role of Alan in London and on Broadway from 2007 to 2009.
I give Equus 2 Golden Horseshoes and proclaim it the Weirdest, Most Uncomfortable Movie I Have Ever Watched.