Incubus is Stinkubus!
Incubus airs Saturday, October 19th on TCM. Check local listings for times.
If you ever wanted to see what a film must be like “under the influence” without actually getting stoned, I reluctantly offer up the 1966 muddled “horror” known as Incubus (1966). It’s mostly confusing, rarely fascinating, periodically boring, and will leave you “dazed and confused” without actually being baked. Not that I know what that would be like. (Don’t do drugs, kids. Stay in school).
In fact, if you want to add paranoid to the equation, try stumbling onto Incubus midway through, without any indication of what it is. I did that. I thought I had ingested something that caused me to lose all coherence. Thank God for the internet.
I’ll try not to bury the lede, as I’ve already done, two paragraphs in. Incubus was an American film, produced entirely in the Esperanto language, in an attempt by director Leslie Stevens to give the movie an “other-worldly” feel. And it does that – in spades.
Esperanto was originated in Warsaw in 1887 by Dr. Ludwik Zamenhof as an attempt to break down international barriers and create a universal, world-wide language. A lofty ambition, and strangely, there are today a few hundred thousand Esperanto speakers spanning the globe. Director Stevens real reason for making Incubus in Esperanto is he was misinformed that there were a “few million” speakers of its tongue all over the world, and thought this would mean a built-in audience that would pay to see a film in their language. Sadly, this was not the case, as the actual few hundred thousand potential ticket buyers, when spread over the globe, could only possibly average out to two or three heads per screening, known in today’s vernacular as “flop.”
But Incubus was not a completely misguided affair. Director Stevens was the creator behind the legendary cult TV series The Outer Limits. His show was canceled, so he pulled together the same team to cheaply produce this faux “foreign art house” film. Two notables in his gang were Cinematographer Conrad Hall, who later became one of the most honored DPs in film, garnering Oscars for his Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid, American Beauty and Road to Perdition. The other was a young actor who, to date, had appeared in a half dozen Outer Limits, Twilight Zones and Alfred Hitchcock Presents and was on the cusp of immortality when, only a year later, he would step onto the deck of the USS Enterprise as Capt. James T, Kirk.
Made in just 10 days in California’s breathtaking Big Sur, Incubus’ cast learned the little known language of Esperanto phonetically under the guidance of “experts” who, strangely, were not on set when cameras rolled. Several Esperanto speakers supposedly showed up at the film’s premiere and heckled it to death for its horrible misuse and mispronunciations. Is there anything worse than having your film canned by the very people it’s intended for?
Incubus is set in the fabled village of Nomen Tuum (Latin for “Your Name”) with a well that can heal the sick and make a person beautiful. Because of this, narcissists are attracted to the life-prolonging waters, but the town offers up a double-edged sword. It’s also ground-zero for darkness (“Hell” to you and me) and demons – chiefly, succubi, beautiful vixen-like creatures that lure these superficial individuals into temptation then kill them, whisking their souls off to “El Diablo” (Spanish for “The Devil”). A soldier who is pure of soul, Marc (William Shatner), goes to the well with his sister to heal his battle scars. He is seduced by Kia (Allyson Ames) a “disillusioned” young succubus, who has tired of the enticing business and wants someone more stimulating for her prey. Falling in love with Shatner, she struggles with these new feelings. Cue a strange trip to a cathedral, Shatner’s sister’s blindness during an eclipse and an innocent “act of love” that the succubi interpret as “defiling.” They summon an Incubus (Milos Milos) to kill Marc. Then all sorts of mishigas (Yiddish, for “craziness”) takes place, with a wrestling goat, lurking demons, an embrace and then it’s over.
It sounds amazing. It’s not. The stories surrounding it are much more interesting than the total sum of its parts. The film was allegedly “cursed,” as actress Ann Atmar committed suicide a year later; the Incubus, Serbian actor Milos Milos, killed himself and his girlfriend (Mickey Rooney’s estranged wife) nine months before the film’s release; and the daughter of another of the film’s actresses was kidnapped and murdered. Some connect director Leslie Stevens’ going bankrupt as part of the curse, however, I would just chalk it up to what happens when you make a film in Esperanto.
Even Incubus’ negative was “cursed,” supposedly destroyed in a fire. It was thought lost for decades, thus heightening its cult status, until a French print was discovered in 1996, and a new master was struck frame-by-frame. If only “lost” works like Theda Bara’s Cleopatra or Lon Chaney’s London After Midnight could be found and given the attention of Incubus.
The resulting effect is an uneven hodgepodge that has some beautiful framing and imagery (thanks to Conrad Hall and his obvious Ingmar Bergman influences) and fortuitous moments that capture the eerie tone of The Outer Limits (composer Dominic Frontiere was also part of The Outer Limits gang, and his music even has that Star Trek “feel’).
But Incubus will ultimately leave you dissatisfied, bored, and digging through your cupboard for some munchies. I could only imagine the real nightmare of watching Incubus “under the influence.” Whoa. (Don’t do it, kids. Stay in school.)
*Eds. note: Despite Wade’s dire warnings, I think Incubus sounds AMAZEBALLS! So I found it on YouTube. ~ B.D.