Sunday, August 19, 2012

#138: Incubus (Leslie Stevens, 1966)

In the late 1870s and early 1880s, an opthalmologist from Bialystok named Ludwig Lazarus Zamenhof created a new language. Calling the language Esperanto, Zamenhof had big ideas for its use. He wanted Esperanto to become a universal language spoken by the entire world's populace, bringing harmony to all people and cultures and moving us toward world peace. These lofty goals never quite came to pass, but the language was spoken in a mid-1960s horror film starring a pre-Star Trek William Shatner, so Zamenhof's work was not entirely in vain.
Incorrectly billed as the only film spoken entirely in Esperanto (there is one other, 1964's Angoroj), Incubus is nevertheless a singular experience. I don't know what the hell to make of this movie, but I know that it exists. Written and directed by the creator of the horror/sci-fi/fantasy anthology show The Outer Limits, Leslie Stevens, and gorgeously photographed by cinematography legend Conrad Hall (Cool Hand Luke, In Cold Blood, Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid, Fat City, Electra Glide in Blue, American Beauty), the film has a what-the-fuck-am-I-watching charm, some artier aspirations in the Jean Cocteau and Ingmar Bergman traditions, and some hammy B-movie moments. Occasionally plodding despite its 76-minute running time, Incubus has plenty of strengths, too, including a strong atmosphere, some wonderful shots, moments of humor, and the unaffected weirdness of the project.
The decision to use Esperanto as the film's language was not some goofy hippie brotherhood of man nonsense, as I suspected from the year of its release, but a response by the film's producer Anthony M. Taylor to one of his pet peeves. Taylor hated seeing German and Japanese characters speaking English in American WWII movies, and he felt similarly about the ancient demons and succubi in Incubus. Would ancient supernatural beings bust out some fluent Americanized English? Hell no, thought Taylor. To give the film an ancient, otherworldly, timeless quality, he decided to have everyone in the film speak Esperanto. I think we can ignore the fact that English predates Esperanto by several hundred years and agree that the language choice does give the film a bizarrely timeless quality.
Set in the fictional village of Nomen Tuum, the fairytale-esque plot concerns an enchanted wishing well, the Deer Well, that cures ailments and provides a fresher, healthier complexion to those who drink from it. This brings the infirm to Nomen Tuum, but it also attracts the vain and the greedy. So many vain and greedy people come to drink from its waters that a bunch of succubi ascend from the underworld to lure these chumps to a watery grave in the nearby sea and eternal damnation after that. Their modus operandi? Appear before these sinners, lure them to the ocean with promises of naked swimming, and then stomp on their heads while they are underwater. One succubus, Kia, grows bored of luring bad men to their doom and confides to her older sister, Amael, that she needs a real challenge. After all, these people are so vain and greedy they're already on the road to hell. It would be a lot more fun to find a man who is pure of heart, seduce him to the dark side, and then take his soul. Eh? Eh? Am I right? Amael is having none of that shit. She shoves her little sis down  and warns her not to mess with the light side. If she fails in the seduction attempt and instead inspires pure love, she will be corrupted by the light. Kia ignores her older sister and seeks out a good man anyway.
As we all know, a good man is hard to find. Fortunately for Kia, she observes war hero Marc (William Shatner) and his kindly, virginal, yet sexy sister Arndis (Arndis?) drinking from the well. Kia won the good man lottery because Marc and Arndis seem to be the only people left in Nomen Tuum, although this can be attributed to the film's budget rather than any serious problems in Nomen Tuum. Kia pretends to be a lost traveler stumbling upon the modest home of Marc and Arndis, and Marc is instantly smitten. She attempts her sexy seduction, with promises of nude sunbathing and ocean swimming, but Marc is such a goddamn goody two shoes Christian war hero devoted older brother nice guy modest salt of the earth that he resists temptation and takes Kia to church instead. She sees the religious icons and the crucifix, freaks out, claws Marc in the face, and runs away. Kia reports back to Amael, who is outraged at this violation. In the world of the succubi, Marc is guilty of the equivalent of raping Kia. The sisters then summon an incubus (Milos Milos) to enact Satanic revenge on Marc and Arndis.
I haven't seen every movie on earth, but I am going to bet there is not another one like Incubus. Several shot compositions are clearly inspired by Bergman and Cocteau, as I mentioned earlier, and the story is in the fairytale/fable tradition, but the combination of elements here is so strange that the movie seems to exist on its own planet, the presence of William Shatner the only proof that this thing didn't fall from the sky along with some other space junk and land in a random Cleveland backyard in the mid-1960s.
I can't conclude this review without mentioning the Incubus curse. I must precede the following information with the disclaimer that I don't believe in curses. Life is hard and often terrible and if you live long enough, many shitty things will happen to you, and then you will die. That is a big part of what life is, for everyone. I also need to point out that many people involved with Incubus experienced long, successful lives, including Shatner, Conrad Hall, and Leslie Stevens. However, so many colossal misfortunes befell so many people involved with Incubus and the actual film itself that it makes the so-called Poltergeist curse look like a cool glass of skimmed milk on a pleasant spring day in an idyllic meadow near a gentle stream.
Okay, steel yourselves for the roll call of human misery I'm about to lay on you. Despite some successful festival screenings and a rapturous response from the French, Incubus was a huge international flop. Shortly thereafter, the negative and several prints were destroyed in a fire. The remaining prints disappeared when some were destroyed in a lab processing error and the remainder were lost, the latter misfortune attributed to a "conspiracy" by the filmmakers. I tend not to believe in many conspiracies, but the filmmakers make a good case by pointing out the implausibility of hundreds of prints disappearing from several studio archives and vaults by accident or error. The film was lost, presumably for good, until a quality print was found in a French film archive in 1998. That print was the basis for the restoration funded by the Sci-Fi Channel (now the Syfy Channel) that led to the DVD release. The film's composer, Dominic Frontiere, composed the jingle music for Paramount Pictures. This jingle was discontinued when reports surfaced of small children being frightened by it. Here's a link. Frontiere's luck got worse, though it was his own damn fault, in the 1970s. He was convicted and spent some time in prison for scalping thousands of Super Bowl tickets. At the time, his wife was co-owner of the St. Louis Rams. So far, so unlucky, but things are about to get tragic. A few weeks after filming completed, Ann Atmar, the woman who portrayed Arndis, committed suicide. A few months later, Milos Milos, the titular incubus, murdered his girlfriend, Carolyn Mitchell Rooney, estranged then-wife of Mickey Rooney, and then killed himself. A few years later, the 17-year-old daughter of Eloise Hardt (Amael), was kidnapped from the driveway of her home and murdered. The killer was never caught. Now that I've depressed you all, I bid you farewell until the next post.

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