A distant vague memory, Incubus beckoned when I saw a DVD copy at a local bookstore, mostly because it starred William Shatner. And this was filmed in 1965—2 years before Captain Kirk would become responsible for 435 lives aboard the Enterprise!
Now any film starring Shatner has got to be worth a look, just for the "cheese" factor, but Incubus has much more going for it:
1) Low-budget horror in glorious black-and-white
2) Shot on location in beautiful Big Sur (where Earth, Sea, and Heaven converge)
3) Cinematography by Conrad Hall, who would later win Oscars for his work in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and American Beauty
4) It's in Esperanto!
5) A legendary curse surrounding the film.
Incubus received very little play when first released in the States; unless you were among the few to see it at a handful of art-houses or film festivals, you would have had to gone to Paris to see a showing at the Cinematheque Francaise (where it played to packed houses for 30 years). At least Incubus was commercially successful in that one theater, fulfilling the filmmakers' prophecy that a "foreign language" film would be more likely to find a showcase in American art-houses. He was certainly correct about that part—at that time very few American-made films had found a way into U.S. art-houses.
With a budget of about $100,000, producer Tony Taylor was convinced that he had discovered a special art-house niche that would guarantee an audience of at least 7 million people who spoke Esperanto. No film had ever been filmed in that artificially manufactured language, the mission of which was to help unite the planet by means of a common language. A ready-made audience—so the filmmakers thought!
They should have done more thorough research. The Esperanto-speaking audience is thinly spread around the planet, and virtually every country has Esperantists. That means a screening in Detroit might attract the three speakers of the language, while New York City might get a wild crowd of all five Esperanto enthusiasts living in the Big Apple. Not a very effective marketing strategy, as it turns out. But with English, French, or Italian subtitles (the latter done especially for the Venice Film Festival upon its release) we can make some sense of Incubus.
Perhaps more sense than the actors in certain scenes do! Coming from the Outer Limits television series, director Leslie Stevens had the unique idea of having everyone involved with Incubus (including the cameramen, grips, gaffers, etc.) speak Esperanto. So those eerie "otherworldly" looks you often see on the actors' faces are actually looks of noncomprehension—they really have no idea what they are doing! Their acting cues and directions have been communicated to them in Esperanto.
The filmmakers also theorize that the Esperanto language actually strengthens Incubus; the inane English dialogue would have been laughed at. But spoken in a language so few people know, the subtitled translations play much better and give Incubus a touch of pretentiousness that allows the art-house crowd to appreciate the "foreign film" more. It certainly played very well in front of French audiences.
Much of the reason for that must rest on the minimalist dialogue and strength of the cinematography. Incubus ranks as one of the more visual films coming out of the 1960s—it could almost play without any dialogue and be comprehensible. Indeed, its most notable strength is the camerawork of Conrad Hall. If you don't notice this just from viewing Incubus, Shatner will hit you over the head with the phrase "Conrad Hall is an artist" three times during his commentary on the newly issued DVD.
Using natural lighting as well as anyone, Hall contrasts light and shadows throughout the Big Sur setting (with its twisting eucalyptus trees) to create an ominous feeling with a minimum amount of artificial props. Individual shots often qualify as art pieces—his camera shoots between ferns and wildflowers, through creeping fog and up through the ocean. The long shots of the black-robed succubi slowly proceeding on the beach are reminiscent of Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal.
Not only does the cinematography remind us of Bergman, but so does the theme and mood of Incubus. The contest between good and evil, the haunting imagery, and stark dialogue lead us to think of the characters as Bergmanesque symbols that linger in the memory. Kia (played by the beautiful, Swedish-looking Allyson Ames) personifies the succubus who has become bored with the ease that she can tempt weak-minded souls to the ocean and send them to eternal hell.
She wants a challenge. What value do the flawed and corrupted souls have, she asks? How about attracting a pure, saintlike character instead?
Kia observes a couple of priests sneaking around and fears that perhaps all mankind is tainted and weak. That is, until she encounters a morally incorruptible soldier named Marc (William Shatner). Kia's older sister warns her about the power of love that the good soul has (perhaps she's had premonitions about Shatner's coming Star Trek adventures):
Beware that quiet man who seeks no honors, no rewards. That gentle person who seeks only peace, that man is a hero.
Tia decides that Shatner's is a soul worth fighting for, even to the point of bringing up the incubus from the mud when Shatner's overwhelming goodness and love seduces the succubus. The outcome, of course, is never in doubt. No pig-squealing goat-man who may well serve as the inspiration for the Satan of Rosemary's Baby could possibly hope to overcome William Shatner. I laughed a few times at the inevitable fight between the two male forces, as the battle foreshadows "Amok Time" and countless other hand-to-hand fights that Shatner would undertake with the Starship Enterprise.
Give Shatner some credit here for a remarkably relaxed and underplayed hero, quite unlike his subsequent over-the-top stints as Captain James T. Kirk. Shatner still gets the women, even with the handicap of having to woo them in Esperanto, and he maintains his dignity even after an embarrassing fall in the shallow river. (No stunt people, and this was one of many one-take shots.)
Incubus is a lot of fun to watch on DVD, with all the extras. There are illuminating interviews with the producer and a couple of cameramen that recall the circumstances of the filming and the weird events that occurred afterward, and two separate commentary tracks—including one by William Shatner himself.
Shatner is a trip! He talks extensively about the Incubus curse—how a hippie in the area was treated rudely and cursed the production, and how many horrendous things befell members of the crew.
Divorce, suicide, and death haunted the production, along with the loss of the film. Shatner even claims that Esperanto has suffered terrible setbacks since Incubus was released and swears that some unexplainable force prevented him from going on stage at the Venice film festival (he had plans to really ham it up there).
Fortunately for film buffs, and especially for cult-film fans and Shatner loyalists, one remaining print of Incubus was located in France at the Cinematheque Francaise. In terrible condition after 30 years of continuous screenings, the film has been restored to decent condition and is now available for far-wider distribution than it has ever received before. Perhaps the "curse" wears off at the turn of the millennium.