D V D   R E V I E W   B Y   J O E   P E T T I T   J R .

 
In 1965 Leslie Stevens, creator and sometimes writer and director of the cult classic television series The Outer Limits, began gathering ideas for a project that would kick-start his independent production company Daystar. With the help of producer Anthony M. Taylor, head of Contempo III Productions, Stevens began developing Daystar's first project -- a supernatural story to be filmed entirely in Esperanto, an invented universal language. {Ludwig L. Zamenhof, a Polish ophthalmologist who had dedicated 15 years to the languageís creation, introduced Esperanto in 1887.) Stevens chose the language to impart an otherworldly feel to the film, hoping to guarantee art house appeal. Remember, the '60s were a time when artists of all types were stretching boundaries and priding themselves on creating works that looked and sounded like nothing else. That decision eventually worked against gaining the film widespread distribution. However it was one of the factors that contributed to the creation of a unique "lost" masterpiece of occult cinema. At the present time, Incubus is the first and only movie to be filmed completely in Esperanto.

Incubus opens in the imaginary village of Nomen Tuum (Latin for "thy name"), where an ancient "Deer Well" reputedly contains healing waters. During the initial sequence, the narrator provides us with background on the well and the spiritual state of its pilgrims:

"In certain cases, people have been restored to seeming health, but more often have acquired a subtle beauty. For this reason the area has attracted the vain and the corrupt as well as the infirm. As a place of dark miracles, the village has become a searching ground for demons. Manifesting themselves as young women, the Succubi lure tainted souls into final degradation, claiming them at the end for the God of Darkness."

One young succubus, Kia (Allyson Ames), has grown weary of harvesting corrupted souls. Longing to stretch her wings, she sets her sights on Marc (William Shatner in a pre-Star Trek role), a noble, battle-scarred soldier who heroically risked his life to save injured comrades in an unnamed confrontation. Kia's sister, the older and wiser Amael (Eloise Hart), cautions her to continue gathering the souls of the wicked: "Keep away from the good! They carry a power that rules the heart. A great power, mysterious, profound...far beyond your understanding!"

How fitting that Shatner is the representative of this power -- Love. As Captain Kirk, just a few years later, he delivers many soliloquies on the nature of love, while simultaneously seducing almost every exotic alien woman he encounters! Of course, Kia cannot fight the power of his noble love. In a scene that implies the consummation of their relationship, Kia lies sleeping on the ground while Marc rests next to her staring affectionately at her sleeping form. In the foreground, a drooping pussywillow dangles above their heads, implying spent force. The honorable Marc carries her to the church while she sleeps, intending to get a holy blessing on the union. However, because Kia is a demon, her exposure to the inside of the church severely weakens her and poisons her with supernatural terror. In a stunning camera shot, Kia runs screaming from the church. The camera follows in one continuous motion rolling upside down (the camera man actually lay in the aisle of the church, rolling over as Allyson Ames ran over him towards the exit). In a demonic fury, Amael incites Kia to avenge her "holy rape" by calling up the Incubus (Milos Milos). Before the film concludes, we witness the demonic rape of Marc's sister, Arndis, played by Ann Atmar, a fight between Marc and the Incubus (it wouldn't be a Shatner flick without a brawl against hostile alien forces), and a final showdown outside a church pitting Kia against the Incubus manifested in the form of a goat!

Darkly powerful images run throughout the film, no small thanks to the stunning camera work by Conrad Hall (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, American Beauty) and William Fraker (Rosemaryís Baby) -- both award-winning cinematographers. Under the eye of the lens, the alien landscape of Big Sur breathes and writhes. This appears notably in a later scene where Marc, returning home from a hallucinatory chase after Kia in the dead of night, wanders through an open field, framed by the windows of an abandoned house. Dark spirits populate the windswept grasses and the hoary trees. The decaying, mist-shrouded house stands alone in the field. Moments before, it was the setting for the black mass and the sacrifice of Arndis' virginity. As the camera lingers, the house exudes evil. These images, as well as those in the summoning of the Incubus sequence, linger in the mind long after viewing.

Several of the performers shine despite the language barrier. Ames excels as the demon Kia who strives to stalk more challenging prey. Her performance covers a wide range. She is slyly seductive as she lures a vain drunk to his watery doom in the opening sequence, then haughty and proud as she confidently sets out to seduce Marc, and finally tormented, loving the mortal Marc while desiring to completely destroy and damn his soul for turning her heart against her dark father, Satan. Milos Milos gives a chilling performance as the Incubus, particularly during the black mass sequence, where he swaggers into the abandoned house, bare-chested and glistening with sweat, lasciviously licking his lips before eagerly violating Arndis' innocence. However Shatner comes off as the most accomplished performer. He inhabits Marc with an easy grace, capturing both his light heart and nobility with a subtle performance, the likes of which we'll never see again from the future Captain Kirk. In his fluid delivery of the lines, Shatner breathes life into Esperanto, causing us to wonder momentarily if he isn't a native speaker.

Any discussion of Incubus would be incomplete without touching upon some of the bad luck (some would say the "curse") that has plagued the film for over thirty years. The film was shown once commercially in the United States, at a disastrous premiere during the San Francisco Film Festival. A defective print with no soundtrack was accidentally sent. After the correct print was rushed over, members of the Esperanto society heckled the film, jeering at the mispronunciation of some words.

After the premiere, tragedy struck twice. Atmar committed suicide shortly after the production wrapped. Not long after, Milos murdered Mickey Rooney's fifth wife, Barbara Ann Thompson, then shot himself -- a case of an affair gone horribly wrong. These two scandals, combined with the Esperanto soundtrack and a brief glimpse of Atmar's breast during the rape sequence, insured that distributors didn't give the film a second look. Daystar went bankrupt, and Stevensí career was virtually finished.

However, Incubus did succeed in France, opening to critical and box office acclaim, which seems fortuitous in light of what happened next. Admitting defeat momentarily, Taylor stored all the negatives and prints in several vaults at CFI (Consolidated Film Industries), a film lab in Hollywood. In 1993, he contacted the lab only to be told they couldn't find the prints or negatives. After months of investigation, CFI admitted that all the prints and negatives had been accidentally destroyed. Lawsuits followed, and it looked like Incubus was lost forever. As fate would have it, one existing print turned up in the permanent collection of the Cinematheque Francais in Paris, a museum dedicated to preserving significant films.

These and other "cursed" incidents are discussed within the DVDís two sets of commentary: the first given by William Shatner, the second offered by horror writer and historian David J. Schow, producer Anthony Taylor, and cinematographers Conrad Hall and William Fraker. Shatner reminisces about the difficulty of the production -- the intense cold of the Monterey night shoots, the physically arduous treks through the mud-covered landscapes, and the constant rain. All contributed to nervousness among the crew. Additionally, Shatner reveals that the cast and crew had to keep the filmís subject matter a secret. In an amusing anecdote, Shatner recalls an incident where a local hippie, who was treated rudely by the cast and crew, laid a curse upon the production. Itís hard to discern from Shatnerís commentary if he actually believes the movie has been cursed, or if he is playing the master showman -- running with the idea and having fun planting red herrings throughout his recollections. Ideally, he should have been paired with Taylor, Hall, or Fraker, simply as a check on some of Shatnerís more suspect tales. Alas, conflicts in scheduling prevented a reunion among these men.

The second commentary provides the history of the events that plagued the film and the participants after the production (though the history is scattershot in no linear order throughout the commentary), as well as revealing a few details regarding the restoration of the film. Hall even points out a few negligent processing problems with the restored video that were slated to be corrected for the DVD, which unfortunately still remain.

Even so the DVD is a marked improvement over the video release, with much sharper images. Considering the wear upon the one existing print, the restoration crew did a phenomenal job cleaning up the film. A comparison between the video and DVD versions of the title credits easily demonstrates the extent of the clean up. The sound restoration is also greatly improved. During the fight between the Incubus and Marc, the Incubus grabs a flaming wooden stake from Marc and performs some mysterious movements with it before tossing it away. On the DVD, it becomes sickeningly clear from the digital soundtrack that he repeatedly stabs Marc with the stake.

Initially, I had a complaint about the bulky black background behind the subtitles: it blocks out parts of the picture. However, the black background is necessary to cover up the French subtitles from the sole existing print. The DVD provides the French print so the viewer can see the portions of the screen that are blocked in the English version. Unless a print of Incubus with its original English subtitles is discovered, this version will do just fine.

 


Incubus is now available on DVD from Fox Lorber Films and Winstar Video. The disc features several special features, including an interview with Anthony Taylor, Conrad L. Hall, and William Fraker, conducted by historian David J. Schow (author of The Outer Limits Companion); information about the Incubus curse; and two separate audio commentary tracks, one featuring William Shatner and the second featuring Anthony Taylor, Conrad L. Hall, and William Fraker. Suggested retail price: $24.98. Incubus is also available on VHS. Suggested retail price: $19.98. For more information, check out the Incubus Web site.