Monday, July 20, 2009

INCUBUS: Leslie Stevens' Cursed Masterpiece

An unusual film if only for the decision to have the actors read their lines in Esperanto, Leslie Stevens' INCUBUS (1965) stands as one of the most daring and original American horror films of the 1960s. Featuring an expressionistic landscape of demons and fog, the narrative involves Marc, a young soldier played by William Shatner, who becomes the target of Kia, a tempting force of satanic evil. Having grown tired of corrupt men who fall easily before her, she desires a truly good and courageous soul to deliver to hell. She succeeds in seducing Marc, but in the process, she herself falls prey to the purity of his love and so finds her evil corrupted. To exact her revenge, she summons the incubus, a male demon who rapes Marc's sister during a black mass, consequently drawing out the worst in Marc as he exacts his own bloody revenge.

The main strength of INCUBUS lies in its visual power, suggesting possible influences ranging from HORROR HOTEL to HAXAN and VAMPYR. The latter seems an especially important title to consider in the context of INCUBUS, as it becomes easy to imagine Marc living in the same land of shadows that serves as the setting of Dreyer's masterwork. Indeed, INCUBUS feels very much like a European film, a sensibility that the use of Esperanto reinforces. In terms of a narrative that involves demons trying to tempt mortals, the screenplay seems to come out of a tradition of morality plays that were popular during the medieval era, wherein characters often represented human vices and virtues.

In fact, the film works very much like a tragedy in the classic sense, though it includes set pieces that come across as startling for a film of its time. In particular, the rape of Marc's sister must have disturbed audiences lucky enough to see the film during its original release, as it features some brief if unexpected nudity. Moreover, the film's climactic scene between Kia and a satanic goat threatens to cross the line of good taste in its suggestiveness. Although he has become known for his scenery-chewing, Shatner plays his part remarkably well and, like the rest of the cast, seems to handle the Esperanto almost like a native language.

While POLTERGEIST often comes to mind when people think of cursed horror films, it really has nothing on INCUBUS. The negative and nearly all the prints of the film were lost in a mysterious fire around the time of its 1965 festival run. One of the film's actresses, Ann Atmar, committed suicide, and Milos Milos, who played the incubus, murdered Mickey Rooney's wife. Eloise Hardt, another actress in the film, suffered through the kidnapping and murder of her daughter. Apparently the lucky member of the cast, Shatner would score the part of Captain Kirk one year after the film's production. In addition to chronicling its various tragedies, the DVD from Fox Lorber offers a striking print of the film which we are lucky to enjoy, given the aforementioned fire.


The Vicar of VHS said...

Fantastic review of a truly strange flick! I watched this early in my college days and didn't know what to make of it at ALL. I need to revisit now, with my greater appreciation for subtlety and nuance and all that.

Plus, the VHS copy I had didn't have the nudity, I think.

Which is artistically important, after all. ;)

Also, I love reading about "cursed" movies, and this one has a real doozy of a curse, apparently. I'm sure there's a book full of such tales out there somewhere...if not, there oughta be!

Great job!

The Headless Werewolf said...

Glad you like the review, Vicar! It's definitely a film worth revisiting. I'm surprised to hear that the VHS might have been cut. The nudity is very brief, but hard to miss (and given its context, ultimately not very erotic.) A book on cursed movies would be most welcome!

James said...

Thank you for this! I'm not at all familiar with Incubus, but after reading your review and drooling over those images, I think I should check this out. Great site you've got here.

Bestest wishes. :)

Anonymous said...

Am I the only one who, upon seeing this film on the "free on demand" option on my cable service, thought that this was Leslie Stevens and the gang's attempt to do a Bergman movie. The Esperanto dialog does sound a bit like the faux Swedish dialog in the short Bergman parody THE DOVE. I suspect they did it in Esperanto for the simple fact that the dialog sounded better in a foreign tongue with subtitles.

Spencer Gill (