Director: Leslie Stevens
Screenplay: Leslie Stevens
Cast: William Shatner (as Marc); Allyson Ames (as Kia); Eloise Hardt (as Amael); Robert Fortier (as Olin); Ann Atmar (as Arndis); Milos Milos (as Incubus)
A Night of a Thousand Horror (Movies) #5
Synopsis: In the village of Nomen Tuum, a well exists that if drank from is said to heal the sick and the lame. Succubi, who lore sinful men away with their beauty to drown in the nearby sea, have taken advantage of the region's popularity surrounding this well to claim souls. When one succubus Kia (Ames) tries to temp a good man away by the name of Marc (Shatner), a wounded war veteran living in the area with his sister Arndis (Atmar), her soul is tainting by the love that develops for him, leaving her senior succubus Amael (Hardt) to get revenge by calling the Incubus (Milos) from the bowls of Hell to corrupt and break Marc.
As films go, Incubus practically screams for cult film status which it's still in dire need of despite the Syfy Channel preserving and restoring it. A film designed to promote Esperanto, a manufactured language designed to be universal and known for myself for its continuous references within the Red Dwarf TV series. A supernatural horror film in fact, spoken entirely in the language, starring pre-Star Trek William Shatner in a central role. The film gains further cultish reputation because of both its obscurity, thought to have been lost until a surviving print with French subtitles was found in the Cinematheque Francaise in Paris and the rather gristly "curse" surrounding it, one like Poltergeist (1982) where either a series of unfortunate coincidences or real effects took place that led to film being pulled into obscurity and possible loss from existence.
The best thing about this packaged cult movie premise is that Incubus is not only a good film but an eerie supernatural drama fully entrenched in the world of Ingmar Bergman movies, one which doesn't come off as a pastiche but an admirable riff of the same sort of existential horror territory. Shot in black-and-white by future Oscar winner Conrad Hall, the film is set in a non-existent European world that's completely out-of-time od the contemporary world it was made in, a coastal and forest region set during a solar eclipse that's completely isolated from civilisation. Incubus perfectly gets the mood of Bergman in its religion soaked narrative where character drift along with concern for their souls, not only the mortal man in Shatner's Marc but even the succubus Kia who is tainted by empathy and love and pulled to pieces internally by it. This is mixed with the tone of European horror cinema with the film's distorted day and night time atmosphere, the type of cinema where mood is the greatest importance, the plot points closer to fairytales in aspects such as the sister Arndis losing her eyesight during the eclipse briefly.
The Esperanto dialogue causes the film to feel like it exists from an unknown European country, close to how post-dubbing can drastically effect the tone of the Euro-horror films of the decade later with a ghostly effect. The fact William Shatner is playing a meek, honourable man with no ounce of camp while speaking in the language does immediately catch one off guard as well, the most known person and a pop culture entity by himself, the serious tone alongside a theatrical kind of alienation from the language barrier having a drastic effect on how the viewer gauges with all the performances including his. The moments which show unconventional plot hints adds to this, not only the religious themes but the clear implications of incest between Marc and Arndis occasionally hinted at, flirting when they're first introduced around the healing well and setting up their strange chemistry together. Even before the film becomes more gothic and ominous - black robed figures straight out of a Sunn O((( photo, Milos Milos' thin figured demon writhing out of the earth, a Satanic goat - the tone is out-of-synch from conventional reality already in its scorched look and magical tone.
Despite the surviving version of the film being the best possible from a less of well off surviving print, with French subtitles burnt on the screen, Incubus is still exceptionally gorgeous in its European influenced look. It's entirely shot as a mystical quasi-Euro landscape which feels both of the sixties but completely alien to reality, evoking Jean Rollin and Bergman, whilst also mixing Christianity and pagan iconography into its aesthetic look. The entire aspect of the film being in Esperanto does give a lot of unique character to the material alongside the distinct atmospheric look. Naturally the first inclination is to ask how well Shatner is able to actually speak it on camera, hearing the occasional abrupt pronunciation, but in reality the alternative language places as much a strange air in general for the entire cast.
Abstract Rating (High/Medium/Low/None): Low
If the film had entirely been a horror film entirely in Esperanto, then it might've been merely a gimmick. One film I also desperately want to see is Deafula (1975), the only vampire film made to promote American sign language, thought whether it's any good or just a promotional tool for the language is up to debate, whether the only delight is to see Dracula use sign language or that rare case of something being more than a future gimmick to entice viewers to dig it out.
This is also an issue with this being a film with William Shatner in it as that's the other major drawing card for many to see it. While he made interesting films before he became James Tiberius Kirk - such as the Roger Corman anti-racist film The Intruder (1962), this could've easily turned out to be something cheap and cheerful. What cements Incubus as an abstract film is a combination of these two factors against the decision to not merely make a promotional work for Esperanto but have actually artistic aspirations that could be pulled off exceptionally well, an unconventional art movie soaked in the vibes of European cinema and occult horror that's trippy and absolutely riveting to sit through.
Abstract Spectrum: Expressionist/Fantastique/Weird
Abstract Tropes: Use of Unique Language Specific for Film; Occult Imagery; Slow, Methodical Pace; Christian Versus Satanic Imagery; Existential Tone
Finally able to see Incubus, it lifts itself beyond merely being a gimmicked horror film that its surface may suggest into being a little gem.