In 1965, “Outer Limits” creator Leslie Stevens and his crew descended on Big Sur to make a different sort of horror film. The result, Incubus, is a masterly, eccentric film like no other. It was shot by two Academy Award winners; after cinematographer Conrad Hall (American Beauty) left to work on Paul Newman’s Harper, camera operator William Fraker (Bullitt) took over for the climactic final shots involving lusty succubus Allyson Ames getting violated by an angry goat. There’s more yet to distinguish Incubus. It stars a fresh-faced William Shatner, is the only feature film ever made in Esperanto, and, after decades under a curse, is finally available on video.
It may have been a bad omen that Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate were at the premiere party. Ann Atmar, who played Shatner’s sister Arndis, committed suicide after shooting wrapped. After their affair soured, the Yugoslav actor Milos Milos, who played the title fiend, killed Mickey Rooney’s estranged fifth wife Barbara Ann Thompson and himself in early 1966. The film only saw theatrical release in France. Director Stevens’ career stalled; he went on to fight his way through bankruptcy. When producer Anthony Taylor tried to get the negatives out of storage in the Consolidated Film Industries LA vault in 1993, the lab reported that they had lost or otherwise destroyed separate prints of the film in Italian, French, and English, as well as a copy in 16mm. It looked like the end of Incubus.
Things took a turn for the better in 1996, when a print turned up in the permanent collection of the Cinémathèque Française in Paris. Producer Taylor fought to get the tattered print, which had run for packed audiences for decades, and fought again to get a frame-by-frame optical copy out of the country; the French had declared it a “national treasure.” After painstaking digital restoration and changing French subtitles to English with no original negative to work from, Taylor released Incubus on video late last year. Excluding an incident in which a burglar held the web designer for www.incubusthefilm.com at gunpoint before being killed in a shootout with police, it seems the curse has abated. Shatner has a new dual career as hepcat spokesman for Priceline.com and snappy jazz narration for the Ben Folds Five. And Succubus starlet Ames, who did well for herself marrying and divorcing director Stevens before moving on to a Rothschild heir, even remembers the original filming fondly, testifying in Taylor’s suit against the Consolidated Film vault that the cast and crew was blissfully strung out on dope.
Back in the land of the living, Incubus impresses. The austerely gloomy landscape that Conrad Hall creates out of southern California has the look of Murnau’s Nosferatu. Incubus shares with that legendary film a richly palled atmosphere. The horror is divorced from suspense; Stevens, like Murnau, can make foreboding locations like an abandoned beach or a grassy meadow as ominous as the villains themselves. Even the peaceful scenes exude the oppression of circumstance, radiating the sense that any happiness Shatner’s character may have will soon yield to the film’s inexorable suffering. The film concerns the plans of succubus Kia (Ames), tired of killing sinners, to corrupt and destroy a blameless man. Her succubus mentor Amæl (Eloise Hardt, who went on to play a newscaster in The Kentucky Fried Movie) warns her against the power of Christian love. After the saintly Shatner first refuses to sleep with Kia and then brings her to church, Amæl vows to avenge the “holy rape” by summoning an incubus out of hell (Milos) to ravish Shatner’s innocent sister Arndis (Atmar). Long speeches punctuated by long silences and an abbreviated plot involving the battle between good and evil both recall silent horror, and the expressionistic acting at times can look out of Caligari. Complementing any good silent film is a good score, and Dominic Frontiere delivers an ethereal, eerie pastiche of his “Outer Limits” music. When Shatner and Milos go at each other, the spectacle of two men locked in a death struggle involving a lot of pushing and a lot of bug eyes, shot startlingly from below and involving more spooky soundtrack cues than violence, is amazing. Who needs Fight Club violence when Bill Shatner and a barechested Yugoslav do such an entertaining Manichæan pushing match? When the overeager satanic goat, apparently named ‘Billy’, recalls Taylor, arrives to finish things off at the end, it is a brilliantly bizarre touch to end a brilliantly bizarre film.
Incubus was the last film from Leslie Stevens’ Daystar Productions. Founded in 1959, Daystar was the first “Free-Independent” production company in Hollywood, with neither lots nor soundstages, and Incubus was the most legendary among a legendary host of lost Daystar features. It is good to have the old devil friend with us again.