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teaser Incubus (1965)

Leslie Stevens' Incubus boasts an amazing number of the sort of Cult Film attributes that make it nearly the ideal Psychotronic movie. It was written and directed by a known figure from the world of popular culture (Leslie Stevens, the creator of the cult favorite TV series The Outer Limits [1963-1965]); it features a performance from a soon-to-be iconic actor (William Shatner, just a year from playing Capt. James T. Kirk in Star Trek [1966-1969]); it is truly unique in one glaring artistic choice (it is the only feature filmed entirely in the "universal language" of Esperanto); and fittingly for its subject matter (it deals with demonism and mysticism), it seemed to be a "cursed" project, with terrible things befalling several in the cast. Finally, forever securing Incubus in the upper echelon of cult/Psychotronic status, the film itself was never properly released in the United States, and was unavailable for many years and nearly lost forever.

The project originated with writer/ director/ producer Leslie Stevens (1924-1998). In 1965 the ABC network cancelled his TV series The Outer Limits after its second season, and as a co-founder of Daystar Productions, Stevens sought to make a feature to keep the artistic team he had assembled for the series busy. Stevens wrote a horror script that could be filmed quickly and cheaply on existing locations, and he and his new production partner Anthony Taylor felt the final product could be marketed to art-house cinemas around the world. Stevens' story was basic, even elemental, in its pitting of the forces of Darkness against the forces of Light: The village of Nomen Tuum holds an ancient Deer Well, which is said to contain healing waters. Olin (Robert Fortier) comes to drink from the Well, but since he is corrupt, he tastes only saltwater. A blonde woman named Kia (Allyson Ames) attracts Olin and tempts him toward the sea with a promise of a naked swim. There she drowns Olin. Kia is a demon, a succubus who lures the corrupt to the God of Darkness. She tells her sister Amael (Eloise Hardt) that she is bored and desires a challenge. She finds it in Marc (William Shatner), an injured soldier with a pure heart. When Kia falls in love with Marc, Amael calls on the Incubus (Milos Milos) to ravage Marc's sister Arndis (Ann Atmar), who has been blinded during an eclipse.

William Shatner later remarked that Stevens' script "...had a starkness and a simplicity to it - of good and evil, it was kind of Greek in its simplicity and the way that events marched, in the script, to their inevitable conclusion. So I read it and called him back quickly and said, 'that's wonderful, I'd love to do it.'" At this point in his career, Shatner had appeared in numerous episodic television roles (including the Outer Limits episode "Cold Hands, Warm Heart") and in supporting roles in a few notable features, such as Judgment at Nuremberg (1961) and The Outrage (1964). His only leads in a feature at this point were for The Explosive Generation (1961) and, more provocatively, in Roger Corman's The Intruder (1962), which received very scant distribution. Shatner said, "when [Incubus] was presented to me I was in the throes of some good work and in demand, and this was a small picture, it was something that you might not think of as, in that famous phrase, a 'career move,' but it was so intriguing, and I so enjoyed working with Leslie Stevens, that I wanted to be in it."

Early in development Stevens made the crucial decision to film his actors speaking in Esperanto. Stevens was a fan of the language created in 1887 by Polish oculist Ludwig L. Zamenhof as a planned universal tongue; the film would be subtitled for exhibition in different countries. Co-producer Taylor later explained (in a 1999 interview with Tom Weaver), "...basically, we wanted Incubus in a foreign language because it 'put us in a different place,' and we thought that might help in getting it into art houses, the one place where subtitles were. We were doing it for the uniqueness of it." Experts in Esperanto translated the script and were also brought in for 10 days of rehearsals, which were held at the Daystar offices on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles. The actors learned their lines phonetically, but were on their own once shooting started; the Esperanto experts did not travel to the shooting locations.

Stevens had scouted locations for his film such as Big Sur Beach and the Mission San Antonio. He was naturally worried, though, that his stark script featuring demons would ruin his chances of securing the necessary permissions. So, he concocted a phony script - a documentary called Religious Legends of Old Monterey. This script kept the Esperanto language, but all of the character descriptions and stage directions dealt with innocuous monks and farmers. As director of photography Conrad Hall later recalled, "We were brought into meetings and cautioned not to talk to anybody about what we really were doing." Producer Taylor said that "My parochial school education told me that the good Fathers might not like the idea of a goat attacking someone on the front of the Mission San Antonio."

Principal photography took place in May of 1965; the shooting took two and-a-half weeks. Director of photography Conrad L. Hall was another Outer Limits regular. (Hall would go on to be one of the most respected photographers in film, winning Oscars for his work on American Beauty [1999] and Road to Perdition [2002]). Hall later described one of the locations near the Mission, which during night shooting "...was wonderful because it had these tortured limbs and when you back-lit that and threw in smoke and everything it created something other-worldly looking." The score of Incubus is by Daystar co-founder Dominic Frontiere, and is mostly compiled from cues that had already been used in Outer Limits episodes. Though reused, the music was certainly appropriate to the eerie goings-on. The final budget of Incubus was approximately $125,000.

Incubus premiered at the 1966 San Francisco International Film Festival. The screening was not altogether successful, as Taylor later noted; it seems that a group of Esperanto speakers numbering between 50 and 100 sat together, "...and any time things were not pronounced correctly, they screamed and laughed and carried on like maniacs." Where distribution of his film was concerned, Stevens made a massive miscalculation and he and Taylor could find no willing taker for Incubus in North America, nor in any other country except for one - France. As Shatner later put it, there may have been seven million people around the world who spoke the language, but "what [Stevens] failed to understand, in all his expertise, was that there were three people in Detroit, and five people in New York, and two people in Tokyo, who spoke Esperanto. And to get a print for three people - a print for $10,000 - to interest three people in Chicago who spoke Esperanto, was not good financing."

Years later, with the advent of home video, Taylor decided to resurrect Incubus for the VHS market. In 1993 he contacted Consolidated Film Industries in Los Angeles, the film vault that should have been safeguarding the original negative, elements, and existing prints. To his horror, Taylor was told that all of the materials were missing, presumed destroyed. His only hope was to find a print in France, and fortunately, one was discovered in 1996 at the Cinematheque Francaise in Paris. The print presented two major problems. First, it had burnt-in French subtitles, and second, it was in unprojectable quality. To create a new working source in English, a copy had to be created optically a frame-at-a-time, and new English subtitles created, rather awkwardly, with black bars over the existing French subtitles.

Not forgetting the "curse" of Incubus, it so happens that several in the young cast met with tragedy shortly after the film was completed. In the most notorious example, Milos Milos, the actor from Belgrade who portrayed Evil personified in the film, committed murder-suicide, taking with him his girlfriend at the time who happened to be the estranged fifth wife of Mickey Rooney. Everyone in the industry knew of the incident, and producer Taylor cites it as one of the reasons the film couldn't find a distributor in the United States. In addition, Ann Atmar, so affecting as the blind sister in the film, committed suicide less than a year after the movie was finished. Finally, the young daughter of actress Eloise Hardt was kidnapped from the driveway of her home in Los Angeles and later found murdered.

Having become easily viewable in the past decade, Incubus may have lost some of its power as a mysterious artifact, but it does not disappoint. Dripping with atmosphere and eeriness, Incubus may be too slow-moving for some, but at the very least it is a fascinating mood piece that plays like a lost, expanded episode of The Outer Limits (not an insult, given the high production values of that series). For many others, Leslie Stevens' quirky stab at art-house immortality stands as a recovered masterpiece of horror.

Producer: Anthony M. Taylor
Director: Leslie Stevens
Screenplay: Leslie Stevens
Cinematography: Conrad L. Hall; William A. Fraker (uncredited)
Music: Dominic Frontiere
Film Editing: Richard Brockway
Makeup: Fred B. Phillips
Cast: William Shatner (Marc), Allyson Ames (Kia), Eloise Hardt (Amael), Robert Fortier (Olin), Ann Atmar (Arndis), Milos Milos (Incubus), Jay Ashworth (Monk, uncredited), Forrest T. Butler (Monk, uncredited), Paolo Cossa (Narrator, voice, uncredited), Ted Mossman (Monk, uncredited)

By John M. Miller

Interview with Anthony Taylor, Conrad L. Hall, William Fraker conducted by David J. Schow, on the Incubus DVD, 1999.
"Leslie Stevens' INCUBUS" by David J. Schow, Video Watchdog, issue 53, 1999.
"Raising the INCUBUS, Anthony M. Taylor interviewed by Tom Weaver, Video Watchdog, issue 53, 1999.
Feature Commentary by William Shatner, on the Incubus DVD, 1999.

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