Sunday, October 20, 2013

Incubus: Malbenita Kulto Klasika

TCM screened a rarity last night-- a genuine cult classic for the rarified cults of indie horror, William Shatner, "The Outer Limits" and constructed languages: Incubus.

This 1966 film is set in an imaginary country and past and tells the story of a demonic cult of hot blondes-- a sort of succubus-in-training farm team-- who lure weak, corrupt men to the sea and drown them to hasten their souls to hell.  One member, Kai (Allyson Ames, the director's wife at the time), is tired of having to deal with douchebags who are already damned: she wants the thrill of ensnaring a clean, virtuous soul. Marc (William Shatner) embodies this goodness: a heroic soldier returning home to live with his sister Arndis (Ann Atmar).

Kia shows up at their house during an eclipse, tempts Marc away to the sea, intent on doing him in. But his goodness stops her (I guess) and they end up in a church, where she freaks out at all the holiness. Terrible things happen to Arndis: she goes blind and mute, she's kidnapped and raped. Eventually things get so out of hand an Incubus is invoked to help with Kia's goal, which she so miserably failed.  The Incubus (played with shirtless greasiness by Milos Milos) eventually gets into a Kirk-versus-Gorn wrestling match with Marc, and by the end everyone is dead or nearly so.

William Shatner and Allyson Ames. At one point in the film
he roughly grabs her by the shoulders and kisses the
heck out of her. That was widely identified as a classic
Captain Kirk move: this proves it was actually a
classic Shatner move.
Writer-director Leslie Stevens (the producer behind "The Outer Limits") manages to give the film a stark, spooky tone-- it reminded me strongly of some other supernatural classics of the era, Carnival of Souls (1962) and The Seventh Seal (1957). He was no doubt aided by one of the best DPs of the era, Conrad Hall, lensing his first feature film. Never a dull moment-- though there a lot of long, long sequences of actors walking through the countryside.

It's worth a look for several interesting reasons:

• The movie-- dialog and credits-- is entirely in Esperanto, an international common language invented by a Russian ophthalmologist in the 1890s. It's a bold experiment, aided by the film's rather simplified universe of dichotomies (man/woman, good/evil, dark/light, etc.) If it's a gimmick, it's a good one: Make an instant Foreign Film!

The Esperanto dialog-- aided by huge, hideous, black-blocked subtitles-- is remarkably easy to follow. The language is a sort of mash-up of Romance, Slavic and Germanic language forms, so it sounds startlingly familiar. Apparently, those with a better ear for Esperanto than I say that Shatner gives his line readings a French accent, which may have something to do with his Montreal upbringing.

Mission San Antonio. It looks just a rough now
as it did in 1966, and probably 1771.
Incubus was filmed in my old backyard: Monterey County. Scenes take place on the coast at Big Sur, Carmel Valley and the back-country around Fort Hunter Liggett. The church in the film is Mission San Antonio de Padua-- a California mission in the middle of nowhere, take my word for it. The rugged beauty of the locations shines through the murky condition of the only remaining print (more below).

• Apparently a wandering hippie, unhappy with the rude way the Incubus film crew treated him, placed a curse on the production. If you are one to believe in such things as Hippie Curses, it was a quite effective-- if wildly uneven-- hex.

The film was released into the international festival circuit to generally positive acclaim. However, within a year: A) Milos Milos killed his wife, then himself; B) Ann Atmar committed suicide; C) Allyson Ames divorced Leslie Stevens; D) The film lab accidentally destroyed the master negative and most of the prints. Stevens, upset from the tragedies surrounding his film, withdrew it from release.

On the upside of this "curse," within the same year: A) William Shatner would land his iconic role as Captain Kirk on "Star Trek;" B) DP Conrad Hall would be nominated for an Academy Award (Morituri), then two more times in a row (The Professionals in 1966, In Cold Blood in 1967) , lens Harper and Cool Hand Luke, and win the Oscar in 1969 (For Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid)

Such is the simple dichotomy of Incubus, a cursed/not cursed cult classic.

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