Monday, September 27, 2010

Incubus (Contempo III Productions, 1966)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Incubus, a 1966 effort written and directed by Leslie Stevens for something called “Contempo III Productions,” a movie about devils attempting to entrap human souls shot in Big Sur, California (with extensive location work at the grounds of one of the famous missions — I joked that in the history of films shot at missions in that part of California, at the top of the quality scale is Vertigo and at the bottom is Incubus) and distinguished in that all the dialogue is in Esperanto. Charles has been an Esperantist for years — he was attending regular meetings of the local Esperanto Club when we first started dating and still is in touch with some of the people who were in it — and when I mentioned to him that Incubus had come out on DVD and asked if he would be interested in it, he said it had a notorious reputation among Esperantists because the Esperanto in it was very badly pronounced — as if none of the actors in it had known Esperanto and all had learned their lines phonetically.

The film opens with a long tracking shot through some wild landscapes that makes it look as if once upon a time Stevens had seen Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr and had an orgasm then and there, though for most of the movie his inspiration — both thematic and visual — seemed to be Ingmar Bergman. It’s a story about God and the Devil, it’s filmed in an unusual language, the visual look is high-contrast black-and-white, there are a lot of stark closeups of the characters and the script is so elliptical that at times the characters aren’t sure of their own identities. After the opening we end up on Big Sur’s famous beach and meet Kia (Allyson Ames), a succubus — meaning a devil’s minion who picks out living people who have already degraded themselves morally, finishes the job and dispatches their souls to hell — and she’s shown at work on one such person, luring him into the water with her and then stepping on his face so he drowns. Then she and her older sister Amael (Eloise Hart), who also seems to be her direct supervisor in the devil’s hierarchy, have an argument: Kia (whose name is pronounced “KY-uh,” not “KEE-uh” as in the modern-day car) insists that the real challenge would be to seduce someone who was morally blameless and win his soul for hell.

Amael tries to stop her but Kia won’t be deterred, and the morally blameless soul she’s set her sights upon belongs to Marc (William Shatner, top-billed and proving throughout that he’s just as adept at overacting in a language he doesn’t understand as he is in English), an officer in some sort of military service (at least we intuit that from his costume), who’s living with a woman named Arndis (Ann Atmar), who’s supposed to be his sister but whose relationship, if indeed it is biological rather than romantic, seems on the verge of heading for Die Walküre territory any moment. (So maybe Marc’s soul isn’t so morally pure after all.) Much of the movie is simply Marc and Kia walking through the woods together, sometimes next to each other, sometimes with her following him and sometimes with him following her — this is the sort of movie you could sleep through for major stretches and not miss much — until Amael decides to help kick-start the damnation of Marc by kidnapping Arndis (we get a shot of her upside down — and she’s not the only character here who gets filmed upside-down; apparently Stevens liked that effect) and ultimately summoning the Incubus (Milos Milos — that’s what his credit said!) to assume human form and either seduce her or torture her to death; she resists the former so ends up stuck with the latter.

Marc goes apoplectic with grief and rage after Arndis dies — judging from Charles’ reaction, the scene in which Marc screams the Esperanto for “My sister! My sister!” is the most unintentionally hilarious mispronunciation of the language in the entire movie — but in a final sequence taking place under the cross of the mission (for all his Bergmanic pretensions, Leslie Stevens doesn’t have the most sophisticated sense of symbolism imaginable), Marc succeeds not only in holding on to his own salvation but bringing Kia over to the light side as they both die, despite the last-ditch attempt of the Incubus to get them both on Satan’s eternal team by changing into his natural form — which looks like a badly made velveteen costume of a person with a goat’s head and proves that Stevens should have heeded the word of St. Val Lewton: if you don’t have the budget to create a truly convincing monster, don’t try; instead suggest the evil one’s presence with sound alone.

Midway through Incubus — which comes off as a bizarre mixture of Lolita and Faust with admixtures of The Terror, that really silly movie Roger Corman filmed in three days to take advantage of extra days he had Boris Karloff and Jack Nicholson under contract after finishing The Raven early — I joked to Charles that had Roger Corman directed Incubus it would be just as cheesy and stupid, but also a lot more fun; and Charles said Incubus was the work of a director at Roger Corman’s talent level aspiring to Ingmar Bergman’s. It’s the sort of bad movie that’s utterly haunting, at least partly because so many things in it do go well: Conrad Hall’s high-contrast cinematography expertly creates the mood (and certainly deserved a better script!), as does Dominic Frontiere’s bizarrely spooky musical score (already heard, it seems, in a 1963 episode of The Outer Limits). It’s true that the film is almost an object lesson in how not to pronounce Esperanto (Charles pointed out that from the beginning, when narrator Paolo Cossa is giving us the exposition, he’s accenting virtually every multi-syllable word on the last syllable, something that is never done in Esperanto), and one trivia poster said that Stevens deliberately wanted the film to be incomprehensible, while another defended Shatner in particular by saying he grew up in Montreal and thereby may have been pronouncing Esperanto as if it were French. (Not so, said Charles; Shatner’s mistakes were those of a native English speaker, not a French speaker.)

The traumas surrounding Incubus might have made a more interesting movie than the film itself; according to various contributors, on the way to the location the crew encountered a hippie-type and blew him off when he asked them who they were and what they were filming. The hippie then put a curse on the production, and whether it was the result of a curse or not there was quite a lot of bad stuff associated both with the film and its cast members. Milos Milos was involved in a murder-suicide with Mickey Rooney’s estranged wife, Ann Atmar also committed suicide and the film itself, after a modestly successful release in France, was lost when the processing lab mistakenly destroyed the negative and all prints — and the film was thought completely lost until a French print turned up in the 1990’s and was restored for a DVD release. It’s a fascinating film in a curious way — mainly due to the chasm between its aspirations and its actual achievement — but this is one lost movie (unlike such welcome rediscoveries as Rex Ingram’s The Magician — which could have been an object lesson to Leslie Stevens on how to make a movie about Satanism — and The Black Camel) that wouldn’t have been much of a tragedy if it had stayed lost.