A Month of Horror on the Fringes (Day 19): Incubus (1966)

 

Incubus is a film lost to time. For a while, this was quite literal – from 1966 or so to 1996, no print was known to exist (it was eventually found with forced French subs in the archives of the Cinematheque Francaise, after enough prodding). The story takes place in a mysterious provincial town, Nomen Tuum (looks like Latin, quacks like Latin), wherein there is a well whose water is said to grant youth and beauty. Nomen Tuum could very well be a rural European town now, or 1966, or 1936, or 1636. Inescapably, Incubus is spoken in the intellectual, artificial language Esperanto – so we have no hints of cultural dialogue or inflection. It sounds vaguely Latin, while the whole film looks vaguely Swedish. All we know as an audience is this is a preternatural world is filled with God and demons, malevolent woods and empty churches. The world of Incubus may as well be Atlantis – primal, mysterious, and surrounded on all sides by myth.

Its enigma makes it a perfect vehicle for a simple moral tale. We are introduced to Kia, a succubus and servant of Darkness lurking by Nomen Tuum’s well, looking for stray and desperate souls, leading them to death instead of extended life. Hers, we come to discover, is a forlorn existence – she is unsatisfied only leading the ugly souls to Hell. What about the virtuous and pure? Would the Dark One not prefer to receive an uninvited guest? (I’ll never forget what a film professor, once a Jesuit understudy for the priesthood, once said of the matter: The souls of the Faithful yield the ripest fruit.) Kia’s succubus sister Amael absolutely forbids it – the truly virtuous have an uncontrollable power, Love, that can destroy the naive demonic. Of course she pays no heed, and on her search for a saintly man, stumbles across William Shatner.

People often forget Shatner was an understudy of Lawrence Olivier, and a young Shakespearean actor of promise (did he not reach it?). He had a memorable role in a true filmed masterpiece, Judgment at Nuremberg. Heck, many Star Trek Original Series season one episodes (The Conscience of the King, Balance of Terror, Court Martial) show remarkable restraint for a man known to many now as a cartoon of himself. And Incubus is pre-Star Trek – and therefore a kind of pre-Shatner (if you can’t tell by now, I’m an apologist). His presence is overwhelming to the film now, because Shatner is such a youthful force, but here without that characteristic self-awareness that currently defines him. I’m no Esperanto enthusiast, though, so whatever mistakes he does make (apparently, “native” speakers hate this film) fade into that archetypal cadence of his. It works. Shatner succeeds as a leading man, of one so selfless within his surroundings, his integrity becomes the moral wellspring of the movie.

 

It only takes one extended encounter for Kia to fall in love with Marc (aka Captain Kirk), so her sister has to pull out the big guns by summoning an incubus in the dead of night to revenge her now sullied depravity. The pithy yet dense dialogue, inverted to call attention to the perversion of perversion, is a standout – full of all the subtleties of great moral myth (and Bergman films, from which Incubus unapologetically apes). So, Milos Milos rises from the ground as our titular character, and soon, Hell breaks loose on Marc and his poor sister, Arndis. Incubus is most difficult at this point, because its Satanic Black Mass, involving the unsuspecting Arndis, is so despicable and potent it detracts from the major themes of light and darkness found throughout the film. There’s so much beauty, Hell appears as a confusing aside.

Here the themes come into greater focus. Kia begins as a blind servant of the Lord of Darkness, but by the end, proclaims, “I belong to the God of Light!” in her own struggle with Hell’s minions. Meanwhile, Arndis begins in the light but, after looking at an eclipse although told not to, loses her sight and becomes more comfortable seeing in darkness (alluding to her fall, which is fairly callous since it has no moral grounding. Like Kia’s turn, it is derived from superficiality and naivety). Marc is driven to murder in self-preservation against the incubus (not self-lessness), while the incubus has to feign failure in order to succeed. It is a lot of subtext for a short, subtle picture, supported by keen black and white cinematography by none other than the legendary Conrad Hall (In Cold Blood, Cool Hand Luke, Fat City). The film’s short shooting schedule inspired quite a bit of visual inspiration – one of its more striking moments is Kia knocking down the camera in her haste out of a church (the kind of thing later picked up by Darren Aronofsky, who explores similar themes). The first murder by Kia of a wayward soul, pressing his face into the sea before burying him with one hand sticking ominously out, is striking. She is like a child, building a sandcastle; but a child of death, not yet come of age. It also reeks of The Seventh Seal.

The isolated plot, place, and space is no doubt the doing of Leslie Stevens, Incubus‘ director and the creator of The Outer Limits. At times it feels like the Fantasia for the man behind The Zanti Misfits – of a kind but aiming for a much higher artistry. There are many detractors of Incubus – its Esperanto’s not quite right, it came after Milos Milos’ scandal and death, it’s too copycat, it has William Shatner – but gosh darn it, I like this movie. The unapologetic simplicity of it all, with no special effects of note, no gruesome gore, no scandalous monster (just a goat head), fits just right. Film economy goes a long way. And 50 years on, its economy is refreshing.

Each day all through October, I’ll be writing my two cents on 31 horror films from the dark alleys, lost highways, and unexpected corners of cinema history. Here’s to the fringes!

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