In William Shatner's autobiographical "Star Trek Memories", the actor describes his pre-Captain Kirk career as a period of modest success. But while he mentions relative missteps such as "Alexander the Great", recalled fondly as "'Combat' in drag", he neglects one of his most distinctive performances. In 1963, he performed as the lead in "Incubus", directed by "Outer Limits" regular Leslie Stevens and filmed entirely in the artificial language Esperanto. The omission is forgivable, considering the general public's collective amnesia. Original negatives lost, the film has only been recently restored from a French print and released on a Fox Lorber DVD, complete with commentary tracks from Shatner and the film's original producers and crew. To say that "Incubus" succeeds on its own terms is probably faint praise. Linguistic exercise aside, it is sui generis.
Esperanto was introduced in 1887 by Dr. L. L. Zamenhof (1859-1917) under the pseudonym `Dr. Esperanto' ("one who hopes") with the ambition of providing universal communication tool. Literally a lingua franca drawing upon a common European vocabulary, it was doomed to obscurity by its very artificiality, but has survived as a mildly bohemian urban myth. Just as New York lawyer Bernard Stollman founded the Esperanto-inspired ESP jazz label in 1964, releasing the Esperanto album "Ni Kantu in Esperanto", Stevens must have cleaved to Esperanto in the utopian spirit of the times. Regardless of his motives, the artistic effect in "Incubus" is striking. As spoken in the film, Esperanto sounds like stilted Italian laced with English cognates, forcing the actors into a mannered, declamatory style of delivery perfectly suited to the film's atmospheric chiaroscuro fable.
Kia (played by Allyson Ames ) is a succubus slated with the thankless job of luring sinful men to their deaths, a responsibility that becomes predictably tiring. Contrary to the advice of her sister Amael (Eloise Hardt), Kia pursues Marc (Shatner), a wounded soldier, in an attempt to corrupt a pure soul. Finding her efforts futile, she and Amael summon an incubus (Milos Milos), who rises dramatically out of the earth. The incubus first pursues Marc's sister, Arndis (Ann Atmar), and then finally confronts Marc. Fighting hand to hand, Marc deals the incubus a stab wound, effectively corrupting his soul and making him vulnerable to Kia's powers. Fleeing to a nearby church, Marc is absolved. Kia follows him, but is attacked by a Satanic, goat-headed creature. Renouncing evil, she vanquishes the demon and joins Marc.
Perhaps self-consciously, "Incubus" visibly draws on contemporary art-house fare. Initial shots of the sun shining through dense forestation echoes the beginning Kurosawa's "Rashomon", while high-cheekboned Nordic countenances and a vaguely Medieval and Northern European setting feint more abstractly towards Bergman's "Virgin Spring" and "The Seventh Seal." Naturally, the exclusive use of Esperanto makes "Incubus" a faux-"foreign" experience, keeping the audience at a remote, austere distance from the material. Cinematographer Conrad Hall's photography and visual effects are, in spite of their clear influences, refreshingly abstract. The black and white cinematography is ripe with dramatic contrasts, particularly in a series of nighttime scenes filled with distant backlighting and delicate vapors.
Unfortunately, artistic success was offset by personal and commercial disaster, contributing to the myth of a curse surrounding the production. "Incubus" was, perhaps predictably, a box office dud and Leslie Stevens' production company went bankrupt soon after the film's release. His marriage to Alysson Ames also ended in divorce. Ann Atmar committed suicide shortly after the completion of filming. The daughter of Eloise Hardt was kidnapped and murdered. Milos Milos, the fictional embodiment of evil as the Incubus, shot and killed the estranged wife of Mickey Rooney, Barbara Ann Thompson Rooney, 1966 before taking his own life. Music editor Dominic Frontiere, married at one time to St. Louis Rams owner Georgia Frontiere, was imprisoned for scalping Super Bowl tickets. Fortunately, some of the cast and crew have thrived. Conrad Hall went on to win Academy Awards for his cinematography on "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" and, more recently, "American Beauty." Shatner, of course, has worked continually since, most recently as the host of VH1's "Top 100 One hit Wonders of all time." With a slight change in program, that celebration of forgotten cultural flotsam could have comfortably accommodated Stevens' singular work.© 2002 by Sten Johnson. All rights reserved.