International Horror Film Review: Incubus (dir by Leslie Stevens)


The 1966 film Incubus is unique for being one of the few films to have been made in the international language.

What?

No, not love!  WE’RE TALKING ABOUT ESPERANTO!

Esperanto is a language that was invented in 1887 by a Polish idealist who wrote under the name — I kid you not — Dr. Esperanto.  The idea behind Esperanto was that it was a simple language that anyone could learn and, if the whole world learned to speak this one language, there would be far less misunderstandings, conflicts, and wars.  There’s probably some truth to that idea and the language has gone through the occasional period of popularity.  (If Lincoln Chafee runs for President again, I’m sure he’ll probably make learning Esperanto a part of his platform.)  Still, Esperanto never really caught on.  I imagine that most people were like, “But what if I go through the trouble to learn a new language but no one else does?  Then I’d look stupid!”  That’s what kept me from learning trigonometry.

Still, when director Leslie Stevens and producer Anthony Taylor was trying to decide what gimmick they could use to set Incubus apart from other low-budget horror films, they decided that the entire film would be in Esperanto.  Since the film was about a succubus trying to steal soul of a “pure man,” the feeling was that Esperanto would give the film an otherworldly feel.  The idea of having the demons all speaking Esperanto actually worked out well because, seriously, why wouldn’t otherworldly denizens have their own language?  But of course, then William Shatner shows up as the pure man and he’s speaking Esperanto too.  It gets a bit confusing.

The film takes place in the village of Nomen Tuum, where there’s a well that can both heal the sick and make the ugly look reasonably more appealing.  As a result, the village has become a popular spot for not only those who are dying but also those who are incredibly vain.  Kia (Alyson Ames) is one of the many succubi who hang out around the village, leading arrogant and foolish men into the ocean where their souls are claimed by the Incubus (played by Milos Milos).  Kia, however, has grown bored with only tempting the morally corrupt.  She wants a challenge!  She wants to tempt someone pure of heart!  All the other succubi tell her to be careful because dealing with the pure of heart might make it difficult for her to retain her demonic nature, which would upset the Incubus.  Kia shrugs them off and heads out to seduce a clergyman….

Unfortunately, all the available clergymen turn out to be just as vain, greedy, and corrupt as the people drinking from the well!  Whatever is a succubus to do!?  Kia is on the verge of giving up when she spies a wounded soldier named Marc (William Shatner) and his sister, Arndis (Ann Atmar).  They’ve come to the village to heal Marc of his wounds.  And yes, they are “pure of heart.”

It would be easy (and, let’s be honest, a bit tempting) to glibly dismiss Incubus as being the film that proves that, in the 60s, William Shatner could overact even in Esperanto.  And William Shatner does give a very Shatneresque performance.  But Incubus is actually a surprisingly effective film.  The film’s black-and-white cinematography was by Conrad Hall (with the uncredited assistance of William A. Fraker) and the film is full of wonderfully atmospheric images.  When Marc dreams, he sees haunting images of dead men floating in the ocean.  When the Incubus abducts Arndis, they travel through a shadowy landscape before finally arriving at a house that that appears to be on fire with demonic evil.  As the film progresses, the imagery becomes more and more surreal, as if we’ve entered into a dream, a filmed nightmare of sorts.  And, long before The Witch, Incubus features a character wrestling with a Satanic goat.

Incubus was filmed with the actors learning their lines phonetically and with no one on set to correct their pronunciations.  When the film was previewed for 60 people who spoke Esperanto, the audience laughed at how the actors butchered their precious little international language.  After that, Milos Milos — the actor who played the Incubus — was found dead with his girlfriend in what was assumed to be a murder/suicide, though many continue to claim that it was a murder/murder.  (Milos’s girlfriend was also Mickey Rooney’s wife and both were discovered dead at Mickey’s house and, well …. I don’t like where this is heading.  Sorry, Mick!)  As a result of all of the scandal, no reputable U.S. distributor would handle Incubus.  (This was 1966, after all.)  So, the film was only released in France.  Though I have no evidence to say for sure, I choose to believe that the French got it.

The film was long believed to be lost until the last remaining print was discovered in the collection of the Cinematheque Francaise in Paris.  From that badly damaged print, Incubus was restored and, as a result, history’s first Esperanto horror film can once again be appreciated by audiences everywhere!

Mi amas feliĉan finon!

A Movie A Day #107: The Legend of the Lone Ranger (1981, directed by William A. Fraker)


Long before he found fame playing Deputy Hawk on Twin Peaks, Michael Horse made his film debut in one of the most notorious box office flops of all time, The Legend of the Lone Ranger.  

Michael Horse played Tonto, the young Comanche who rescues his childhood friend, John Reid (Klinton Spilsbury), and nurses him back to health after Reid has been attacked and left for dead by the notorious outlaw, Butch Cavendish (Christopher Lloyd).  Reid was a civilian, accompanying a group of Texas Rangers led by his older brother, Dan (John Bennett Perry).  When Cavendish attacked, John was the only survivor.  John wants to avenge his brother’s death but first, Tonto is going to have to teach him how to shoot a six-shooter and how to ride his new horse, Silver.  Finally, John is ready to don the mask and becomes the Lone Ranger.  It’s just in time, because Cavendish has kidnapped President Grant (Jason Robards).

An even bigger flop than the more recent Lone Ranger film starring Armie Hammer and Johnny Depp, The Legend of the Lone Ranger failed for several reasons.  For one thing, the film has a major identity crisis.  The violence is not for kids but most of the dialogue and the performances are.  For another thing, it takes forever for John Reid to actually put on the mask and become the Lone Ranger.  By the time the William Tell Overture is heard, the movie is nearly over.

It was made to capitalize on the same type of nostalgia that previously made Superman a hit and, just as Superman introduced the world to Christopher Reeve, The Legend of the Lone Ranger introduced the world to a football player turned actor, named Klinton Spilsbury.  Unfortunately, the world did not want to meet Klinton Spilsbury, whose blank-faced performance was so bad that James Keach was brought in to dub over all of his dialogue.   Spilsbury did not help himself by reportedly acting like a diva during the shooting, demanding constant rewrites, and getting into bar brawls offset.  Of the two actors who made their screen debuts in The Legend of the Lone Ranger, Michael Horse has worked again.  Klinton Spilsbury has not.

When The Legend of the Lone Ranger went into production, the film’s producers made the incredibly boneheaded move of getting a court injunction barring Clayton Moore (who had played the role on TV) from wearing his Lone Ranger uniform is public.  Since the semi-retired Moore was living off of the money that he made appearing as the Lone Ranger at country fairs and children’s hospitals, this move was a public relations disaster.  (For his part, Moore filed a counter suit and continued to make appearances, now wearing wrap-around sunglasses instead of his mask.)  Moore refused to appear in a cameo and spent much of 1981 speaking out against the film.

Finally, the main reason that Legend of The Lone Ranger flopped was because it opened on the same Friday as a little film called Raiders of the Lost Ark.

The rest is history.

The Elements of Style: Steve McQueen in BULLITT (Warner Brothers 1968)


cracked rear viewer

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Steve McQueen was the personification of 60’s screen cool in BULLITT, a stylish action film directed by Peter Yates. It’s the first of producer Philip D’Antoni’s cop trilogy, both of which (THE FRENCH CONNECTION and THE SEVEN-UPS) I’ve previously covered. Unlike those two films, the grittiness of New York City is replaced by the California charm of San Francisco, and the City by the Bay almost becomes a character itself, especially in the groundbreaking ten minute car chase between McQueen’s Mustang and the bad guy’s Dodge Charger.

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Style permeates the film from the get-go, with the snappy opening credits montage by Pablo Ferro. Then we get right into the story, as San Francisco detective Frank Bullitt is assigned to guard mob witness John Ross, scheduled to testify before a Senate Subcommitte on crime. Hot shot politician Walt Chalmers wants Bullitt because of his reputation and PR value with the papers. Things go awry when Ross…

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