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A BIZARRE CURIOSITY FROM CINEMA HISTORY

 Reel Time
Dale Hill
www.flickwitch.com

            One of the perks of this job is being dry-gulched by friends and readers who tune me in to things I never dreamed existed.

            I was recently belly-aching to a friend about what currently passes for horror movies, with their non-stop dismemberments and buckets of blood:

            “...and 'The Haunting' from 1963,” I continued, voice rising perceptibly, “still scares the bejabbers out of me, and you never see anything – it's all suggestion.”

            “Did you know that William Shatner starred in a horror movie in the 1960s that was filmed entirely in Esperanto?” Reid asked in a perfectly calm voice.

            I stopped in my tracks and just gaped until I finally giggled and said, “Joke, right?”

            “Nope. Look it up.”

            I did look it up, and it led me on a treasure hunt, and now I've actually seen it, and maybe you should too.

            The name of this curiosity is “Incubus” (released in 1965, unrelated to the 2006 howler), and it really is one of the strangest moments in the history of cinema. The director, Leslie Stevens, wrote the script entirely in Esperanto because he wanted the movie to have a weird, other-world quality, and he really, really succeeded.          

            Esperanto, for those of you who never ran across it on your travels, is a language that was invented in the 1880s by a Jewish opthalmologist in Russia, who thought the world would be a better place if everyone spoke the same language. So he came up with Esperanto, which  is made up largely of Slavic and Romance elements, and is very regular, which makes it easy to learn. No country ever officially adopted the language, but it's still used in world travel, conventions, literature, language instruction, and television and radio broadcasting, not that you've ever heard it on CNN.  Google offers related websites via an Esperanto portal, and the Esperanto Wikipedia contains over 114,000 articles, as of June 2009. Now you know.

            (Oddly enough, “Incubus” is not the only film in Esperanto. The French did a crime thriller in that language in 1964, but it's mostly disappeared.)
            And disappear is just what “Incubus” did. The original print burned, and all copies were reported lost or destroyed, until the director got wind of a print at the Cinémathèque Française in Paris, where they were showing it as a weekend camp-fest, Like “Rocky Horror.” The Sci-Fi Channel paid to have it restored, and it was released on DVD in 2001. Now we both know.

            But what about the MOVIE? you ask, jolting awake, if I'm lucky.

            Oddly enough it's not bad, and though it's not a shock-fest, it has some disturbing moments and some really eerie cinematography.

            The story takes place in an isolated community near the ocean that is the site of a miraculous healing fountain that can make people beautiful. Ugly, wicked people (see that connection?) are drawn to the well, which is haunted by a pair of beautiful succubi who lure them to their deaths and to the torments of the Prince of Darkness.

            Kia, one of the succubi, wants to branch out. She's tired of killing corrupt sinners, and wants to go for a really Good soul. Her sister warns her against it, because Good people might ensnare her with – gasp – Love. Kia finds her perfect victim in Marco (Shatner), a virtuous war hero with an equally virtuous sister. The rest of the movie is a battle of wills, as Kia uses all her wiles to seduce Marco, but becomes ensnared by his true love. Kia's sister summons the titular incubus to distract Marco by raping his sister, and things go from bad to worse.

            The movie was filmed at Pfeiffer-Big Sur State Park on the California coast (which is one of those other-worldly California places that don't look as if they're on this earth), and it was shot by Conrad Hall, who later won Oscars for for his work on “Butch Cassidy,” “American Beauty,” and “Road to Perdition.”

            The whole gestalt is rather amateurish, but strangely compelling. Hall's black-and-white cinematography is curiously reminiscent of Alain Resnais's 1961 “Last Year at Marienbad,” which influenced a lot of filmmakers in the 60s, but here it's in a rustic rather than a regal setting. It has black-and-white flashes of Cocteau and other French filmmakers, which just sort of make your eyeballs vibrate.

            Shatner, for a classically-trained actor, speaks Esperanto probably as well as he speaks Shakespeare, and his performance is full of those powerful pauses and telegraphed transitions that endear him to us as Captain Kirk. (Near the beginning, watch him gaze benignly at the landscape, then focus on something stage left and march off in that direction.)

            The real star of this movie is Milos Milos as the Incubus; he was a Serbian stunt double who was hired to be Alain Delon's bodyguard and went on to a very brief Hollywood career. After he digs himself out of the earth, it doesn't matter how you dress him up, he moves so clumsily that he's obviously an infernal spirit inhabiting a human body for the first time.

            Milos went on to have an affair with Mickey Rooney's wife, and then murder her and commit suicide, which, along with the suicide of the actress who played Shatner's sister, led to the legend of The Curse of “Incubus”. It's all very coincidental and King-Tut's-Tomb, but it suits well with one of the strangest movies of all time, which is available on Netflix, and maybe, if you make enough noise, at your local videodrome.