Leslie Stevens was already a pretty popular writer/director of such television shows as The Outer Limits by 1965 so he took that expertise and a whacked out misconception that people would have an interest in a phony language called Esperanto to create possibly the worst film ever shot. This film, in all its stultifying awfulness manages to achieve the impossible, it makes Ed Wood’s work look both competently filmed and well written.
But before we get ahead of ourselves let’s talk about Esperanto. What the hell is Esperanto, you ask? Easy, it’s a made up language with an interesting history.
Deciding that it would be important for people of different native languages to have a common language (duh…) a Polish guy named L.L. Zamenhoff developed Lingvo Internacia as a way to bridge the communications gap in polyglot societies. Actually, this isn’t such a bad idea if you are dealing with diplomats who all have the same goals, i.e. working towards global peace and equality. However, when the real world, especially the real word of 1877-1885 where the industrial revolution was pushing European nations further and further out into the wilderness to find colonial holdings the diplomats of these major countries wanted every advantage possible when dealing with one another so the perceived need for a common language, while noble, was completely contrary to the way the world worked at the time.
We can prove this rather easily by simply looking at history; humanity has suffered wars of increasing brutality in each successive generation since Zamenhoff’s language emerged, European colonialism reached its zenith in the years leadings to the First World War, while the Second World War dragged the world, kicking and screaming, into the post modern age. As idealistic as Esperanto was at its inception, it can be considered either millennia ahead of its time, or the byproduct of an amazing naiveté with regard to how the world works.
If you research Esperanto today you can find some rather funny comparisons between this language and both Tolkien's Elvish language, and er… Klingon. However, while fluent speakers of Esperanto tend towards academics, fluid speakers of Klingon tends towards Star Trek conventions and dressing like The Borg while masturbating to pictures of Denise Crosby, and fluent speakers of Tolkein’s Elvish tend towards sitting home rolling their 20 sided die (with orange Cheeto stained fingers) trying desperately to ramp up their Charisma score so they can ask out the hair lipped, crossed eyed girl working at the local Dunkin Donuts who always carries around a copy of The Mists of Avalon in her macramé shoulder bag.
At any rate, by the time Leslie Stevens penned the script for Incubus there were an estimated 7 million Esperanto speakers on Earth. That sounds like a pretty big number doesn’t it? In relation to the total number of people on Earth who don’t speak Esperanto, somewhere around 3.5 billion, the impressiveness of the figure diminishes somewhat.
Anyway, so making a film in Esperanto had the ability to both reach the audience already fluently speaking the language, and potentially generate an interest in learning the language for the non-speaking audience. Fair enough.
However, in practice, like the development of the language itself, this didn’t work out so well. There are two distinct reasons; first, the film uses a plot so thin it makes any episode of The Munsters seem like Dostoyevsky in comparison, and second the lead is none other than swashbuckling Starfleet captain William Shatner. Therefore, listening to him mangle lines like “Kia, mi fleegle blangle bloop, congo bongo flak…” is just fucking hilarious in and of itself.
The film itself has an interesting history. It actually did well on the festival circuit for a while, but due to some mishap (I am assuming someone actually watched it) the prints and negatives for Incubus were all destroyed. The film became sort of a legend in the sci-fi, horror, camp, Shatner-worship, and cult film universe, often spoken of but never seen, until a near pristine print was discovered recently in France.
The Sci-Fi Channel put up the cash to remaster the video and audio, add English subs, and get the thing out on DVD where it could stink up the shelves at your local video stores.
But let's talk turkey…
We open on a beach with a narrator stumbling through a long description of a world where demons take the form of human women and lure men to their death so they can end up in hell.
Showing us this process we meet Olin (Robert Fortier), a drunk (apparently) lured from a well filled with salt water to the seashore by Kia (Allyson Ames). Leslie Stevens must’ve known he had a script that could barely fill 45 minutes (the film is 76 agonizing minutes long) so he uses several tremendous long shots to show Olin and Kia walking to the beach. At one point Olin takes a digger and gashes his head. Kia tells him he can wash it off in the salt water, at which point she drowns him by stomping on his head.
Kia isn’t thrilled by her lot in life though and tells Amael (Eloise Hardt) that she doesn’t want to lure and kill the dregs of society anymore because they can almost always find their own ways to hell. She wants to corrupt a pure soul instead. Amael, the head demon-chick in charge, tells her that it isn’t a good idea to go against the norm and it could prove dangerous to her. We learn this by reading their conversation because like the VAST amount of people on Earth we don’t speak Esperanto. Since the subtitles are new, and the dialogue here is somewhat thick, most of the screen is covered by the actual subtitles so it’s like watching a series of snapshots of alternating faces covered by black bars. The effect is actually REALLY distracting, which is probably good because the dialogue is so amazingly stupid it isn’t worth reading.
Amael gives Kia a long speech about their duty to the dark lord, and Kia accepts her lot in life as a Siren to the dregs. But wait, if that were truly the case the film would end here only 15 long minutes later. The gist of the argument is that Marco is both a great hero and the keeper of a pure soul. This fact makes Kia even more interested in fighting for his soul, and makes Amael worried. She threatened Kia that she doesn’t understand the power of a pure soul. Kia counters that Amael better stay out of her way because there are no heroes or saints in hell.
At this point I scampered off to the kitchen for some coffee. When I returned Kia was sneaking up on that pure soul.
That pure man is none other than Mr. Tambourine Man himself, William Shatner, known in this film as Marc (though his Esperanto name is Marco?) traveling to his quant cottage with his sister Arndis.
Since there is not clear visual or audio description of when this film takes place it’s hard to guess. Marc wears a standard issue suit and button down shirt while the women all look like Little House on the Prairie rejects. Also, the cottage seems to have only oil lamps for light and a fireplace for heat. It also looks suspiciously like a log cabin, a crappy one. So this might be meant to take place somewhere in the distant past. I dunno… How many pioneers walked around in tight-cut Chinos, cowboy boots, and tweed sportsjackets? This is one of the weird inconsistencies within the film. I don’t know if Stevens was trying to confuse the audience or to give the film a visual language that defied categorizing it as taking place in any recognizable time. At any rate he succeeds in the first endeavor as me, Mrs. McLargehuge, and Gristle McThornbody, were completely baffled.
The way Marco and Arndis talk you’d never think they were, in fact, brother and sister. They speak like a couple in love, almost like newlyweds, which when we finally learn they are siblings, is very creepy. However, taking some of the sting off of this is hearing them talk to one another:
Marco: pooffy kibble abby gloop?
Arndis: clanko friggin spado plat!
Marco: spoka wonka gimble wabe…
Arndis: Damok at tanagra?
Marco: Tribbles in the quadrotriticalie?
Again, Leslie Stevens treats us to endless shots of Marco and Arndis walking up hills, down hills, through grassy fields, and through the woods until they arrive at the cottage. Giving slow chase is, of course, Kia.
She stumbles in as Marco is chopping wood. By now all of us watching had pretty much figured out how Esperanto works and it’s quite ingenious really. See, it borrows liberally from most of the languages already spoken so words sound a lot like their counterparts in French, Italian, Spanish, German, and even English while the grammar appears to follow English so adjectives precede their nouns and subjects precede predicates. There doesn’t appear to be any conjugation of verbs either. In fact, at its simplest level you can fake Esperanto by adding either an “O” or an “Illi” sound to the end of common words and replace all the connecting words like at, the, my, with monosyllabic grunts.
It’s great “funilli dah ur friendos”.
Okay, we get to see Shatner at his Shaterniffic best here because not only is he speaking a language he, by his own admission didn’t understand at all, he uses his still barely honed acting chops to emote in the weirdest way imaginable. He does the constant…. Break… Ing…. Andcombiningof…. Several…. Em… Pha… Sis…. Points that we’ve all grown to love through the years only this time it sounds like he’s been hit in the head with a two-by-four.
While he and Kia struggled to make small talk Arndis appears and warns of the approaching early night. Actually though, it’s an eclipse that gives Kia time to lure Marco away and blind Arndis (she looks at the eclipse). Kia seduces Marco in the woods. Meanwhile Amael has followed Kia (who followed Marco) and now has the blind Arndis under her control. She sends Arndis out to find her brother and break up the unholy relationship between Kia and Marco.
We get several, several, several minutes of Arndis stumbling around in the woods and Marco carrying Kia through the woods (they alternate). It’s as if Leslie Stevens didn’t understand that we don’t need to see every single step the characters take towards their destination. In fact, the language of Esperanto is even older than the language of film. I don’t know what they call it in a fake language, but in film it’s called a jump cut.
One of the great things about this scene is Arndis’ only line is “Marco… Marco?.. Marco!” to which we replied “Polo! Polo! Polo!” much to our hilarious delight.
Marco and Kia arrived at a wide yet shallow stream. Marco emotes that he doesn’t have the strength to carry her across but Kia says the stream is shallow enough to wade. It appears to the audience that it’s almost ankle deep, so I don’t know what the problem with Marco is. Maybe he’s a wuss. Anyway…. As they cross Marco cries out that Kia is going too fast and he can’t protect her from water demons (uh… okay… whatever) and she tells him that all the demons she knows are like cats and hate the water.
Cut to a dead body on the beach being overrun with waves. It’s SYMBOLIC!!!! Of what, we haven’t decided yet. At any rate it doesn’t add anything to the scene.
Breaking the stultifying monotony of this scene is a fantastic head-first digger that Shatner takes right after that line about the demons and cats. He literally goes vertical for half a yard before plunging down into the rocks and nearly losing his coat. Being the master thespian he cries out “one of them got me!”…
We were laughing so hard it shook the walls.
Once they cross the stream the whole crux of their relationship comes to a head. Kia tries to lure him to the seashore with an offer that they can lie naked together in the dunes. But Marco, being of pure soul, says he wants to be with her together in the “right way”, i.e. married. He says that although he wants to give her his body, it’s more important for them to give of their soul. Kia, being the wet blanket, tells him she has no soul.
Marco persists and seduces the soulless woman. She collapses into his arms.
Meanwhile Marco carries Kia into a church. She opens her eyes and sees The Cross, several saints, and a picture of the Virgin Mary. She freaks out, scratches Marco’s face, then runs off. Marco then sits there and contemplates. Leslie Stevens allows us to experience her freaking out by both tilting the camera left and right and using the manual zoom feature to shoot in then out of Kia’s virtually emotionless face.
We cut back to Arndis now crawling through the forest. She comes upon the church and stumbles inside. Now, for some unknown reason, she can see and finds Marco who tells her that he is in love with Kia. Talk about your love at first sight… They go back to their cabin.
Amael and Kia have words. She says that she is in love with him, and while terrified by the imagery of the “god of light” imagines herself leaving the demon world and joining Marco. Amael is suitably not impressed with this and insists that they raise the Incubus to destroy Marco. They raise said Incubus by speaking more Esperanto and waving around a stick. There is actually a good shot here of some winged demon, obscured by fog, and backlit, but it doesn’t last long. Suddenly the Incubus rises from a nearby grave. The Incubus is played by Milos Milos, and as the societal rule goes, people with the same first name and last are dangerous. Sirhan Sirhan killed R.F.K., Duran Duran videos killed the radio star, and Milos Milos killed Mickey Rooney’s estranged wife, then himself, after this film was shot.
Milos Milos is the worst of the Esperanto actors on display here. He is constantly reading cue cards held off frame, we can tell because his eyes constantly jump down past the person to whom he’s speaking between the lines he actually speaks. See if you can visualize this:
Incubus: Clappo wingo froogin gloopilli… (looks down then back up)… Oystero drdoomo flinko (looks down then back up) splangop jingo flango mangoilli.
It’s like that every time he speaks, which mercifully, isn’t very often. Incubus was immediately granted the name “Zombie Joe Strummer” by our merry band of viewers because he climbs from the grave and looks almost exactly like Joe Strummer. Zombie Joe Strummer, for what it’s worth, also wears very black, modern, neat, tapered leg Chino’s, and a black button down shirt so he looks much more like a beatnik than a zombie. And I for one fear no beatnik, zombie or otherwise, daddy-o.
Meanwhile, Marco and Arndis talk about his love for Kia late that night, and on the wind Marco hears Kia calling to him. Arndis, of course, doesn’t hear this at all but tells him to follow his heart, which in Esperanto sounds something like:
“Meka leka hi meka hiney ho!”
Proving that this film was shot over a short sequence of days, with very little money, the astounding montage of Marco walking to meet Kia at the seashore offers at least five unintentional day-night transitions. Meanwhile, Zombie Joe Strummer shows up at Marco’s cottage where Arndis is waiting. He clumsily tells her that Marco has had an accident in the old house by the ocean and is “entangled” in the wreckage. Arndis follows Zombie Joe Strummer into the house where she’s set upon by a group of robe-clad demons and killed.
Marco awakens the next morning (we think) on the shoreline and starts heading back for home. He and Kia have done the soulless deed, we know this because Kia is crying. Then, amazingly it’s night again, and we get a reaction shot from the house where Arndis is killed. Then it’s day again as Shatner is walking through the reeds. Then night as the coven drags Arndis out into the night. Then a shot of the full moon, then one of Shatner walking in the daylight into the old house. By the time Marco finds Arndis’ shawl in the reeds I’d been through so many day night cycles I had a beard like one of the guys in ZZ Top.
Kia follows Marco to the old house.
Marco finally arrives back at his own cottage where Arndis isn’t waiting for him. In the trees hides Zombie Joe Strummer and Amael. Zombie Joe Strummer drags Arndis’ body to the cabin. Amazingly she’s still alive (though we were led to believe she was dead) but has no tongue (yet still manages to speak) a line before she dies.
Marco gets up to face Zombie Joe Strummer, he makes a crucifix symbol over Arndis’ body which repels Zombie Joe Strummer, Amael, and Kia. Zombie Joe Strummer tells Marco, clumsily, that Arndis’ soul will burn in hell.
Shatner has never been a good cinematic fighter, but here he is at his all time worst. Feel free to sing the standard Star Trek hand-to-hand combat theme as Marco and Zombie Joe Strummer flail around like school kids.
Bah-bah BAH BAH BAH BAH!
Bah-bah BAH BAH BAH BAH!
Bah-bah BAH BAH BAH BAH!
Bah-bah BAH BAH BAH BAH!
Weeeedleedoooo dooo weeee!
Weeeedleoo dooo wooo weee wooo weee!
Finally, Marco gets a hold of a sharp piece of flaming wood which gives him a slight advantages until Zombie Joe Strummer uses the same wood to stab Marco several times in the side. Marco, being a hero though, turns the tables and kills Zombie Joe Strummer with the same piece of sharpened wood.
Marco is unclean now, he’s killed in anger and revenge. Kia leaps in and tells him that they can be together. Marco knows that he’s dying. He gives a long clumsy speech about the flames of hell licking at him and burning away his skin. They keep walking in what is the longest death sequence I’ve ever seen.
Shatner is at his best here, crying and screaming and barking like the WORST episode of Star Trek. Alternating between screams of unholy volume and plaintive whispers. It’s classic Shatner.
Finally, only a few meters from the sea Marco screams that he wants to save his soul and heads back towards the church. Kia declares her love for him and follows. In a line that will surely placate the Christian Fundamentalists in the audience, Marco screams that his soul belongs to God.
Meanwhile Amael and Kia start fighting and Kia, appears to kills Amael.
Cut to Marco struggling into the church (day).
Cut back to Amael crawling over to Zombie Joe Strummer and plucking out the stick before she dies. Zombie Joe Strummer wakes up and starts to walk (night).
Cut to Kia arriving at the church (day) and then to Shatner inside at the altar. Kia can’t cross into the threshold of the church though. She turns back to find Zombie Joe Strummer who declares “Your soul belongs to the Prince of Darkness!” then turns into a goat and attacks Kia.
This is wicked funny because she is wrestling with such an obvious stuffed goat head. Leslie Stevens lingers on this for a long time offering ample time to laugh heartily. Kia screams that she belongs to the God of Light, falls back into the Church where Marco is crawling towards her. He then pulls her across the threshold. The goat wiggles its head, the film goes negative, and it ends.
NOW IS THE TIME ON SPROKKETS WHEN WE DANCE!
Incubus is not bad only because it’s in Esperanto, it’s bad because it’s stupid.
For all the crap that Incubus has to offer, the Sci Fi channel did a nice job with the presentation. It’s offered in Esperanto (naturally) with the original French subs from the lost print or with digitally added English subs to cover the French subs. They remastered the audio so you can hear ever syllable of Esperanto and the picture as well clearly restoring the stark black and white contrast that gives the picture its only redeeming quality. Conrad Hall, who did the cinematography, would go on to win an Oscar for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, American Beauty, and Road to Perdition.
The DVD is choked with interesting extras including a very funny commentary track with Marco himself, William Shatner. Another with three of the principles involved in the film Anthony Taylor, Conrad Hall, and William Fraker. Plus a nice essay on the “Curse of Incubus” detailing the tragedies that befell several of the actors and crew who worked on this film. In case you were wondering, Shatner blames the curse on the fight choreographer, and after watching him and Zombie Joe Strummer, I have to agree.
There are some amazingly silly comparisons between Incubus and both Kurosawa and Bergman that come up in both commentary tracks, but no one who has seen either a Kurosawa or Bergman film will take that as anything but an insult. Leslie Stevens, while a competent TV director, shot Incubus so very badly to compare him to anyone but Sydney Pink/Ib Melchior or Ed Wood is a stretch even I wouldn’t make.