Curse of the "Incubus"

In the obscure '60s art-horror film, William Shatner is terrorized by murderous sea creatures. What happened off-screen was worse.


Cara Jepsen
May 3, 2000 8:00PM (UTC)

The story of "Incubus," the 1960s cult horror film, is bad enough. It's about a beautiful succubus who lures corrupt men to the sea, where she steps on their heads -- and drowns them.

Finding that almost too easy, she decides to seduce a morally upright soldier. But they fall in love. Her succubus sister summons their leader, the Incubus, from his underground lair. He gets back at the soldier by violating his virginal sister and then tries to murder him.

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And if that doesn't put the chill in your bones, it gets worse: "Incubus" stars William Shatner. And the whole thing is done in Esperanto.

"Incubus," directed by "The Outer Limits" creator Leslie Stevens, made a minor splash on the underground film scene right after its release in 1966. Few know, however, that the real-life story of the film and its aftermath rivals the on-screen horror. Murder, suicide and kidnapping, for a start. And the movie itself, decades later, seemed to have vanished from the face of the earth.

"Who knows if there's a curse or not," says Tony Taylor, the movies producer, "but a lot of stuff happened to a lot of people."

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"Incubus" is set in a small village during a lunar eclipse and shot in black and white, which gives it a timeless, otherworldly atmosphere. It was filmed by cinematographer Conrad Hall, who remembers the Big Sur, Calif., setting as "a windswept forest of eucalyptus trees with gnarled limbs that looked like monsters frowning down on you." (Hall, who won an Oscar for his work on "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," took home another in March for "American Beauty.")

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"Incubus" is the only known film in which the characters speak entirely in Esperanto -- the made-up universal language created in 1887 by Ludovic Zamenhof using characteristics from a variety of the world's languages. (The film was subtitled in English.) "I never liked the idea of seeing World War II movies where the Germans and Japanese characters spoke English," explains Taylor. "I thought the idea of having devils and demons speak English was a similar thing. Also, we thought it would help get us into the art houses."

The thought of watching a stiff, pre-"Star Trek" Shatner speaking a fake language with spooky music in the background may sound like hell on earth. In fact, the film is engaging, and has more in common with Ingmar Bergman than Wes Craven.

Hall's inventive cinematography, the Esperanto dialogue and the rough-hewn setting work together to give the film a timeless, otherworldly quality. (The village where it's set is called Nomen Tuum -- "An Unknown Time.")

Its brief but thorough examination of purity and corruption is also clever, particularly when the young succubus is complaining to her older sister that shed prefer more challenging work. "I'm weary of luring evil, ugly souls into the pit," she says. "They'll find their own way down to the sewers of hell."

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The older sister replies, deadpan, "When wheat ripens, someone has to harvest it."

Then there's the scene where the Incubus tries to lure his wayward succubus away from Shatner at the entrance to the church. When she makes the sign of the cross in defense, the Incubus suddenly becomes an extraordinarily ugly, screaming black goat who commences to ravish her.

But nothing audiences saw on the screen approached the horrors that would be visited on its makers in the time after its release.

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The film was invited to several film festivals, which gave it rave reviews. The program for the 1966 San Francisco Film Festival of that year describes the scene in which the Incubus emerges from underground as "one of the most splendid pieces of horror since the late James Whale conceived the idea of Frankensteins electronic monster." But all the producers could notice were the gruesome fates that befell their comrades.

The Incubus -- a lumbering, craggy-faced giant -- was played by Milos Milos, a buff actor from Belgrade, Yugoslavia, who'd spent some time as a stand-in for decadent French superstar Alain Delon. At the time, he was dating Barbara Ann Thompson Rooney, Mickey Rooneys estranged fifth wife. In 1966, Milos murdered her, and then shot himself.

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In the film, Shatner's virginal sister, whom the Incubus violates, was played by Ann Atmar, a sometime girlie-magazine model. She committed suicide a few weeks after the film wrapped up.

A few years after the film was released, the daughter of the woman who played the elder sister succubus, Eloise Hardt, was kidnapped from her Los Angeles driveway and murdered. Her body was discovered a few weeks later in the Hollywood Hills.

Those were the most gory manifestations of the "Incubus" curse. But there were others: Director Stevens production company, Daystar, went belly up not long after the movie was released. (He ended up marrying Allyson Ames, who played the young succubus. The couple later divorced. Stevens passed away from complications of a blood clot on the heart in 1998.)

Even the film's premiere at the San Francisco Film Festival turned into a disaster. The brand-new print of the film turned out to be missing its soundtrack. Taylor, tipsy from a pre-screening reception, had to scramble to find another print while the audience waited for nearly an hour.

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And there were other, more remote but still eerie events. Special guests of that premiere were director Roman Polanski and his date, actress Sharon Tate, who would be killed in the Manson "family" rampage in 1969.

And in the 1970s the film's music editor -- Dominic Frontiere, one-time husband of St. Louis Rams owner Georgia Frontiere -- landed in prison for scalping thousands of Super Bowl tickets. ("That's pretty amazing for someone who had gone to Juilliard," says Taylor.)

The tragedies seemed to center primarily around the actors who played the film's various incubi and succubi. Others involved with the film seem to have escaped the curse.

Shatner went on to land "Star Trek," record his infamous rendition of "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds" and torture the world with his Priceline.com ads.

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Assistant cinematographer William A. Fraker was nominated for five Oscars between 1977 and 1985, for "Looking for Mr. Goodbar," "Heaven Can Wait," "1941," "War Games" and "Murphy's Romance."

And cinematographer Hall went on to acclaim as well. "If there is a curse, it could work both ways, because I was very much a part of that project," he says now. "My curse has been to win two Oscars and to have three grandchildren and a wonderful life."

The film itself never really had much of a commercial life. Today, it's not even mentioned in the Leonard Maltin or Videohound movie guides.

France loved it. Paris Match called it the best fantasy film since "Nosferatu." It also did well at foreign film festivals. "I thought I was home-free -- that it would translate into something big here," says Taylor.

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"I went around and showed it to exhibitors and distributors. They would look at it and realize they enjoyed it and it was a good film. Shatner was well thought of, and so was Leslie. So they took the thing seriously. Everyone liked it but had no concept of what to do with it. It was like an actor with talent, only no one knows what to put them in.

"At that time, there weren't videos. Getting a low-budget movie into theaters was an incredibly difficult thing, unless it was a drive-in or X-rated. There weren't many American films being shown in the art houses at that time, and getting into mainstream theaters against the majors was nigh impossible."

By 1968, "Incubus" had hit a brick wall. "Leslie and I decided we would shoot a scene with naked women in it and change it all around," says Taylor. "We were going to lose the Esperanto. Bill was going to do the narration. We shot some parts in Technicolor. But it was pretty obvious that it just didn't work. We looked at it and realized it just wasn't there, and put the stuff back in the lab."

In the early 1970s, Taylor moved up the coast to San Luis Obispo to raise avocados with a girlfriend. She skipped out a few weeks later. Taylor, who has never married, stayed put. "If I hadn't done that you wouldn't be talking to me now," he says. "I'd be long gone like most of my friends are."

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In the early 1980s, he sold the farm. "It's all been downhill since then," he says, laughing. "I had an auto accident, and then I recuperated. Then I lived in Mexico, Palm Springs [Calif.] and Taos, N.M. I was looking for something, I guess. It was a feeble attempt to find some meaning in all this before it got too late."

He ended up not far from his old avocado farm, and in 1993 decided to look into putting the film on video. "I don't know why I was thinking of it," he says. He called the lab and learned that the film had been lost.

The curse again.

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"I've had stuff disappear from the lab before, and the thing about it is, its usually a conspiracy," says Hall. "Things dont just disappear."

Taylor agrees. "It isn't like storing it in your garage. That's what they do. They have vaults and vault custodians and they guard film negatives. And this was really a lot of stuff."

He sued the company for damages and won, and resigned himself to never seeing "Incubus" again. "But the nature of the curse is that you cannot kill this film," he says. In 1996 a friend, Hollywood agent Howard Rubin, called and said hed found a print at the Cinimathhque Frangaise in Paris. Taylor was shocked.

"It turns out they had been running it for 30 years to packed audiences," he says. "I had no idea."

But he still wasn't home-free. "I thought that, as the copyright owner and producer, I could tell them, send the print over here and I'll borrow it and send it back to you," he says.

Instead, he had to negotiate with the organization, which dragged its feet for a year. "They acted like I wanted to go into their archives and smoke crack in the vault," says Taylor. Finally, the UCLA Film Archive contacted the Cinimathhque on his behalf, and it sent a print to be copied at a French lab.

But that still wasn't the end of it. "The lab called to tell me the perforations were messed up," he says. "I had to make optical negatives and redo [the] whole thing. I went back and forth for a long time, sending faxes and wiring money.

"Then one day Fed Ex showed up with a bunch of large cans of film. I had no idea if it was a film you could see or if it would be all scratched."

That was in the summer of 1998. He and two restoration consultants brought the film to a lab in Los Angeles. "I was surprised at how good it looked," says Taylor. "It was a lot better film than I remembered."

Taylor cleaned out his savings restoring the film. The French version had French subtitles; he had to pay to have English subtitles put on over the French ones. He was able to consult the only remaining version of the script, which he'd had bound in leather back in 1965. "I'd expected to have 45 of [the scripts] lined up in my office," he says. It was prohibitively expensive to remove the French subtitles. "It'd be nice if they werent there, but I was happy to get anything," he says.

He sold the French rights to a large French company, and is purveying the video out of his house, where he divides his time between "talking to Academy Award nominees and schlepping stuff to the post office." (The video is available through Taylor's Web site.)

He can't afford to release the film theatrically. But later this year Taylor will offer the film on DVD, complete with an introduction by cinematographer Hall.

"When someone hears that it's black and white and 35 years old, they think it's going to look like some World War I newsreel," says Taylor. "Then they hear it's in a foreign language and think they're in for a root canal or something. They're usually pleasantly surprised.

"But I don't think I'll make another movie in Esperanto."

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So was there really a curse?

If there was, Taylors own scourge has finally been removed. Picking up where he left off 30 years ago, he recently optioned a screenplay for "a rock 'n' roll story" by Jake Records head John Hartmann. Graham Nash has signed on to do the music, and production starts next year.

"Theres somebody who hasnt been cursed, and thats the star," says Hall. Shatner "goes on and on, doing better and better. If Tony wanted to remake it, he could still play himself -- just play him older. Play everybody a little older. Maybe thats what Tony ought to do, to take out the curse.

"Ive had misfortunes, too," Hall adds. "But I dont believe thats part of any curse. Thats just due to my own bad judgment."


Cara Jepsen

Cara Jepsen writes for the Chicago Reader.

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