Just before he signed-up to play Captain James T. Kirk on Star Trek, William Shatner made a bizarre, little seen, art-house horror movie called Incubus.
It was little seen because the film’s original negative and nearly all of its prints were thought lost or destroyed not long after its initial screenings at film festivals.
Bizarre, well for two reasons, firstly because the whole movie, though shot in California, was performed in Esperanto, an artificial hotchpotch of a language created in the late 19th century by L. L. Zamenof to encourage peace and understanding between the peoples of different nations.
Incubus was written and directed by Leslie Stevens, creator of The Outer Limits. It came about after The Outer Limits had been canceled. Stevens was looking for a way to kickstart his career and curiously decided that an artsy low budget horror film in a language very few people understood could be the answer. William Shatner who starred as Marc in the film later recalled that Stevens’ script…
“...had a starkness and a simplicity to it - of good and evil, it was kind of Greek in its simplicity and the way that events marched, in the script, to their inevitable conclusion. So I read it and called him back quickly and said, ‘that’s wonderful, I’d love to do it.’”
At this point in his career, Shatner had appeared in numerous episodic television roles (including The Outer Limits episode “Cold Hands, Warm Heart”) and in supporting roles in a few notable features, such as Judgment at Nuremberg and The Outrage. His only leads in a feature at this point were for The Explosive Generation and more provocatively in Roger Corman’s The Intruder, which received very scant distribution.
Shatner said “when [Incubus] was presented to me I was in the throes of some good work and in demand, and this was a small picture, it was something that you might not think of as, in that famous phrase, a ‘career move,’ but it was so intriguing, and I so enjoyed working with Leslie Stevens, that I wanted to be in it.”
Stevens wanted to “put the film in a different place,” so he decided to have the actors speak in Esperanto throughout the movie. Stevens figured Esperanto was strange, exotic and archaic enough to create a mysterious sense of otherness. This was the second feature made in Esperanto, though the language had been used to atmospheric effect as set dressing in Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, as Hitler had denounced Esperanto as a Jewish plot to take over the world.
When Incubus was premiered at the San Francisco Film Festival in October 1966 and a group of 50-100 Esperantists “screamed and laughed and carried on like maniacs” every time the actors mispronounced the language—Shatner’s Esperanto is considered especially bad as he used a nasal French-sounding manner to enunciate the language. (He was raised in Montreal.)
The movie was further “bizarre” not just for its art house style (kinda Cocteau meets Bergman) but because of the strange incidents associated with a curse supposedly put on the film.
In his commentary for the DVD, William Shatner recalled an incident that occurred when the cast and crew first arrived in Big Sur, California. He remembers a “hippie” man approaching the company, and inquiring into their endeavor. Shatner says that the cast and crew reacted with some hostility to his interest, which angered him in turn. The “hippie” then loudly put a curse on their production, which some people believe came in effect.
The curse was blamed for a series of incidents that occurred within a year of the film’s production. After its initial, limited release the film was considered lost after being destroyed in a fire (or accidentally destroyed by a French film lab, it’s unclear); one of the main actors Milos Milos, who played the Incubus, killed his lover Carolyn Mitchell (estranged wife of Mickey Rooney) and then committed suicide; while actress Ann Atmar who played Shatner’s sister Arndis in the film also killed herself. Even the composer, Dominic Frontiere was convicted and spent some time in prison for scalping literally thousands of Super Bowl tickets in the 1980s
Tragic events and criminal activity aside, a print of Incubus was discovered at the Cinémathèque Française in Paris. A new print was created frame-by-frame, with English subtitles superimposed over the French ones.
So what’s it all about? Well, Incubus tells the story of an ancient Deer Well and the succubus who prey on sinful people who use it. If a corrupt person drinks from the well the water will taste salty, only a person pure of heart can benefit the healing properties of the well. Tired of killing the bunch of sinners who drink from the well, succubus Kia (Allyson Ames) schemes to lure a man pure of heart to the well as a sacrifice to the God of Darkness. Cue William Shatner as Marc, a wounded soldier, who Kia falls in love with, causing her sisterly demon Amael (Eloise Hardt) to raise an Incubus (Milos Milos) to bring revenge on Marc and his sister Arndis (Ann Atmar).
With thanks to Paul D. Brazill