Saturday, October 17, 2009
Incubus feels like a film from a foreign country that doesn’t exist, a fantasy land somewhere beyond the borders of reason and good taste. In this strange place, everyone speaks Esperanto, sex demons plague the countryside like mosquitoes, and William Shatner is the biggest leading man in Hollywood. Also, everyone walks backwards and wears pitas on their heads like hats and instead of shaking hands and saying hello they all just rub bottoms and fart on each other.
Well, it’s just one theory. Take it or leave it.
In reality, Incubus is simply a rare Esperanto-language film, a daffy art-horror oddity starring a pre–Star Trek Shatner. I have to give credit to writer/director Leslie Stevens for the outrageousness of the Esperanto gambit, although it’s debatable whether or not the language is ultimately a liability here. The actors certainly struggle with speaking this strange tongue, resulting in some fairly clumsy line readings and distracted performances. You can almost see the beads of sweat on their foreheads as they enter another dialogue scene, all of them no doubt thinking, “Oh shit, how do I say this again…?”
But Stevens obviously wasn’t just trying to torture his actors, and there are benefits to this initially baffling choice. Even though it was filmed around Big Sur in California, Incubus really does come across as the product of a foreign culture, the use of Esperanto giving the story an alien quality that makes it much more palatable. This sort of simplistic supernatural allegory wouldn’t fly if it was played on familiar ground, but in an exotic language, it comes across as an obscure foreign folk-tale, the mythology of a lost culture. Plus, I am quite certain the only way the actors could keep a straight face while spouting this ridiculously baroque dialogue was to translate the words into a language they wouldn’t understand. Lines like “My hands tremble with desire!” at least make for a kind of overwrought poetry when appearing as text at the bottom of the screen, but spoken in English they would probably only prompt laughter.
Objectively speaking, this actually isn’t a particularly good film, even though it does have some assets to draw upon. Most notably, the famed Conrad Hall provides some gorgeous black-and-white cinematography, moving between sun-dappled pastoral idylls and hellish nighttime murk with great facility. Dutch angles, underwater shots, and distorted close-ups abound. The film is riotously stylish.
But the story is overly simple, even a touch silly—and definitely too thin to really hold together a worthy feature film. A demon named Kia stalks the countryside, luring men to the sea and drowning the poor schmucks in order to claim their tainted souls (one of the more memorable images in the film is Kia building a sandcastle on the corpse of one of her victims). In a moment of arrogance, Kia decides to corrupt a pure soul and deliver it to her master, the Incubus, otherwise known as the God of Darkness. That pure soul happens to be Marc, a wounded soldier played by Shatner.
Stevens twists around the corruption angle so that the demons are appalled to find Marc’s love has defiled Kia’s evil (“holy rape” is the charming phrase they use). In retaliation, they unleash the Incubus on Marc’s sister, and after a bit of rape and general mayhem, the love between Kia and Marc vanquishes the God of Darkness, appearing in the climactic scenes as a goat-headed beast that squeals like a pig. Incidental weirdness aside, this is basically the old song about love triumphing over evil, which you would expect to make for a great yawn of a movie, even with all the sex demons and goat monsters running around.
And yet, the stupid thing is so damnably watchable. Sure, I rolled my eyes and chuckled derisively from time to time, but the sheer strangeness of the whole enterprise justifies the experience. Even the weirdly archaic values behind the story—an evil, loose woman redeemed by the love of a good man and the promise of a holy union—only lend to the sense that we’re watching an ancient foreign fable.
As an object exiled from a time that never was and a place that does not exist, Incubus prompts fascination, if nothing else. Look at it as a kind of anthropology experiment, and try to deduce what sort of society could birth such a curious mythology. It’s a trick question, of course—as is almost always the case in these exercises in cinematic exoticism, the foreigners are us.