Incubus (1966)

Crimes: 

  • Turning a stark, moody story of Satanic horror into a silly, pompous mess of a movie, and further ensuring no one would like it by having the ludicrous dialogue spoken in the invented “universal language” of Esperanto
  • Hiring Conrad Hall, one of the greatest cinematographers of all time, to pretty up the film in hopes that no one would notice how ridiculous it is
  • Literally destroying the lives of a number of the actors and crew involved with the movie, yet somehow sparing William Shatner

Defenders: Shatner, Hall, producer Anthony Taylor, assistant cinematographer William Fraker, and author David J. Schow, who wrote a book about the movie

Tone of commentary: Wildly varied, depending on who’s talking. On the track shared by Hall, Taylor, Fraker, and Schow, Hall mostly dwells on arcane technical details about cinematography, or talks about the gorgeous natural environment at Big Sur, pausing occasionally to point out some glaring error. (“Oops! What happened there?”) Fraker is similarly concerned with technical details, but is more upbeat and cynical in his comments, discussing the many problems with the shoot and making wisecracks about the finished product. (During one spooky scene, he suggests, “We need a guy in here playing the organ.”) Schow provides plenty of background detail, noting how many of the cast and crew were imported from the director’s work on the Outer Limits TV show, but he conspicuously refrains from making any aesthetic judgments about the movie. Taylor is the only one of the group who seems to think Incubus is a good movie, but even his comments frequently have a damn-by-faint-praise quality, as when he notes, after a particularly creaky line-reading, “You could almost play this entire film without dialogue.”

William Shatner, who plays the hero of the film, gets an entire commentary track to himself. He doesn’t have much to say—the entire movie is only 75 minutes long, but his commentary takes up maybe 12 minutes. What he does say veers between self-aggrandizement (he remarks on what an “in-demand” actor he was when he took the role) and portentous, faintly bizarre pronouncements that might be jokes if they came from anyone but him. The previous track never mentioned the alleged “curse” surrounding Incubus, only a few times referring to the “bad luck” that followed its cast; Shatner, on the other hand, talks about it constantly, blaming it on an “itinerant long-haired hippie” who was “rudely dealt with” by someone on the set, with the result that “a wailing curse was laid on us.” Shatner not only blames the deaths of several cast and crew members on this mysterious hippie, but also the decline of the Esperanto language and his own inability to give a live reading of his lines at the Venice Film Festival that year. Others might attribute this latter turn of events to the existence of a benevolent God.

What went wrong: Almost everyone agrees that the decision to make Incubus in Esperanto was not especially well thought out. The actors were given little more than a week to learn their lines phonetically; none of them spoke Esperanto, and they had only seen the script in English. Once they got on location, there were no Esperanto speakers around, which accounts for what Fraker gently refers to as “certain lapses in the Esperanto pronunciation.” The trouble didn’t end once the movie wrapped; today, the only existing print of the film features French subtitles, which means that viewers wishing to watch it in English have to deal with huge black boxes superimposed over the whole lower half of the screen. Taylor, once again, is the sole voice of support for the decision. Although he allows that when audiences first hear the Esperanto dialogue, they’re “not quite certain what they’re in for,” he defends the choice with a typically left-handed compliment: “I think the fact that we have all the dialogue in Esperanto really helps the film. Otherwise, it would be just too flowery. In English, this would sound pretty dumb.”

Shatner, who pronounces “Esperanto” with a noticeable French-Canadian accent, also singles out the language problem. Stevens, he recalls, convinced him that Incubus would be a hit because Esperanto had more than 7 million speakers; it did not occur to him that these 7 million people were spread out into a few hundred in every major city around the world, not exactly a recipe for box-office success. “There was a large contingent of [Esperanto speakers] in Liberia,” he notes, “but we couldn’t reach them because there was no telephone.” He also makes the odd claim that Incubus was a big success in France because French people do not understand one another, and thus had no problem not being able to understand the actors speaking Esperanto.

Comments on the cast: It seems a bit cruel to speak ill of the dead, especially when they were all struggling to recite incredibly overblown dialogue in a language none of them understood, but most of the comments on the cast are a bit mean-spirited. One actress “didn’t appear in too many films after this,” says Hall; “I wouldn’t call her a star.” Fraker claims another actor “had a very bad hangover the morning he did the voiceover,” compounding his inability to pronounce Esperanto by barely being able to read his lines. Then there’s this exchange between Hall and Fraker:

“Bob looks a little smashed here, doesn’t he? I don’t think he was.”
“Well, he’s an actor.”
“Hopefully.”

Few of the first set of commenters have much to say about Shatner one way or another; the most “praise” he gets is from Taylor, who says, “He seems much more relaxed here than he does on Star Trek.” Shatner himself is a tad piggish; he says little about the other actors, and confines his comments about the actresses to estimations of their physical attractiveness. “Beautiful, beautiful girl,” he says of one. “She’s probably a grandmother by now.”

Inevitable dash of pretension: This category belongs entirely to Shatner, who makes a windy pronouncement about Incubus every time he opens his mouth. Hall, Fraker, and Schow clearly don’t think enough of the movie to wax pretentious about it; at one point, Taylor says, “The whole picture has a Bergman-movie look to it,” to which Hall immediately snaps, “It’s not intentional, I can tell you that.” Shatner shows no such restraint, which may be one reason he has his own commentary track. He compares Incubus to Bergman, Fellini, Hitchcock, and the French New Wave, and frames it in terms of classical drama every chance he gets. “It had a starkness and a simplicity to it,” he says of the script. “It was almost Greek in its simplicity.”

Commentary in a nutshell: Anthony Taylor: “This is the scene where we screened it for some people in New York, and there was a lot of silence.” 

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