[From time to time I’ll report my fresh impressions of a cult classic I’m the last to know about — just in case I’m the first-to-last.]
The key to Incubus is not story, but sound. Filmed in 1965 and lost for three decades afterword, it lingered in most people’s minds like a half-remembered melody. The film unfolds like a dream even when you’re seeing it, since it’s spoken in a language that almost nobody in the world shares — the utopian, syncretic creation Esperanto, once meant to be a universal language but soon almost extinct. This makes the film a kind of music rather than a spoken narrative, and music itself plays a dominant part.
Incubus exists in the interstice of two towering sci-fi milestones; The Outer Limits, whose creator, Leslie Stevens, directed and wrote this movie the year after the first version of the show went off the air, and Star Trek, whose leading man William Shatner stars in this movie one year before his most famous role.
Outer Limits’ first-season composer Dominic Frontiere also scores Incubus, and his hypnotic, mournful music is instantly recognizable while being fundamentally divergent form his work on the iconic science-fiction franchise. For Incubus is not science-fiction but folkloric horror.
Shot in California but thrown into a spacetime crossroads of classic village and unspecific historical period by its ornate, fantasy language, Spanish Colonial architecture and minimally archaic costumery, Incubus is a fable that could happen at any time — and only in the human psyche. Shatner is Marc, a pure-spirited soldier back from some unspecific conflict, convalescing in the countryside with his saintly sister. It’s a village with a supposed fountain of youth, which attracts venal and vain seekers, who are prayed on by local succubi who want to recruit some low-hanging fruit for Satan.
Marc of course is incorruptible, which complicates the plans of the demoness Kia (Allyson Ames), who intends to claim him for Hell. As the plot progresses she realizes she would rather claim him for herself, and he in turn tries to recruit her to the embrace of god. It’s an exceedingly weird-in-a-maybe-unintentional-way movie, with a coven of predatory females and a very maternal male lead.
The passive are sacrificed — including Marc’s sister, who is just automatically good rather than a resister of temptation like him, and, on the other side, the Incubus of the title, a personified force of hell who, by serving as a mere pawn no matter how powerful he is, does not have the moral superiority of having chosen what he does.
At one point Marc’s soul seems forfeit because he has succumbed to vengefulness in stabbing the Incubus for killing his sister; but what matters is what’s in his heart, not what he does circumstantially — and the same goes for the succubus who would be his love, whom the Incubus, through the discreet means of 1960s suggestion and perilously low budgets, tries to silence by turning himself into a humanoid goat and sexually assaulting her (one of the more appallingly misogynist scenes in film history, if you can stop laughing), but who loses when Kia tells him her heart belongs to god. Marc, himself lying almost killed by the Incubus just inside the village church, reaches out for the succubus’ hand and the monster evaporates — action, not just blind-faith acceptance, has won the day and eternity.
Frontiere’s music is a constant presence, and where he relied on eerie limpid delays and whistling electronic winds in Outer Limits, the harp predominates here; the sound of Outer Limits was mournfully technological while in Incubus it is memorially ancient. The earlier show was about a gleaming, godless future, while the movie is about a textured, god-full infinity. Treated as a legendary midnight movie or DVD-only oddity, Incubus got Stevens a kind of immortality though not the kind he expected, and it forges deliriously, determinedly ahead into an endless past.