Lost & Found: The Story of the Esperanto Cult Horror Film INCUBUS
By John C. Alsedek:
I am in no way, shape, or form a cinematography expert. BUT . . . even to a lummox like me, there are certain productions that just have a look. And for me, the number one example of that is The Outer Limits, the great science-fiction anthology series that ran on ABC from 1963–1965. Watch an episode or two and you’ll see what I mean: the starkness of the black & white photography, yet still softened to an almost dreamlike state. Much of that came from cinematographer Conrad Hall, who would go on to win three Academy Awards for his work.
So, when I finally saw the previously "lost" film Incubus, I could immediately tell that director/producer Leslie Stevens had brought Hall in, as well as a significant portion of his Outer Limits crew. I mean, the leads were William Shatner (who starred in the season two episode "Cold Hands, Warm Heart") and Allyson Ames (who had co-starred in two Outer Limits episodes and was, for a brief time, Mrs. Leslie Stevens). And the film was scored by composer Dominic Frontiere, whose otherworldly scores were as much a part of The Outer Limits as Hall’s cinematography. So, is Incubus just an extra-long Outer Limits . . . or is it something else altogether?
Incubus was the brainchild of Stevens, who moved forward with the project after ABC cancelled The Outer Limits in January 1965. Wanting to take advantage of his Daystar Productions Outer Limits team before they moved on to other TV shows and motion pictures, Stevens wrote a horror script and got into pre-production. Stevens and producer Anthony M. Taylor decided to have the actors all speak Esperanto in order to give the film the feel of another place and time. The film’s principal photography took place in May 1965, with the primary locations being Big Sur Beach and the Mission San Antonio de Padua, both in Monterey County in Northern California (uncertain whether he’d be able to get permission to shoot a horror film at the mission, Stevens told local authorities that the film was in fact called Religious Leaders of Old Monterey).
The basic plot of Incubus is this: in the village of Nomen Tuum, the succubus Kia (Ames) becomes bored with her task of luring commonplace villagers into Hell. So, she sets her sights on someone far more pure of heart: a young soldier named Marc (Shatner), who has come to Nomen Tuum with his sister. Kia succeeds in winning Marc’s heart, but he refuses to consummate their relationship unless they are married. Furious, Kia and her sister succubus, Amael, plot revenge on Marc, summoning an incubus (a male demon) who murders Marc’s sister and attempts to do the same to Marc. But Kia has a turn of heart, for though she had planned to turn Marc to evil, her plan has backfired—she has fallen in love with him! This sets up the ending of the film, which I won’t spoil by giving away here.
A few significant problems arose with Incubus right from its premiere at the San Francisco Film Festival on October 26th, 1966—and the single biggest problem was the dialogue. The script for Incubus had been translated into Esperanto, and the actors learned their lines phonetically, but Stevens and Taylor had neglected to have a fluent Esperanto speaker onsite to correct any mispronunciations. As a result, there were numerous mistakes in the dialogue, and Taylor reported afterward that a large group of Esperanto enthusiasts (50–100 in total) who were attending the premiere spent most of the film laughing hysterically as a result.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, Incubus found itself attached to a sordid Hollywood murder-suicide involving the actor who had played the incubus himself, Milos Milos. Milos (actual last name Milosevic), himself married and a father, had been carrying on an affair with the estranged wife of Hollywood star Mickey Rooney, Barbara Ann Thomason. Well, both Milos and Thomason were found dead at Rooney’s home, shot down by Rooney’s own .38 revolver. With Rooney in the clear due to him being in another country at the time (the Philippines, filming the WWII drama Ambush Bay), it was determined that Milos had gunned down Thomason and then turned the weapon on himself. P. T. Barnum may have stated that “There’s no such thing as bad publicity,” but for an art film that was already struggling to find distribution, it was indeed verrrrrry bad publicity. Incubus had a brief run in France during November 1966, and that was it. The film disappeared from theaters, and then just disappeared entirely. When Taylor attempted to do a home video release of Incubus in 1993, he found that the negatives and all copies had been destroyed in a fire.
BUT . . . three years later, one copy was found in the collection at Paris’ Cinematheque Francaise. It was in poor condition, but it was enough to do a full restoration. Funded by The Sci-Fi Channel (now SyFy), a new master was created via frame-by-frame optical printing, and Incubus was released on home video in 2001. I got a copy of it a few years later, and while it’s far from a must-see, it’s an interesting curio at the least—definitely has an Outer Limits vibe but in a pure horror vein with some legitimately creepy moments.
Incubus was probably the most unusual TV/film project that writer/producer Leslie Stevens was ever involved in, but it was just one moment in a productive and celebrated career. We’ll be taking a closer look at Leslie Stevens next time. Until then, thanks for tuning in!
SUSPENSE writer, producer, and radio-drama aficionado John C. Alsedek shares the history of early radio and television and the impact it has made on the world of entertainment in his ongoing series for Flapper Press.