Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Incubus - a toupological analysis.

Incubus is a somewhat legendary 1965 feature-film starring Bill Shatner that is performed entirely in the Esperanto language.

Here's the plot: A village with a magical well that can heal those who are sick or have corrupted souls entices all manner of folks from afar.

However, succubi (female incubi) entice these wretches before they can be healed and murder them, the intention being to offer their souls to the forces of darkness.

But one of these succubi (Kia, played by Allyson Ames) grows bored with only capturing already tainted visitors, and deciding on a greater challenge, sets out to entice a pure soul instead. That pure soul is played by Bill Shatner, an injured and pious soldier Marc, who lives in a hut with his sister Arndis. Kia sets about seducing him, hoping to lure this good man to turn towards evil - but his goodness is so strong, will she fall in love with him instead? And what will her satanic brethren have to say about that?

The above plot may sound somewhat convoluted, but it actually plays out in a remarkably simple way.

The movie presents and explores numerous grand mythological themes: good, evil and the power of both (much like the classic Star Trek episode "The Enemy Within"), religion, purity and perceptions of man and woman. Indeed, there are a myriad of subtexts and quasi-religious ideas at play here that viewers can explore at their leisure. Naturally, the movie is most definitely of the "Arthouse" variety.

But the question that most of you that haven't seen this movie are probably asking is this: is the movie actually any good? "Shatner" and "Esperanto" carry certain preconceptions as to what one might expect. In this case, we too were cautious - and even apprehensive. Would Incubus just be a silly exercise; something to poke fun at? Was the movie more of a curiosity and less of a genuine dramatic experience? Was it pretentious? Surprisingly, for us the answer to all these questions was a decisive no. We thoroughly enjoyed Incubus, and found it genuinely engrossing and even quite moving.

Actress Ann Atmar as Arndis - Incubus often feels like a silent movie, only with sound.

There is a scene in which a solar eclipse plays out in real time that we thought was particularly original.

For any English-speaker who has watched a subtitled foreign movie, the point is surely that it doesn't matter if it is in Swedish, French or Japanese. What one cares about is the intonation of the voices one hears - with the meaning of the words conveyed through the subtitles. That being the case, the fact that Incubus is in Esperanto is entirely irrelevant.

One can question the decision to make the movie in a language that virtually guaranteed commercial failure (shockingly, Incubus was thought to have been essentially lost - the original print destroyed in a fire - until a copy with French subtitles was located decades later, see here), but that is a different matter entirely. Controversies over the artificiality of Esperanto accents can only possibly alienate the world's true Esperanto speakers - amusingly: "...because Shattner [sic] made his own pronunciation up, he believes that he may have influenced the way the language is now spoken worldwide." sourced here.

The movie feels particularly European, despite actually having been shot in California.

We must also single out and applaud the exquisite black & white cinematography by Conrad Hall. This, coupled with experimental direction by Outer Limits creator Leslie Stevens and wonderfully theatrical performances by both Shatner and Ames, combines to create the kind of cinematic experience that underlines just how operatic movies can stimulate both our senses and our hearts, minds and souls.

Echoes of the styles of Ingmar Bergman (Incubus is in many ways remarkably similar to 1957's The Seventh Seal) or Orson Welles movies are inescapable.

Bill Shatner is heavily directed here - very few traces of the familiar Shatner-isms. With extra credit given to the fact that he is speaking in a language he doesn't understand, we thought that the actor's performance in this movie was very strong - perhaps the greatest "leading man" opportunity the actor has ever had. The final scenes of Incubus, in which (in true operatic style) the power of good defeats the forces of evil show a particularly dynamic performance by Bill Shatner.

This is the kind of art movie about which entire theses could be (and possibly have been) written, analyzing themes, exploring philosophical implications, breaking down editing choices etc. To think that this movie was almost lost forever...shocking.

Now, to the hair...

It's the frontal "swoosh" of Bill Shatner's "Jim Kirk lace" that is particularly noteworthy here, almost constantly flailing about in the wind.

And as we've noted before, there's a very slightly higher hairline for the lace here than was usual during this period.

Also briefly visible at the rear base of the head is a small patch of baldness which Bill Shatner has had (judging from this) for quite some time (we've analyzed it before here and here). Evidently, this was normally concealed with simple combing. This is likely not connected to pattern baldness, but rather a scar of some sort.

Incubus is available on a special edition DVD, with a commentary by Bill Shatner. The movie is also, at present, up on YouTube (albeit in an incorrectly uploaded aspect ratio).

We don't hesitate to recommend this movie to those who haven't seen it - watch it in as close to theater-like conditions as you can create - you may be very pleasantly surprised.


  1. I totally agree with you. This movie is quite compelling, almost spell-binding :)

  2. Since it came out on DVD, I have made it a practice to watch this every Halloween.

    Milos Milos is also very effective in his limited screentime. What a tragic story he was.

  3. Ratty Lost Years PieceMarch 25, 2010 at 5:04 PM

    In that video, Shatner is totally reading the lines off his hand, from 0:00-0:10.

    Great stills of the toupee, too.

  4. How do say toupee in esperanto?

  5. Esperanto word for hairpiece:

  6. Thanks, RM! But Bill (and the touppe) are looking good on this picture

  7. As is almost everything these days, Incubus is on youtube. Please check out this clip Specifically, contrast the first few seconds of the clip, where Bill has his infrastructure relatively well in place, with 1:50 to 2:20, where the wind hath wrought absolute havoc with his edifice. I think that this scene alone merits its own post, for I think it provides by far the best evidence that Shatner, by 1965, is almost completely bald on the top of his head.

  8. I watched /Incubus/ on DVD a year or two ago and did not enjoy it. I found it boring. However, I agree that its cinematography is nice, and Shatner certainly looks handsome in it.

    Esperanto is actually an artificial language (deliberately invented as opposed to descended from millennia of human speech), so if the accents in the movie sound artificial, there should be nothing wrong with that.

  9. Makes one wonder if the reason that (White Dwarf) Star Bill Shatner routinely sacrificed supporting players' careers on the altar of his ego was driven by an attempt to appease the hairdressing gods.