Foreign horror movies are better than domestic ones. We come from outside the language or the cultural context. The sense of isolation increases. The acting seems better. The writing seems better. We’re willing to suspend our disbelief a little more than usual.
But Incubus (1966) is an American movie in foreign film drag.
It is written and directed by The Outer Limits’ Leslie Stevens, with an LA-based cast, but performed 100% in Esperanto. Esperanto? Esperanto. The cast signed on to make a movie in English, but a week or ten days before production started they were given their translated lines to learn phonetically. Incubus (1966) had turned into an Esperanto movie. And somehow, nobody quit.
Por Kio Esperanto?
Fifty years after release, it’s not entirely clear why Incubus (1966) turned into an Esperanto movie. William Shatner claims on a DVD commentary that Stevens hoped that Esperanto’s 7 million speakers would turn out for Incubus (1966) and help make it a hit. (Why this is preferable to English’s 100s of millions of speakers is something we’ll just have to wonder.)
What there is no doubt about is that the choice to film Incubus (1966) in Esperanto creates an eerie effect. It’s so, so weird. That small base of Esperanto speakers makes Incubus (1966) incomprehensible to the overwhelming majority of filmgoers in every market. That’s the opposite of what Stevens intended, but the unsettling oddness of Incubus (1966) is part of what makes it special.
But. Leslie Stevens wasn’t necessarily trying to make a special movie. He was, or should have been, trying to make a profitable movie, but the planning on Incubus (1966) was using the Underpants Gnomes business model.
There was no Esperanto speaker on location with the cast, so they just had to muddle along with their few days of experience and hope for the best. The result, inevitably, was that the Esperanto speakers who did turn up to the premiere of Incubus (1966) in San Francisco laughed and laughed. I don’t speak Esperanto either, but I’m imagining what Dick Van Dyke’s accent in Mary Poppins might have sounded like if Dick Van Dyke started learning English a week before shooting began, and that probably gets close.
Incubus Lost and Found
Distributors were at a loss what to do with Incubus (1966). It wasn’t commercial enough; it wasn’t art house enough. Incubus (1966) was, let’s face it, a badly written and unevenly performed independent Esperanto movie. Incubus (1966) showed well at a few film festivals, got distribution in France, and then faded away. Producer Anthony Taylor put all the materials in specialized film storage until the world changed.
Which it did. Home video came, and in the 1990s Taylor went back to the specialized film storage folks to get Incubus (1966). The specialized video folks had lost it. I assume that Taylor sued the pants off them and then sued the shorts off them, providing them with shorts first if they were not wearing shorts of their own. But he didn’t lose hope.
France was the key. And in 1996, an unplayable film copy turned up in the permanent collection of the Cinémathèque Française. The so, so weird Esperanto movie nobody wanted had been playing to sold-out crowds in Paris for years. Before Los Angeles said “oh hai” to The Room and before the Alamo Drafthouse bought The Miami Connection on eBay without knowing what it was (true story), Incubus (1966) had been the good-bad darling of the Paris film scene.
Producer/hero of the story Anthony Taylor sold DVD copies of Incubus (1966), putting it back into circulation. So it’s out there to be seen, along with lots of other movies named “Incubus” that are a lot less interesting. Fluency in Esperanto not required to watch. To be honest, it probably wouldn’t help.❤