In the early 60s Anthony Taylor, a successful broker with seats on the Chicago Board of Trade and the Chicago Mercantile Exchange as well as an aspiring film producer, was introduced by a friend to director Leslie Stevens. Though Taylor's experience was limited to some training films for air force pilots, he seized the opportunity to ask Stevens--who was famous for the TV series The Outer Limits and a string of Broadway hits such as The Marriage-Go-Round--if he'd be interested in collaborating with him on a low-budget movie.
Stevens, who'd been looking to work outside the Hollywood system, took Taylor up on his offer. He wrote a script about a beautiful succubus who tires of destroying the souls of easy prey and focuses her attention on a morally upright soldier. When he doesn't succumb, she summons an incubus to attack his sister. To evoke an otherworldly, timeless atmosphere, Incubus was shot in black and white in Big Sur, California. It starred William Shatner as the soldier. And all of the dialogue was in Esperanto.
"I never liked the idea of seeing World War II movies where the Germans and Japanese characters spoke English," says Taylor. "I thought the idea of having devils and demons speak English was a similar thing."
The spooky sound track added to the eerie effect, as did the cinematography by Conrad Hall. The result was an arty-looking film that had more in common with Bergman than Craven. It opened to a full house at the San Francisco film festival in 1966 and was shown at a number of foreign festivals. "I thought I was home free--that it would translate into something big here," says Taylor. "Shatner was well-thought-of, and so was Leslie. Everyone liked it, but no one had any concept of what to do with it."
By 1968 no distribution deal had materialized. "Leslie and I decided we would shoot a thing with naked women in it and change it all around," says Taylor. "We were going to lose the Esperanto. Bill was going to do the narration. We shot some parts in Technicolor. But it was pretty obvious that it just didn't work." They stored the masters and all their copies at a lab in LA and went on with their lives.
Shatner landed Star Trek and worked with Taylor to develop scripts. Hall went on to the big time: he won an Academy Award for his cinematography in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and he was recently nominated for American Beauty. But not everyone fared so well. Not long after shooting the film, the actress who'd played Shatner's sister committed suicide. In 1966 the actor who played the incubus, Milos Milos, murdered Mickey Rooney's estranged fifth wife and then shot himself. "Who knows if there are curses or not, but a lot of stuff happened to a lot of people," Taylor says.
In the early 1970s, Taylor moved up the coast to grow avocados and later wandered around Mexico, Palm Springs, and Taos. He finally settled near San Luis Obispo and about seven years ago decided to look into putting Incubus out on video. He called the lab and was told they'd misplaced the film. He immediately thought of the curse. "It doesn't happen that everything just disappears and nobody seems to know what happened to it," he says. "It isn't like storing it in your garage."
He sued the company for damages and won, but gave up on ever seeing Incubus again. Then in 1996 a friend told Taylor he'd heard the Cinematheque Francaise in Paris had a print. Taylor was shocked. "It turns out they had been running it for 30 years to packed audiences," he says. "I had no idea."
Nor did he know how difficult it would be to get a copy. After more than a year of negotiations the Cinematheque arranged for a print to be copied at a lab, but there were problems. "The perforations were messed up," he says. "I had to make an optical negative and redo the whole thing. I went back and forth for a long time, sending faxes and wiring money. Then one day FedEx showed up with a bunch of large cans of film."
He hired restoration consultants to clean up the print and arranged for English subtitles to be added. "I was surprised at how good it looked," says Taylor. "It was a lot better film than I remembered."
He sent copies to Shatner, who hung an Incubus poster in his office, and to Hall. (Stevens had passed away in 1998.) Taylor is selling the video out of his house through a Web site, www.incubusthefilm.com. There are no plans for a theatrical release in this country, but later this year Taylor will offer the film on DVD, complete with an introduction by Hall.
"When someone hears that it's black-and-white and 35 years old, they think it's going to look like some World War I newsreel," says Taylor. "Then they hear it's in a foreign language and think they're in for a root canal or something. They're usually pleasantly surprised."
The Psychotronic Film Society will show Incubus on video Monday at 8 at Liar's Club, 1665 W. Fullerton. Admission is free, but you must be 21. Call 773-665-1110 for more.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Tony Hertz.