Incubus: a film in Esperanto with William Shatner

On a walk in Galway once I met a Polish couple poring over a map. We were going the same way, and fell into step. They were in town for an Esperanto conference, and when the man – an Esperanto playwright – learned I had an interest in languages, he eagerly gave me a crash course in its grammar as we manoeuvred the uneven paths and busy streets.

It was a fun experience, but it remains the only proper exposure I’ve had to spoken Esperanto. More recently I encountered the language again, not in the flesh but in the form of a film – I wrote a post about films of linguistic interest and the comments soon filled up with tips; Edward Banatt suggested Incubus.

Incubus 1996 film - Unleash the incubus

Incubus is an experimental horror fable from 1966 with dialogue all in Esperanto. Starring a pre-Star Trek William Shatner, it was written and directed by another playwright, Leslie Stevens, better known for his cult TV show The Outer Limits. Incubus was lost for decades, which did wonders for its underground reputation, and what happened behind the scenes (“murder, suicide and kidnapping, for a start”) did likewise.

Whether or not it’s a good film is an open question. There’s good and bad in it, so its appeal depends chiefly on your taste and tolerance for this sort of thing, by which I mean heavily stylised allegorical arty black-and-white psychotronic occult fantasy hokum about forces of evil and corruption of souls. With William Shatner. In Esperanto.

incubus 1966 film - william shatner

Shot by the great Conrad Hall, and filmed in California, it looks very well, the stark cinematography and otherworldly atmosphere evoking Bergman’s Hour of the Wolf and Harvey’s Carnival of Souls. It doesn’t come near those films’ intensity, but it passes an hour and a quarter effortlessly if you’re in the mood. The dialogue is diverting, Shatner and company do fine, and it all amounts to a strange and original package.

I’m not qualified to assess the use of Esperanto in Incubus, but I have read that the pronunciation is poor. Whatever the motivation for this choice – aesthetic, political, financial, whimsical – it suits the film. You can get a flavour in this trashy trailer (Thrill to the Horror of Satanic Ritual! Tingle with Excitement at the Succubi Sisters! Look on in Bewilderment as William Shatner speaks in Tongues!):

Or watch the full film, subtitled in English (N.B. not suitable for children or sensitive viewers):

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14 Responses to Incubus: a film in Esperanto with William Shatner

  1. I had no idea there was a film in Esperanto, starring William Shatner, no less! I learn so many delightful things from your blog! Keep it up. :)

  2. Ado Annie says:

    For some reason the line ‘Shakespeare was better in the original Klingon’ comes to mind. :)

  3. Roger says:

    Re the eager Esperantist you met — Eager is what Esperanto needs.
    Doesn’t it mean not only hoping but also waiting, along with all the other made-ups?

  4. SlideSF says:

    Not spoken, but rather sung in Esperanto is Lou Harrison’s “La Koro Sutro”

  5. alexmccrae1546 says:

    Fellow Canuck William Shatner, thespian extraordinaire, never ceases to amaze. Like his iconic filmic character Captain James Kirk, he has gone where no other man (or actor) has dared go before… or words to that effect. Ha!

    Shatner’s acting in a Esperanto-dialogued movie from back in the day really doesn’t surprise yours truly, one iota. Would his diehard fans expect anything less daring from the guy who had the audacity to tackle, and record Elton John’s “Rocket Man”, or the Beatles’ “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”, while in the same era pulling off w/ aplomb the lead role in two of the most trippy and memorable Twilight Zone episodes ever, namely “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” and “Nick of Time”?

    From his portrayals of TV series lead characters, cop T.J. Hooker, to the suave solicitor, Denny Crane, on Boston Legal, to his prolific sci-fi novel exploits, the annual Comic Con Trekie-love-fests, and his elevated status in the Southern California equestrian community, the soon-to-turn-83-years-young Mr. Shatner has clearly followed his passion(s) to the hilt… and then some.

    That early Esperanto gig obviously wasn’t a career breaker… or maker, for that matter.

  6. Stan says:

    Sharon: It came as a surprise to me too! Glad you’re enjoying the blog.

    Ado Annie: An idea that became a reality with the translation of Hamlet into Klingon.

    Roger, Jesse: You could argue that hoping implies waiting in most if not all cases.

    SlideSF: A nice piece of music – thanks for sharing it. Apparently Harrison was a fluent Esperanto speaker.

    Alex: He’s had an extraordinary career all right.

  7. languagehat says:

    Great trailer; I especially liked “William Shatner…” [WOMAN SCREAMS]. And the subtitles match the quality of the film itself, to judge by “Revenge me!” If I were an Esperantist, I’d think “Can’t we do better than this??”

  8. Bill Chapman says:

    I don’t think Incubus demonstrates the best Esperanto has to offer.

    Esperanto hasn’t yet gained the recognition it deserves. However, all things considered, it has actually done amazingly well. In just over 125 years, it has managed to grow from a drawing-board project with just one speaker in one country to a complete and living natural language with around 2,000,000 speakers in over 120 countries and a rich literature and cosmopolitan culture, with little or no official backing and even bouts of persecution. It hasn’t taken the world by storm – yet – but it’s slowly but surely moving in that direction, with the Internet giving it a significant boost in recent years.

    If you’re interested in Esperanto, take a look at http://www.lernu.net

  9. Stan says:

    LH: That bit made me laugh; the trailer is very over the top, deliberately so of course. The film is an admirably effort on its own terms, but I would like to see something in Esperanto that’s less, well, out there.

    Bill: I don’t imagine it does (demonstrate the best Esperanto has to offer). The language probably won’t ever “take the world by storm”, but it may be considered a success in some respects.

  10. Yasin says:

    Esperanto is an interesting case. Well, in theory, it may work. However, I do not think that any language can be sustained in the long term without a state, a strong community or prestige. Even Latin, such wide spread language went extinct. As we know, how Celtic language diminished in Britain with a low prestige among the Anglo-Saxon conquerors. What makes Esperanto unique is that it is artificial and totally free from ethnic or national bonds.

    • Stan says:

      Yasin: It’s true that Espernato lacks cultural prestige and official state apparatus, but I would say it has a strong community or communities – albeit geographically dispersed. Of course, this matters a bit less now because of advances in telecommunication.

  11. kechjo says:

    «Angoroj» antaŭvenis «Incubus»-on de proksimume jaro. Ĝi ankaŭ spekteblas en YouTube, sensubtekste. Nek el tiuj filmoj estas bona.

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