Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
Winding down to Halloween proper now, so a grab-bag of items—a little Karloff, a little Esperanto, a little Oscar Wilde. Trick or treat? The Karloff note talks about one of the great man’s Val Lewton films, Isle of the Dead, which has a peculiar, almost Samuel Beckettian sense of waiting around for death to come. The Esperanto is that daft 1962 film Incubus, with William Shatner, which really does unfold entirely in the international language intended to promote world peace. The Wilde is a piece I wrote for my blog about The Picture of Dorian Gray, where I talk about the (quite interesting) 1945 film adaptation but also its appearance in one of Seattle’s early-1970s horror-movie showcases, a late-night series hosted by Dr. ZinGRRR (the horror-host persona of a legendary local radio deejay, Robert O. Smith). Mild-ish spoilers included.
Isle of the Dead
Val Lewton and Boris Karloff, on a Greek island in 1912, war and pestilence raging on the mainland. Karloff and reporter Marc Cramer leave the dead zone—persuasively summoned in a few shots of mangled bodies and smoking battlefield—to visit Karloff’s wife’s tomb on the island. Cajoled into spending the night by an antiquities scholar (Jason Robards, Sr.), they must stay when someone dies of plague. The house also has a spooky housekeeper, a young hottie (Ellen Drew) who may or may not be a vorlvolaka, a Greek mythical monster; a British consul (Alan Napier) and his invalid wife (the extremely unsettling Katherine Emery). The invalid has a fear of being buried alive, since she is prone to cataleptic states—and of course she ends up being carted off to the tomb; great revelation scene, as we hear her scratching away at the wood from inside. When she breaks out, she drifts around in a diaphanous gown, grabs an ancient trident, and stabs the peasant woman and Karloff with it.
Another good character: a philosophical Greek doctor (Ernst Dorian aka Deutsch), who perishes early on. The Karloff character, a general, holds no faith, but eventually becomes convinced that Drew is a vorvolaka, and pesters her until she has to sneak away with the reporter. They are all waiting for a sirocco, the wind that will blow the plague away, which results in a static but interesting idyll. The antiquarian has a little kettle in the backyard, to which he makes burned offerings to Hermes. A three-headed statue of Cereberus serves as an oft-seen totem. Some good windy, outdoor atmosphere, when Drew goes out walking and hears a strange birdcall and possibly a human voice. Not too suspenseful overall, but the air of civilized resignation is palpable, as people (except Karloff) meet their deaths with stoical acceptance. Mark Robson directed, in the house style, with some tone-deaf line readings. Karloff’s hair is gray and curly (cf. Bava’s Black Sabbath).
Only movie shot in Esperanto, 1965, with William Shatner. If that’s not enough to recommend it, and of course it is, Incubus was shot by Conrad Hall, and the black-and-white images are truly stunning—a lot of Val Lewton, a lot of Ingmar Bergman. The story itself is almost certainly influenced by the Bergman of Seventh Seal and Virgin Spring, and the language makes it sound arty and European.
Succubi lure sinners to their deaths in some vague oceanside landscape, but one such siren (Allyson Ames) wants to corrupt a pure man—that’s Shatner, just returned from a war. He leaves his hauntingly gorgeous sister (Ann Atmar) to go off with the vixen, who later summons up the incubus from the earth. Much daffy good-evil stuff and a lot of fantastic lighting later, Shatner crawls mortally wounded to a church, bringing the girl with him, but not before she is apparently raped by the Incubus in the form of a goat. Final shot is a freeze-frame solarized image of the goat’s head.
Great longshot: the Incubus emerges across a dark hillside, his arms spread, stops in his tracks, and gives the arms a sudden jerk—freaky. He is played by Milos Milos; a year after filming, he killed his girlfriend (Mickey Rooney’s estranged wife) and himself. Ann Atmar killed herself after filming ended, leading to the official “Incubus curse.” (On the commentary track for the DVD, Shatner insists the curse was laid by a hippie wandering around the Big Sur set, after having been roughly treated by the crew. He also says the shooting was conducted in Esperanto.) Written and directed by Leslie Stevens, of Outer Limits fame. He captures some Bergmanesque compositions—two women’s faces side by side in the frame—a year before Persona. There’s a brief topless shot during a demonic rite that probably got cut in the U.S. Also great 60s-style credits, a la the Corman pictures of the time. Pretty flabbergasting movie.
Robert Horton, the longtime reviewer for the Daily Herald and Seattle Weekly, is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.