THE INCUBUS (1982, directed by John Hough, 93 minutes, Canada)
BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC
Philly film buffs often note that the most intriguing films only stay in local theaters for a week, but some of the most curious offerings will only play one show. Tonight is likely your only chance to see one of the most daring bookings the Exhumed Films collective has ever presented. Loosely connected by the ancient myth of The Incubus, a demon who rapes humans as they sleep, Exhumed Film will be presenting a double-bill of 1972’s Gargoyles and 1982’s The Incubus in rare and usually vibrant 35mm prints.
The 1972 TV-film Gargoyles only mentions the incubus in passing, yet it gets a lot of spooky imagery out of the ancient legend. Originally made for CBS, Gargoyles is well remembered for scaring the bejeesus out of kids as it popped up in syndication over the years. TV was loaded with these sort of supernatural films in the early 70’s, often inspired by Rosemary’s Baby and the Exorcist among others, and with their shortened running times they move along at a no-nonsense clip, much like the best B-movies of Hollywood’s past.
Gargoyles stars aging Hollywood swashbuckler Cornel Wilde as Dr. Mercer Boley, an archaeologist who loves debunking people’s fake relics. He has brought his young daughter Diana (Jessica Salt, of DePalma’s Sisters and the TV sitcom Soap) on his vacation in New Mexico where they meet a crusty old desert rat who claims to have the bones of an ancient gargoyle. Dr. Boley is in the middle of dismissing the skeleton when a group of gargoyles lay siege on their barn, leaving things in a fiery rubble.
It’s these atmospheric night time desert attacks and the Boley’s descent into the gargoyles cave that seem to have stuck in people’s memories, as well as the gorgeous creature costumes, particularly the one worn by the great black actor Bernie Casey as their metallic-voiced leader. Gargoyles is the first screen credit of Stan Winston, whose ground-breaking work in fantasy make-up has been a huge and under-recognized influence in modern film. His handiwork has been seen in mega-movie franchises like Alien, The Terminator, Batman, and Jurassic Park, along with Edward Scissorhands, John Carpenter’s The Thing and the list goes on. The tight and at times funny script was written by the husband and wife team of Elinor and Steven Karf, who compiled a curious list of TV credits, including a TV biopic of Jayne Mansfield starring Loni Anderson and Arnold Schwarzenegger as Mansfield’s husband Mickey Hargitay. Steven Karpf is coincidentally a Philadelphian and will be appearing at tonight’s show to answer questions about the film and his career.
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Even stranger is the second billed film, an oddball gem of the horror genre if there ever was one. The Incubus is a 1981 Canadian production, best remembered if at all, as an example of how far filmmaker and actor John Cassavetes was willing to prostitute himself in order to raise cash for his own films. Solidly directed by journeyman director John Hough (Dirty Mary and Crazy Larry, Escape From Witch Mountain), The Incubus has a feverish, unsettling quality that is too bizarre to easily write off.
Cassavetes plays Dr. Cordell, a big city divorced pathologist who settles in the small town of Galen with his teenage daughter. Jenny (Erin Flannery, later of Class of 1984). A series of sexual assaults and murders have struck the town and Jenny’s boyfriend Tim (Duncan McIntosh) is the main suspect since he has predicted the crimes in his dreams. Kerrie Keane also pops up as Laura Kincaid, a crusading newspaper editor, who may be the double of a woman Dr. Cordell was seeing when she died in a violent car wreck.
This dense, eccentric work has more oddball edges than can be easily summarized. British director Hough directs the film with a touch similar to John Schlesinger, with flashes of silent cutaways to unexplained imagery and a certain icy tone. But it is really Cassavetes who drags this film into its own strata of weirdness. Critics often dismiss The Incubus by saying Cassavetes sleepwalks through his performance but really it is just the opposite. It is like casting Brando to play the normal guy-next-door, Cassavetes can’t easily merge into the drama, instead he brings a heavy, heavy gravity to every scene he’s in. Even a casual talk with his daughter is infused with alienating hints of pain, violence and an especially icky lust and every actor who shares a scene with him is forced to attempt to reach Cassavetes off-the-scale level of intensity. Meanwhile Cassavetes is giving drawn-out, troubled line readings of dialog about “dry sex” and “massive amounts of sperm” that are sure to evoke nervous laughter from the crowd. Throw in a murder that takes place in a theater of teens watching the 1980 British metal band Samson (featuring a pre-Iron Maiden Bruce Dickinson) and you’ve got a dizzying “only in the 80’s” document that fans of bizarre cinema should not miss. Gargoyles and The Incubus are both cinematic exhumations you’ll want to see before they fly back to the dank, dark caverns of obscurity from which they came.