Cinematographer: Conrad Hall, ASC and Charles Rosher Jr., ASC
Director: Leslie Stevens
Review of "Incubus"
By Richard Crudo, ASC
A great advantage offered by the proliferation of feature films on DVD and VHS is the freedom it allows us to examine the work of almost any filmmakers career with relative ease. Until recently, the only way to get a peek at writer/director Leslie Stevens Incubus would have meant a flight to the Cinematheque Francaise in Paris or a trip back in time to its limited (and very brief) theatrical run in 1965. Released to predominantly good reviews-including a substantial number of raves this fantasy cum horror piece instantly assumed a vaunted cult status and then disappeared with equal speed. Sadly, it also essentially marked the end of Stevens involvement with filmed entertainment, which reached its height when he served as producer of the popular early 60s TV series, The Outer Limits.
Hardly the same could be said of the movies cinematographer, Conrad Hall, ASC. Since that time he has photographed dozens of features and hundreds of commercials, won two Oscars and been the recipient of the ASCs Lifetime Achievement Award. The 1996 rediscovery of Incubus and its subsequent restoration and re-release this year on VHS provides a telling link in the resume of one of our most gifted cinematographers. That it was dismissed in some circles as a pretentious genre exercise is no knock on Halls efforts. In fact, putting aside the movies numerous oddball qualities, his contribution stands alone as witness to the pivotal role of light and camera in the telling of a story. Just as important, it represents a distinct bridge between his early style and the mid-career approach he would soon perfect.
Shot in black and white and on a low budget over a ten-day period, the basic plot is not unfamiliar. In a remote pastoral setting, a demon in the guise of a beautiful young woman attempts to corrupt and ultimately destroy a virtuous but susceptible young man. Though the ensuing battle between good and evil is often presented as a somewhat simple-minded riff on the early Ingmar Bergman, theres genuine amusement to be found in the pre-Star Trek William Shatners characterization of the hero. But the movies true step toward the bizarre is its English subtitled dialogue which get this spoken wholly in Esperanto, an artificial language that sounds like a mixture of Spanish and Swedish. Knowing the venerable Capt. Kirk as well as we do, this is asking a lot of the contemporary viewer, but its worth the effort. Incubus is one of those rare examples in which the horrific atmosphere is created and maintained almost solely by the Director of Photography. Halls superlative work proves the effect would indeed have been the same if the entire ahem, enterprise had been mounted in Klingon.
Making the film all the more fascinating for fans of great cinematography is the fact that the first forty minutes take place in daylight. I speak from experience when I say that it is no mean feat to instill a sense of foreboding on a grassy plain under an open sky, yet Hall manages to do so without resorting to heavy handed techniques. His matching is amazingly consistent from shot to shot and the judicious use of contrast filters works occasional wonders with the skies, in essence creating a dark and threatening backdrop that seems ready to envelope the characters at any time. The compositions and camera angles add to the effect, modulating the oppressive feel in such a way as to emphasize just how claustrophobic the great outdoors can be.
However, it is in the interiors and the night work that show the strongest connection Halls growth as a cinematographer. After having shot several seasons of Stevens The Outer Limits, Hall brings a similar high contrast approach to Incubus. The difference here is that in his manner of doing more with less, you never get the feeling you are missing out in any way. Even more interesting is the direct line this work draws from the methods used by his mentor and predecessor on Limits, legendary cinematographer Ted McCord, ASC. Hall had perfected his use of hard light by the time of Incubus and from this point forward it is easy to chart his change of taste to softer sources and a considerably less jarring palette.
As an amusing aside, future ASC members Charles Rosher, Jr. and Jordan Cronenweth served as Halls camera crew while William A. Fraker, ASC contributed the photography of several sequences.
Despite Incubus thirty five-year absence from the screen, it is easy to see how its imagery could have affected such films as The Exorcist, Night of the Living Dead, Jacobs Ladder and even The Blair Witch Project.
As much as any of those efforts, it is well worth a look.