The Stinkubus. Scorpion Releasing (always a lot of fun titles) has released Incubus (I refuse to put the poster's "The" in there, because it's not present on-screen), the 1980 Canadian horror flick from some tax shelter called Film Ventures International (released by Artists Releasing Corporation), directed by John Hough and starring John Cassavetes, John Ireland, and Kerrie Keane. With that talented cast, some heavyweights behind the camera, decent production values, and a promising storyline, Incubus should have been a cinch to stand out from all the crappy schlock released during that golden age of late 70s early 80s horror...but it didn't. A few original trailers are included as extras for this widescreen transfer.
The small New England town of Galen. Dr. Sam Cordell (John Cassavetes), having arrived there about a year prior with his teenaged daughter, Jenny (Erin Flannery/Noble), is now faced with a terrifying situation: a man, or men, are hideously raping women in the town, the force and violence of the rapes leaving the women sexually mutilated and filled with ungodly amounts of red-tinged sperm (a Disney film!). Police chief Hank Walden (John Ireland) is in over his head with this one, while Laura Kincaid (Kerrie Keane), an outsider to Galen who now owns the town newspaper, is trying to determine what forces may be at work here. Meanwhile, creepy Jenny's creepy boyfriend, Tim Galen (Duncan McIntosh), is having bad dreams at night about a faceless woman being tortured, something his grandmother, town bigwig Agatha Galen (Helen Hughes) doesn't want to hear about....
I'm pretty sure I saw Incubus either at the theatres or on cable at some point in the 80s, but little of it stayed in memory. And now I remember why. A frustrating, disjointed supernatural horror movie, Incubus's elements should add up to, at the very minimum, a competent, scary enterprise―with even the promise of something intelligent going on from time to time (a pretty rare thing in early 80s horror, to be sure). After all, its executive producer was Stephen J. Friedman, who could turn out anything from The Last Picture Show to Slap Shot to Eye of the Needle to All of Me. Incubus' story was based on a book by celebrated novelist, short story writer and screenwriter Ray Russell (Mr. Sardonicus, The Premature Burial, X, Chamber of Horrors), with direction by the talented John Hough, who knew a thing or two about crafting a fast-paced, entertaining bit of exploitation (iconic titles like The Legend of Hell House, Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry, as well as the original Witch Mountain movies and The Watcher in the Woods for Disney). The supporting cast, made up mostly of anonymous Canadian actors, may not have been top drawer (some of those performances are quite poor, although the lovely Keane, of the popular kids' show, What Will They Think of Next?, is suitably mysterious). However, with heavyweight anchors Ireland (lending old Hollywood strength) and Cassavettes around (even in dreck like this, he comes up with quirky, interesting line-readings), those lesser performances could be forgiven...or better yet, forgotten.
Somehow, though, Incubus goes off track―right from the start. The opening scene, with Mandy and Roy (Mitch Martin and Matt Birman) getting slaughtered at the beach, is distressingly pedestrian and worse, obvious, looking like a hundred other such scenes you've seen in countless other suspense/horror outings. Hough regains his visual footing in later scenes (the library museum attack is believably frightening), mounting a few suspenseful sequences with some interesting framing, while regularly inserting off-putting, unnerving throw-aways to keep us off balance (Ireland examining a body...which turns out to be a mannequin). Hough, going against conventions of the time, shoots the rapes from the neck up, letting the horrified faces of the victims, and our imaginations, do the rest (even with occasional nudity, they're gratefully not intended to titillate). Indeed, the gentlemanly Hough only gets gory with the men; the barn kill of the farmer is memorably grotesque (shovel to the neck, with the victim blowing off his own foot). However, these scenes, no matter how well intentioned or mounted, only work individually; the movie on the whole is a fitful, herky-jerky experience.
Now, I like a good red herring as much as the next moviegoer, but there's a big difference between a deliberate dodge to happily trick and confuse me, and either undeveloped or chopped-up plot points. And Incubus is loaded with vague, aborted tangents. Why is Sam so...bothered by his 18-year-old daughter dating Tim? Why does Jenny sit on the edge of her father's bed, kissing him on the mouth and telling him she'll never leave him? Better yet, why is Sam watching her coming out of the shower (and looking quite guilty about it)? If an incestuous theme was intended, why beat around the bush about it? Is that why Sam seems intent on Jenny not stirring up talk in the "gossipy" town of Galen? Or is he worried they might discover he murdered his wife...or didn't he (Cassavettes, who looks absolutely f*cking crazy here, would seem to be prime suspect number one for the rapes, even to Barney Fife)? He certainly flashes on her dead body more than once, as Hough shoots him like the incubus (and why does Sam flash on Jenny as the unseen girl in Tim's final dream?). Why use Laura as the body of Sam's wife, and not tie it in somehow? Speaking of Laura, what is her character doing that is so wrong―she is a reporter and owner of the newspaper―that p.o.s P.O. Walden? When Laura discovers these same rapes occurred 30 years ago...wouldn't someone in the town also remember that little detail―like, um...copper Walden? And what's with all the sperm? Sometimes it's dry humping, sometimes it's Niagara Falls? Mind telling me why the difference? Why is it red? How and why does it "move differently," according to Sam? If it's important enough to keep obsessing on it in the movie, couldn't I be given an answer, then? And how about those "witchhunter" Galens, who, according to Agatha, have always been witchhunters? Okay...wanna tell me about that? Is Galen some kind of witchfinder/witch/incubus nexus in the universe? Seems like a pretty important plot point to throw out there in the movie's last ten minutes...without explanation. Worst of all, if you're going to go through the trouble of mocking up a fairly convincing representation of said incubus...can I see it for more than a few seconds at the end of the movie?
Looking back, that's a whole lot of unanswered questions that either points to really crappy scripting, or some desperate post-production second guessing. Either way, the sum of Incubus is definitely not equal to its parts.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.