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The “Cursed” Movie That Doomed William Shatner’s Career as a Serious Actor




Summary

  • William Shatner’s sci-fi icon status hides a diverse range of cinematic and TV projects.
  • Shatner’s early career as a serious actor was effectively ended after starring in Leslie Stevens’
    Incubus
    , a film shot entirely in a language neither the audience nor actors understood.
  • Despite being dismissed as a “cursed,” obscure film, the supposedly “lost” film survived as a cult film, marking the most bizarre project in a very bizarre career.



William Shatner is the face of sci-fi for many generations of TV and movie fans. From his awesomely over-the-top roles in Wrath of Khan and video games to his side projects promoting obscure passion projects as director, and whatever the heck TekWar is, he’s thoroughly permeated every form of media. Looking back now, it’s hard to remember — make that impossible if you’re under sixty — that Captain Kirk was all but declared the next Marlon Brando by Ed Sullivan, who brought the “brilliant, young Canadian star” to mainstream audiences’ attention in 1958 for his work on Broadway.


The Star Trek actor is a true Renaissance man. How did the classically trained performer who once acted in a Dostoevsky film alongside the greatest actors in the business wind up making documentaries about household dangers and B-movies about man-eating spiders? William Shatner’s filmography somehow appeals to those who want crowd-pleasing sci-fi and audiences who only watch international movies.

For that latter category, we present Incubus. Don’t worry about recognizing the actors; you won’t have a chance to look at their faces because you’ll be too busy reading the subtitles for eighty minutes. You want lo-fi, 16mm black and white photography, and clunky subtitles? Shatner’s got you covered. Should movie elitists think Tagalog or Estonian is too mainstream a language, the filmmaker behind Incubus cranked up the obscure language gimmick to 11 in what is one of the very few feature-length Esperanto-language films.


The face of Gene Roddenberry’s sci-fi series for sixty years, the Thespian might have gone full art snob instead of bobbing for piranas in National Lampoon spoofs if he played his cards right. Fate had other plans, but his part in 1966’s Incubus remains the most interesting, at very least most forgotten role, in his long body of work. TCM lists the movie as debuting in 1965, but it’s so poorly documented, that no one can even agree what year it was released.


Artistic Pretensions Don’t Pay the Bills

William Shatner in 1965 Incubus
Daystar Productions

Shatner’s turn in The Brothers Karamozov set him on the fast lane as an actor. His actorly inclinations shouldn’t come as a surprise. Underneath the somewhat flashy exterior and self-deprecating roles, Shatner always retained the sensibilities of a trained actor, as seen when talking about the lasting legacy of the Star Trek episode, “The City on the Edge of Forever”:


Recalling his favorite episodes, he summed up his acting philosophy:

“I live my life as an actor by moments, because we work in such pieces in film. All you can do is be truthful to the moment that you’re on the camera.”

In no film was that truer than on the set of Incubus, where Shatner, nor his cast mates, had any clue what they or their colleagues were really saying. The decision to film the entire movie in the made-up language of Esperanto was a purely artistic one that the filmmaker (Leslie Stevens) thought lent the low-budget project a unique, surreal vibe. Stevens had created The Outer Limits in the sixties, and recruited one of the TV series’ stars, Shatner, to try his hand at bringing the idea to life. Shatner, at this point, was an incredibly respected, somber actor of absolutely no repute.


That dedication to the moment was severely tested as the movie was essentially held together by a bunch of people desperately memorizing nonsensical hunks of sounds, trying to emote at the designated times to sell the illusion they are having an organic human interaction. Shatner and co-stars Allyson Ames, Ann Atmar, Milos Milos, and Eloise Hardt had ten days to phonetically memorize their lines, with less than three weeks dedicated to principal photography. You can guess the results. They might as well be speaking jibberish. Judging by the reaction of Esperanto-speaking viewers, they were.

True to his reputation, Shatner’s performance was well-regarded, though reviews mostly deemed the film a boring, weird art movie without much of a bite. Think of it as an acting exercise invented by a masochistic acting coach, because in practice that’s precisely what it was. Shatner later said he had perused an early English script but fessed up that he had been bamboozled by Stevens, who failed to explain that the entire movie would be filmed in Esperanto.


In his autobiography, the actor joked that Stevens had the brilliant idea to exploit the under-served Esperantan community by cornering the market on films in that language, “guaranteeing a big profit.” Tickets sold as well as air conditioning units in the Arctic Circle. Turns out there are about as many folks fluent in Esperanto as those who can speak Klingon.

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From “Curse” to Cashing In

George Takei as Sulu and William Shatner as Kirk in Wrath of Khan
Paramount Pictures


Based on the critical reviews, the film failed to grab hold of audiences quite in the same way as an Ingmar Bergman or Roberto Rossellini film. Just like the cobbled-together language it used so prominently, the film too faded into obscurity. Legend has it that the film was cursed, several actresses, actors, and other crew being killed, kidnapped, or committing suicide in the subsequent years following Incubus‘ premiere.

Additionally, Steven’s company went bankrupt, and the film struggled to find any distributor wanting it. The film was too risky for any sane theater to gamble on since it had only one very minor celebrity on the billing. The legacy of the movie, or any value or artistry it possessed, was overshadowed by the mystique of the rumored curse.

Take any talk of a curse with a grain of salt, as many of the parties involved in the production would later be involved in legendary TV programs and films, including cinematographers William A. Fraker and Conrad Hall. The Canadian actor took it in stride, bouncing back later that year. His Esperanto lessons were squandered for nothing, with the film being “lost” for many years in the United States due to a fire. But, the truth is, no one was looking.


Leaning hard into dramatic roles, Shatner’s future as acting royalty died after a string of significant small supporting roles. After just a couple of years removed from a solid performance in Judgement in Nuremberg in 1961 opposite Spencer Tracy, the existential dread of being an actor set in. From here it was straight to tossing foam rocks at a man in a rubber lizard suit in a little show called Star Trek, Shatner landing the career-altering gig in a last-second recasting to salvage the rejected pilot, only able to audition for NBC because he happened to be in town that week.

Related

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William Shatner shared the story behind his casting in Star Trek at SXSW 2023.


Shatner returned to TV work to pay the bills immediately and pay the bills his acting has been doing for half a century, releasing a spoken-word album to capitalize on his new-found celebrity, belting out Beatles’ covers. From his youth as the Canadian Montgomery Cliff, he wisely rebranded himself as an actor-presenter-personality for the masses in roles in T.J. Hooker, The Practice, and Rescue 9-11.

Despite his talents and undeniably great previous films, Shatner only achieved lasting stardom through dumb luck. As if acknowledging the fickleness of audiences and the flukey nature of the acting profession, he’s never taken himself seriously since, as anyone who’s heard his albums can already attest.

Incubus’s Legacy

Allyson Ames in Incubus co-starring William Shatner
Daystar Productions


Deemed a lost movie for decades by anyone who cared to research it after the copies were used as kindling, the film only existed as a curiosity, with scant evidence of its existence. Against the odds, or perhaps as part of that speculated curse, there survived a single print of the movie. Unearthed in the musty archives of a French storeroom in 1996, Shatner’s foray into foreign-language films was secretly preserved for all time. As a guilty pleasure, the movie had been shown from time to time to audiences for decades at the Cinémathèque française theater, spreading no further, which tells you the impression it instilled in those few that did witness it.

Don’t get excited, the preservation was more in a so-bad-it’s-good attitude than out of a show of respect for cinematic excellence. The curiosity of seeing a svelte Cpt. Kirk babbling incoherently in a demon-themed arthouse film (which clearly took thematic and staging cues from Ingmar Bergman and his cinematographer Sven Nykvist) was evidently too irresistible for jaded French cult movie fans to turn down, a viral video before viral videos existed.


In recent years, it was broadcast on the Sci-Fi (now known as Syfy) network in a rare tip of the hat to the adventurous early film days of Shatner before he settled neatly into the role of the sci-fi genre’s goofy but loveable uncle. While this may not be quite the right film to encourage people to go down the Shatner rabbit hole, it isn’t a bad place for film nerds to start. Film fans can judge for themselves if that is a good thing because, if one thing is certain, Shatner hasn’t wasted one minute of his life dwelling on the artsy experimental bomb.

Incubus is currently unavailable to stream but is available on Blu-ray and DVD.

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