When it comes to the twisted and complex family tree grown out of Wes Craven’s classic A Nightmare On Elm Street, it’s a safe bet to say that most here are no doubt well familiar with its branches — there’s the progenitor of the clan itself, dating back to 1985, followed by five direct descendants (those being the “official” sequels), two let’s- call -them -cousins ( in the form of the meta-fictional Wes Craven’s New Nightmare and the franchise mash-up/cash-in Freddy Vs. Jason), and a bastard offspring no one likes to talk much about (the 2010 Michael Bay-air-quote-produced remake). But what about its roots?
To explore those, my friend, we have to go back to medieval folklore, specifically the legends surrounding a creature known as an incubus. Evidently, this homicidally-inclined, violently horny form of demon would first appear in some unlucky pubescent male’s head in the form of a recurring dream, then somehow find its way out into the real world and wreak a fairly astronomical amount of havoc, raping any and every human female it could gets its hairy, scaly hands on (and presumably equally scaly-and-hairy schlong into) in a desperate desire to procreate like crazy in the short time it was able to take physical form before the virile lad from whose nightmares it escaped woke up again. There was just one flaw in the logic of yer average incubus, though — since it invariably went on to kill whoever it forced itself upon, those offspring it was after would never come to be, and alas, the sound of tiny hoof-steps was never to be heard in any family home.
Alternately, though, if you don’t feel like rifling through a bunch of dusty old tomes in the cavernous sub-basement of some European castle-converted-into-a-library to learn about these things, you can just watch the decidedly gothically-tinged 1982 Canadian tax shelter production The Incubus and be done with it.
Starring the obviously-awesome John Cassavetes — who you most likely know as an actor thanks to Rosemary’s Baby or The Dirty Dozen, or as a director thanks to his groundbreaking, highly personal films like Faces, Husbands, The Killing Of A Chinese Bookie and A Woman Under The Influence — and directed by the less-obvious-but-no-less-awesome John Hough, a household name only in the abodes of the most seasoned exploitation fans despite a stellar track record that includes Dirty Mary Crazy Larry, The Legend Of Hell House, and such fondly-remembered Disney fare as The Watcher In The Woods, Escape To Witch Mountain and Return From Witch Mountain, our story here centers around the supposed New England (even though it was filmed in and around the Toronto area and the license plates on the cars read, for some reason, Wisconsin) town of Galen, where local pathologist/medical examiner Dr. Sam Cordell (Cassavetes) and police chief Hank Walden (the always-great John Ireland) are investigating a non-stop series of brutal rapes/murders that leave many of the victims so pumped full o’ spunk that the initial investigative hunch both men play is that there absolutely must be more than one perpetrator — in fact, they feel it’s quite likely that a whole gang of wild n’ reckless youths are behind this sordid spree.
There’s just one wrinkle — all the semen still scurrying about in the dead victims matches, and it’s all red. Complicating matters even further is the fact the a local newspaper reporter named Laura Kincaid (Kerrie Keane) who’s covering the developing story just so happens to be a dead ringer for Cordell’s deceased wife, and that his ethereally-beautiful teenage daughter, Jenny (Erin Noble, billed here as Erin Flannery) is dating a kid named Tim (Duncan McIntosh) who the good doctor is, shall we say, decidedly less than impressed with. Tim’s got a less obvious problem than his choosing to get overly-familiar with sam’s precious little angel, though — he’s been plagued with horrible, vivid nightmares lately : nightmares invariably revolving around the brutal, ritualistic rape and murder of young women. Oh, and our young would-be-Romeo’s last name? It’s Galen.
Somehow, of course, it’s all connected — the dreams, the rapes/murders, the intrepid doppleganger lady reporter, even the secret lineage of the family the town is named after — but how?
Don’t let the admittedly salacious nature of the plot fool you, though — for flick that drops the word “sperm” more often than your average gang-bang porn loop and revolves around an unending string of what are, we’re told, the most violent killings the cops have ever seen, almost all the truly horrific stuff happens off-screen. A supernatural I Spit On Your Grave this ain’t. Hough instead relies on a constant, oppressive atmosphere of gothic foreboding — for a Canadian movie purportedly playing out in New England it sure does feel like we’re moving between one ancient, dank, stone hall of records here and another — and serious-minded, thoroughly professional performances from his uniformly fine actors to bring the horror home in this one. The script has some serious flaws and gaping holes, but Hough knows that flawed source material will, when left in good hands, be elevated to a level it may not, technically speaking, even deserve. Just because it doesn’t read terribly well on paper or make a tremendous amount of sense in retrospect doesn’t mean that John Fucking Cassavetes can’t do something good with it, after all.
I guess if I were more inclined to brevity — I’m trying! — I’d sum this one up by saying “don’t expect a horror classic here, but something of a largely-forgotten, hidden gem —albeit one of more ornamental than actual value.” Sound about right?
Fortunately, the “largely forgotten” part of the previous verbal equation is no longer necessarily the case, as Scorpion Releasing has recently seen fit to offer up The Incubus as part of its “Katarina’s Nightmare Theater” DVD series hosted by former/supposed WWE “diva” Katarina Leigh Watters (apparently when you’re a female ex-pro wrestler your two career options are either to start dating George Clooney or become a horror movie presenter). The film is presented in a good-looking, remastered 1.85:1 widescreen transfer with pretty decent, also-remastered mono sound. “Extras,” such as they are, consist of Watters’ semi-informative intro and outro bits, the original theatrical trailer, and a smattering of trailers for other Scorpion titles of semi-recent vintage.
At the end of the day, I have to believe there’s just no way Wes Craven didn’t see this movie, unless he took up the study of medieval folklore as a hobby there for awhile, because three short years after this was releases he latched onto the core concept of the incubus demon, took its thinly-disguised allegory for the onslaught of male puberty in general down a pedophilic road (oh yeah! remember when Freddy was a child molester who didn’t snap off clever one-liners and was actually kinda scary?) and gave it metal claws a la the just-getting-popular-at-the-time X-Men character Wolverine. The rest, as they say, is history.