I, Shatner By Mike White. Within a month’s time I happened upon three films starring Canadian thespian William Shatner. Add to this that all of their titles began with the letter “I” and I took it as a sign...
Within a month’s time I happened upon three films starring Canadian thespian William Shatner. Add to this that all of their titles began with the letter “I” and I took it as a sign. I set aside the flicks that had been gathering dust in my ever-growing tape pile and spent a few evenings having a mini-Shatner festival.
For years, William Shatner has been more of a punchline than an actor. While speaking another language can’t hide occasional bursts of his trademark staccato delivery in Incubus, both it and The Intruder are amazing films wherein Shatner provides terrific performances. The aforementioned films were made prior to Shatner stepping into the pointy boots (and equally pointy sideburns) of James Tiberius Kirk. If we are to believe the reports from Shatner’s fellow “Star Trek” crew members, it was his stint in the Captain’s chair that inflated Shatner’s ego, catapulting him out of touch with serious acting and good taste in roles. This proposition gains further support when viewing the following trio of Shatner flicks.
“Outer Limits” director Leslie Stevens scripted all the dialogue of Incubus in Esperantoan artificial international language with a vocabulary based on word roots common to many European languages and a regularized system of inflection. Was this a stunt to get Incubus booked into Art Houses? Was it essential to the atmosphere of the film? All told, it was a bit of both.
The oddly familiar but foreign sound of Esperanto gives the film a sense of timelessness that places the film well into a dreamlike realm. This is effectively combined with Conrad Hall’s lush black and white cinematography, Dominic Frontiere’s chilling soundtrack (most of which was lifted from old “Outer Limits” sessions), and Stevens’s haunting narrative.
Playing like a time worn morality play cum Through a Glass Darkly and Onibaba, the film centers around Kia (Allyson Ames), a succubus who prays on the ripe souls found in the village of Nomen Tuum. It’s here where the invalid come to drink from the waters of the Deer Well, said to have regenerative effects. The well also attracts the vain and the greedy.
These latter souls are already damned and it takes little for Kia to lead them to their final downfall. Yet, like all good workers, Kia’s looking for a challenge. “There are no saints in Hell,” she bemoans to her fellow succubus, Amael (Eloise Hardt). Kia begins searching for an uncorrupted soul that she can drag into the fiery pits of hell. Eventually, she finds Marc (Shatner) and his sister Arndis (Ann Atmar), a beatific brother and sister duo.
Marc is “truly good” with his courage going beyond self-preservation. Kia enjoys the notion of taking him down a few notches. She invites him out to the sea to lay naked on the beach. So noble is Marc that he’d really rather get to know Kia before shucking his clothes and writhing around with her lithe young body.
Meanwhile, poor Arndis is struck blind during an eclipse and aimlessly searches for her brother. She eventually finds him in the local church where Marc and Kia had a falling out. It appears she couldn’t handle all of the rampant religious imagery. Either the dim church lighting or being on holy ground restores Arndis’ sight. Her troubles aren’t over, however.
Marc bemoans the loss of his love until he hears Kia calling to him with her siren song. He searches the night for her, not knowing that the succubae have summoned a secret weapon-the Incubus (Milos Milos). In a horrific scene, the Incubus and several robed figures ravage Arndis-robbing her of her virginity and her life. Upon finding his sister, Marc confronts the Incubus who allows himself to be killed (for a little while...) in order to sully Marc’s soul with blood.
Kia struggles with her feelings for Marc while he delivers a Shatner Esperanto soliloquy. This is the only “typical” Shatner moment in an atypical film. I’ve never seen an American film so forthcoming about sin and salvation. While having every opportunity to precipitate into pretension, Incubus stays its original, artful course up to its unredemptive end.
Not only is the atmosphere haunting within Incubus, the film itself has a spookiness to it. More than the fact that two of its actors committed suicide (Ann Atmar and Milos Milos), the film had the reputation of being “lost” for over thirty years. After playing festivals around the world, all prints and the negative were accidentally destroyed. All but one, that is, which remained buried deep in the archives of the Cinematheque Francaise in Paris.
It’s this sole print that producer Anthony Taylor helped to restore, frame by frame. The video transfer is beautiful save a few scratches present during reel changes and an occasional splice. The only disconcerting item about Incubus is the placement of its subtitles. The print’s French subtitles had a rather high placement on the screen. The new English subtitles lay atop the French with black boxes around them to cover up any stray French. Once viewers acclimate themselves to these “high titles,” everything’s copacetic.
A stranger rides into town, dressed in white from head to toe. He wears a sly grin as his eyes appraise the landscape. Things are ripe for the picking. This is Adam Cramer, a provocateur come to the newly integrated South. A self-described “social reformer,” Cramer has come to this town not for financial gain but in a quest for power.
Cramer (William Shatner) quickly takes a survey of his surroundings. He rents a room at a fleabag hotel where his neighbors are the boisterous Griffins: Sam (Leo Gordon) and Vi (Jeanne Cooper). Sam’s an affable-and seeming buffoonish-salesman. Vi is his put-upon wife whose hackles immediately rise when she meets Cramer.
After taking a trip to “Niggertown,” Cramer pays a visit to local bigwig Verne Shipman (Robert Emhardt). Cramer’s cover story is that he’s come down from Washington DC as a representative of the Patrick Henry Society. They discuss the upcoming school year and the ten African American students due to enroll in the local high school. It’s here where Cramer finally loses his cool in a calculated move to show his enthusiasm. His voice cracks as he questions the validity of the anti-segregation law. Before long Cramer’s painting images of a world run by “niggers” that sleep with white women.
Produced and directed by Roger Corman in 1961 with a script from regular “Twilight Zone” scribe Charles Beaumont, The Intruder stands as a shocking, challenging film even by today’s cynical standards. Characters speak the word “nigger” with greater ease than either Spike Lee or Quentin Tarantino. However, here the word stings with the casualness of use and inherent hatred.
The serious tone and social importance of The Intruder come as a bit of a surprise when considering Corman’s apparently single-minded ambition to create money-making motion pictures. The Intruder’s box office viability proved dubious and that’s easily the biggest reason why it remains one of Corman’s lesser-known works, remaining outside the recent wave of classic Corman re-releases. This is a shame, especially as The Intruder is in need of a better video transfer-the reel changes are very rough and the dialogue often proves difficult to hear.
Visually and audibly, the greatest example of Corman’s tremendous directing ability is the sequence of the ten African-American students walking to their first day of class. They step proudly down the streets while white folks gawk at them. The camera stays primarily on the two young men in the lead, especially Joey Green (Charles Barnes). When they get to school, they encounter dozens of whites carrying protest signs. The music swells. No one says a word. The tension builds. Will something happen? And, if not now, when?
Off to the side, Cramer stands watching it all. The camera pushes in on his eyes. A match cut takes the audience from the morning of that school day to that night. Cramer stands before a crowd of white citizens and begins his demagoguery. This is William Shatner in his prime-if there were any place where he could go over the top in his delivery, this is it. Instead, he’s dogmatic, charismatic, and inflammatory, while sounding completely natural. He lights a fire in the minds of these “God-fearing people,” knowing that the town is a powder keg.
Cramer literally lights a fire later in the film when he goes out with a mob of Klansmen to ignite a cross in the middle of “Niggertown.” While the cross burns throughout the night, it seems that it’s visible to everyone in town. The fire lights up the faces of newspaperman Tom McDaniel (Frank Maxwell) and his wife Ruth (Katherine Smith) as they talk about integration. Across town, the fire heats up the Griffins’ room as Cramer makes a move for Vi. Here again, Shatner is at the top of his game as Cramer seduces Mrs. Griffin.
When Sam finds his wife gone the next day, it’s not too difficult for him to figure out what happened. He pulls a gun on Cramer who, of course, talks his way out of this dangerous situation. Sam tells Cramer that they’re both salesmen and points out failings in Cramer’s technique. Sam warns him that while Cramer may think he’s in control, it’s really the town’s mob mentality that’s the boss. Paying Sam no mind, Cramer continues to agitate the white townspeople, driving The Intruder to its terrific conclusion.
If you’re looking for Shatner in classic hammy-acting mode, you can wait for the next commercial break and catch him shilling for Priceline.com or you can attempt to endure William Grefe’s Impulse. Herein, Shatner plays Matthew Stone, a lecherous Lothario who as a youth killed his mother’s lover with a samurai sword. He’s all grown up now and preys on wealthy older dames to rob and/or murder. But don’t be mistaken and think that Matt’s some bloodthirsty killer. Seconds after he happens to snap and crush his current fling’s windpipe, he looks at his hands in horror and disbelief.
With the stage set, the incredibly happenstance script of Tony Crechales unreels, placing Matt in fortuitous situations in which he interacts with his fellow cast members before he’s “properly introduced” to them. For example, Matt encounters bratty Tina Moy (Kim Nicholas) when she stands in the middle of the road, waiting for a car to pick her up and take her to the cemetery (her favorite hang out). Meanwhile, Tina’s mom, Ann (Jennifer Bishop) literally falls into Matt’s arms when he visits her odd little store to buy a pack of cigarettes. It isn’t until Matt crosses paths with Ann’s gal pal Julia (Ruth Roman), that everything finally clicks into place.
Julia introduces Matt and Ann formally at a dinner party. The next day finds Matt and Ann at the local botanical garden having a swell time. However, the audience is made privy to one of Matt’s odd outbursts when he’s accosted by a balloon-toting tourist. Smacking the balloons out of his face he sneers, “People like you ought to be ground up for dog food!”
This isn’t the first or the last references to dogs in Impulse. While driving Tina to her father’s grave site, she accuses him of running over a poor pooch. The filmmakers couldn’t effectively stage this kind of accident so they merely have Tina exclaim, “Look out!” and then cut to a dog lying nicely in some grass. Matt and Tina’s dialogue provides all the details, “...so much blood!” The reason for this canine infatuation comes from Matt’s metaphor for himself. He reveals later in the film that he was institutionalized after he murdered the man from his past. He recalls begging the staff of the asylum to keep him locked up as releasing him was like “putting a puppy dog into the middle of a busy road.”
More insight on Matt’s past comes from the mysterious figure shadowing him on his dates with Ann. Why it’s Karate Pete! Harold Sakata, best known for his role as Odd Job in Goldfinger, plays Pete and challenges Shatner’s bad acting ability. While Sakata’s face bears the proper expressions, his lack of command of the English language further hampers his bad dialogue. My favorite line has to be Pete’s appraisal of Matt’s voracious sexual appetite, “You all the time horny.” Pete and Matt used to be partners in crime-robbing rich widows, apparently. Pete knows Matt’s got to have something going and wants a piece of the action. However, Pete underestimates Matt’s stealth-a mistake he pays for with his life after a grueling “chase” through a car wash.
Unbeknownst to Matt, Tina witnesses all of these goings on from the back seat of his car. When she clumsily climbs out of his automobile at Matt’s hotel, he spots her and initiates the first of many crappy day-for-night chase scenes that the film has to offer. From here the movie falls into heavily predictable territory as Tina tries to convince her Mom and Julia that Matt’s a killer.
Strangely enough, Tina and Matt are remarkably similar characters. Both are fatherless. Both witness their mothers in the primal scene with an unscrupulous man (Tina sees Ann and Matt together). Both have outbursts of violent behavior (though Tina’s are more temper tantrums compared to Matt’s murderous inclinations). And, finally, both have access to swords!
As Matt, Shatner has ample opportunity to chew up the tacky seventies scenery. He spends a good deal of the film acting “twitchy,” drumming his fingers and darting his pupils to and fro. All the while he wears terrific clothes, showing a particular fondness for blue blazers. Even when he’s not knocking folks off, Matt has his moments of pathos such as when he grips his mother’s photograph and emotes, “Oh, mother! Damn! Damn! Damn!”
Impulse is so dated in its clothes and mise-en-scène that the bad video transfer is appropriate. A pristine copy of this film would be incongruous. It actually needs the scratches and bad colors. It shouldn’t date well!
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