The Incubus (1982) Retrospective


In a lake at a rock quarry, a young woman, Mandy Pullman, and her boyfriend, Roy, are swimming. The two spend the night at the lake camping, but are attacked by an unseen figure; Roy is killed, and Mandy violently raped. Mandy is taken to the hospital with a ruptured uterus and serious trauma. As the attack occurs, teenager Tim Galen experiences a recurring nightmare he has in which a woman is tortured by a monstrous figure; his grandmother, Agatha Galen, tries to dissuade him of his suspicions about the premonitory dream. At the hospital, Mandy is treated by Dr. Sam Cordell, a surgeon and physician in the small community of Galen.


Sam’s teenage daughter, Jenny, is dating Tim, but he disapproves of their relationship. At the hospital, Sheriff Hank Walden questions Sam about Mandy’s injuries, and a nosy local reporter, Laura Kincaid, arrives to question Walden, who forces her to leave. That night at the local library and museum, a librarian, Carolyn Davies, is brutally raped and murdered while closing the building. During her autopsy, Sam finds she suffered similar wounds as Mandy, and finds an inexplicable amount of semen in her vagina.


Attempts to question the comatose Mandy about her attacker are futile. Sam shows Laura pictures of his deceased second wife and notes their amazing resemblance to each other. The following day, local farmer Ernie Barnes and his two daughters are brutally slain at their farmhouse. Tim again is tormented by his vision, and runs into a local movie theater in an attempt to distract himself. While there, a young woman is raped and murdered in the downstairs bathroom of the theater, and the metal stall door is found nearly bent in half. Sheriff Walden and Sam arrive at the crime scene shortly before Laura, who insists she may be able to help the investigation. She confides in Sam that she discovered historical records detailing Satanism and similar crimes occurring throughout the town’s history.


Tim confronts Jenny at her home, hysterical, and says he believes his dreams are responsible for the crimes. Sam gets a sample of Tim’s semen to compare against that which was found inside the victims, but they do not match. Tim and Agatha meet with Sam, Jenny, Laura, and Sheriff Walden at the library that night, where Laura reads a passage from a book detailing the shapeshifter known as the incubus, which manifests through dreams and can appear in human form. Agatha reveals that Tim’s mother had died before his birth and had been accused of witchcraft due to psychic powers she possessed; Agatha claims that the Galen family has a legacy of witch hunters, and that his dreams are a result of this.

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Laura and Tim return with Sam and Jenny to their home. As Laura takes Jenny upstairs to go to bed, Sam attempts to induce Tim’s dream to prove its connection to the murders. Tim goes into a seizure-like state and runs upstairs into Jenny’s room where he tries to attack Laura with a dagger given to him by Agatha, but Sam intervenes and stabs him to death. Laura then approaches Sam, and her face briefly shifts into that of the monstrous incubus; it is revealed that Laura has in fact been the incubus all along, manifesting in female form. As Laura embraces Sam, he looks over her shoulder to see Jenny’s dead body lying on her bed, blood pouring out from between her legs.


I spent a week in Toronto turning out drawings like this and talking to the lady in charge of the special effects who had worked on Dr Who. – Les Edwards


Movie sets are notorious as breeding grounds for hostility, distrust and friction, where the competitive ego reigns supreme. On the set of Incubus, which has resumed filming in Lakeshore Studios after a brief shooting stint in Guelph, the atmosphere is so harmonious that the outsider feels vaguely suspicious. The cast and crew seem almost heady with high spirits; and if the production has undergone any setbacks there is no evidence of them.

Incubus appears to be the kind of project that movie-makers dream of: a unified collection of pros have assembled with enthusiasm and panache, to work on a suspense story that means enough for them to keep mum about its surprise outcome. An incubus is a demon who preys on mortals while they sleep. Yes, another horror film. But Incubus, it is claimed, will be more than just a monster pic of the bloodied-fangs-and-claws variety. In the best of monster-movie tradition, the perpetrator of evil the occult sore spot in the characters’ lives will make a delayed appearance, prompting the viewer’s imagination to help move the story along. With John Cassavetes in the lead role, director John Hough will work the story’s tensions into a character-study format And Cassavetes, whose less conventional films include the studio-bound Too Late Blues, Faces, Husbands, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, A Woman Under the Influence and his recent hit Gloria, seems to be the right man for the job.

As a director, Cassavetes has usually dealt with people lashing out against elements and situations not easily understood and difficult to accept as part of the human condition; as an actor he often appears as one who has learned to deal with many of life’s harsher moments, sometimes at the expense of the soul. The mystery elements of the story are known only to those directly involved in the production. Whether or not the film will succeed in balancing the mystery thriller- mumbo-jumbo-character-study ingredients convincingly, remains to be seen.

In Incubus, and in Hough’s The Legend of Hell House (1973), quite a few brutal deaths are portrayed, yet the act of violence is seldom seen on screen. “In Hell House, for instance, perhaps 90% of the violence portrayed is not seen,” says Hough. “The approach is to have the viewer think he’s seen something quite violent, but when you go on to examine each frame, there’s really very little there. But 90% of what people think they saw has been mental; entirely in the imagination … to that extent, it parallels what Val Lewton did with Cat People, playing off of shadows, and people’s reactions. I prefer to stay away from graphic violence, because that approach has no need for any real directing skill.”

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“The film is quite a bit more subtle,” says Hough. “In fact, it may turn out to be too sophisticated. In Russell’s book, things were very graphic, and the incubus was very graphically described. In the film, we do not show the incubus at all other than in someone’s nightmare.”

Hough’s characterization of the film as possibly “too sophisticated” connects with several problems the film may have in satisfying an audience. The film’s saturation TV ad campaign highlights the appearance of the briefly seen demon, and much of the film’s audience may expect something more bluntly exploitative. And the ending, is quite similar to that of Russell’s book is “sophisticated” enough to be characterized by one critic as “existential,” and by another as non-existent.


Producers Marc Boyman and John Eckert seem clam-happy with everything concerned. “We have a wonderful crew here,” says Eckert who, in the ten years he has spent working in film, has worked his way up from Joe Everybody to the co-producer on both Running and Middle Age Crazy. Boyman, the younger of the two, who spent three years in Los Angeles working as a director-producer in television, is more of a novice; Incubus marks his debut as a film producer, arid the project Is very “near and dear” to him. He is especially proud of the sets. “Don’t step in the blood there,” he laughs, pointing towards the patch of floor where I am standing.

Of the director, “I have enormous confidence in John Hough. We do talk story and character, but I would not think of questioning him in terms of shooting schedules, set-ups, color schemes, whatever.” says Eckert. The combination of Hough and Cassavetes is an intriguing one. How does one director direct another? “It’s not easy for just any director to direct John Cassavetes,” admits Boyman. “If he does not respect the director, being a well-known and respected filmmaker himself… well, I hate to think of the mess. But I feel confident and comfortable with this mix of talents. I admire them both enormously. You’ll find on the set an enormous amount of respect for John Hough. He commands admiration.”

Kerne Keane, a vivacious young actress in her first film role plays the female lead in the film. Asked how the influence of a man like Hough affects her performance, her eyes brighten immediately “He has a great deal of confidence in himself,” she says. “He is one of the most fascinating people I’ve ever worked with. Your ideas are respected on this project I consider this film a happening. I can’t think of a happier working situation.”

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Presently, the lighting crew is ready and Keane is off for another scene with fellow colleagues Cassavetes, Duncan Mcintosh and Erin Flannery. The scene is short calling for Cassavetes to make one grim phone call while Keane and Flannery clatter off to the kitchen set to throw some coffee on the stove. Second AD. Louise Casselman raises her voice to request that everyone else lower theirs. After several takes Keane later admits that “It can be confusing. Some scenes are so short and you are required to do so little; yet what little you are doing is very important and you have to recognize the validity of the small things you do as well as the bigger moments. The confusion can be very good, but for the first few weeks I was losing sleep.”

Of the incubus itself all details are withheld. Colin Chilvers, director of special effects is nowhere to be found. Responding to my curiosity about the grotesque illustrations of some inhuman being on his office wall. Marc Boyman insists that no, the incubus is quite different. So, there’s no peeking till next summer! The public can only hope that the film lives up to the expectations all this secrecy is creating. The subject matter alone is certain to turn off the nation’s film critics, and it seems questionable whether Hough’s subtle approach is what this film needs for success at the box office.

Ray Russell - author, editor 1985

Ray Russell, author of the novel “Incubus ” 

And then Incubus (1976), a novel that sold over a million copies?

Ray Russell: Easily, in its various editions, hardcover, paperback, American, British, Italian, Japanese, Brazilian… it was a top liner for months on Dell’s bestseller list Royalties are still coming in. And there was a six-figure film deal. The movie, with John Cassavetes, was released in 1982. I understand it has since become a favorite on cable and on video cassette, but it doesn’t bear much resemblance to my novel. I didn’t write the script.

Yet your book, like the movie. is a horror story.

Ray Russell: On the surface, yes. It’s about creature that rapes and kills women. But Incubus is actually an allegory-something nobody seems to have tumbled to except VitIorio Curioni, the editor of the Italian edition. He wrote an introduction to that edition in which, among other things, he called mea “vecchia wape del fantastico” loosely translated, a “sly old fox of the fantastic”  and defined Incubus as a story that is highly allegorical and unconscious. He went on to ask: “Who knows if Russell, in his book wanted to hold up to ridicule the male’s presumption of sexual superiority? Perhaps. while he was writing the novel, he saw it as a parable of the forces that rule our world. Maybe the author saw it as the manifesto of women’s liberation from the domination of the penis…”

Well, I guess you pays your money and you takes your choice, but for me, Incubus is an allegory of sex as a destructive force which, of course, it can be sometimes, as well as a joyous, life-renewing power. This negative aspect of sex is summed up in Chapter 30 when Dr. Jenkins, who has had one drink too many, says that sex is “All mixed up with romance and love and poetry on one side, and on the other side, it’s all dark and ugly jealously. frustration, rape, sadistic masochism, every conceivable kind of perversion and unhappiness. Motive for murder, cause of war, lies, deceit, pain. Yes, Lord,” he says. *You really fucked up that one.”

And the destructive side of sex is symbolized in your novel by the incubus?

Ray Russell: Yes, a non-human creature. Other characters in the book, human characters, represent other facets of sex. Sex among the young, the middle-aged, the married, the unmarried; unashamed joy, homosexuality, puritanical repression…the book is a cross section of sexual types and attitudes. But this psycho-philosophical skeleton is decked out in the costume of a popular literary form, the chiller.

Incubus (1982) Score/Soundtrack

John Hough

Writing Credits
Ray Russell (from the novel by)
George Franklin (screenplay by)

John Cassavetes as Sam Cordell
John Ireland as Hank Walden
Kerrie Keane as Laura Kincaid
Erin Noble as Jenny Cordell
Helen Hughes as Agatha Galen
Duncan McIntosh as Tim Galen
Harvey Atkin as Joe Prescott
Dirk McLean The Incubus

Music Stanley Myers

Production Design by
Edwin Watkins (as Ted Watkins)

Art Direction
Elinor Fairless Hawksley
Susan Longmire


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