As a young actor just starting out—years before STAR TREK (TOS)—William Shatner seemed to have a taste for roles that veered into the otherworldly or the macabre. His early filmography includes one episode of ONE STEP BEYOND, two episodes of the original TWILIGHT ZONE, one episode of the original OUTER LIMITS, and two episodes of Boris Karloff’s early 60s anthology series, THRILLER. His dramatic, often overly-theatrical acting style seems well-suited to the material; indeed, his finest onscreen performance is probably the famous TZ episode, NIGHTMARE AT 20,000 FEET, where he plays a paranoid, recovering mental patient who sees a monster outside of his airplane window.
During this pre-Kirk period, he also acted in the bizarre, demonic art film INCUBUS (see below.) Later, when his STAR TREK gig unexpectedly ran out and his first marriage collapsed, Shatner scrambled for work to pay for an expensive divorce and child support for his three young daughters. He starred in a number of truly weird and/or campy TV and driven-in horror films, several of which are now bona fide cult films, the type of movies that are beloved by the RIFFTRAX/Mystery Science 3000 audience. Notably, he’s also done a few respectable horrors, like the early 80s Canadian slasher film, VISITING HOURS (1982), and A CHRISTMAS HORROR STORY (2015), neither of which are either campy enough or weird enough for this list. However, for those who love The Shat—or just bizarre/camp horror movies in general—here are the top titles in a very weird set.
INCUBUS (1966), directed by Leslie Stevens. This indie cult flick represents, as far as I know, Shatner’s only credit in an “arthouse” film. It’s pretty notorious among fans of cult films for a variety of reasons, not the least because its dialogue is recorded entirely in Esperanto, the made-up “universal” language that was supposed to bring the world together. (It’s subtitled in English.) INCUBUS was a project of Leslie Stevens, the writer, producer and occasional director of the original OUTER LIMITS TV series; Shatner probably first met him when he did an OL episode called WARM HANDS, COLD HEART in 1962. The film is meant to be an Ingmar Bergman-style moral fable, along the lines of THE SEVENTH SEAL (1957) or THE VIRGIN SPRING (1960), and it’s shot in black-and-white that’s reminiscent of the style used by Bergman’s celebrated cinematographer, Sven Nykvist. (For those who weren’t around in the 60s, it’s tough to overstate the influence of Bergman and Nykvist on the film industry in that era.) INCUBUS is definitely the weirdest movie on this list, but much of the weirdness is genuinely creepy and disturbing, thanks to the atmospheric camerawork of Conrad Hall (who would go on to become almost as esteemed in his field as Nykvist.)
The plot concerns Kia, a blonde succubus (a female demon who lures wayward men to their doom), who is bored with her lot and wants to seduce a virtuous man for a change. The “virtuous man” she chooses is, of course, William Shatner, playing Marc, a Kirk-like, heroic ex-soldier who lives with his spinster sister. Shatner is actually pretty good as Marc, although he learned his lines phonetically, having no idea what he was actually saying; Kia is played by Stevens’s then-wife, Allyson Ames. Alas for Marc and Kia, they fall in love, which enrages Kia’s succubus sisters.
They call up an INCUBUS, a male demon with a weird goat head, to set things right, and all hell literally breaks loose for Marc, Kia and Marc’s sister; it ends rather oddly y with some goat-on-girl action that needs to be seen to be fully appreciated. This film was lost for 34 years until a print was found in the French national film archives in 2000. Shortly after INCUBUS wrapped, Milos Milos, the Serbian actor who plays the incubus, killed himself after shooting and killing the actor Mickey Rooney’s estranged wife, Carolyn. This tragic incident exponentially increased the creep factor surrounding INCUBUS. On disc and occasionally, streaming; it often shows up on YouTube as well. PS—Shatner’s commentary on the standard disc version is hilarious.
THE HORROR AT 37,000 FEET (1973), directed for CBS by David Lowell Rich, a highly prolific director of TV movies in the 70s and 80s. Shatner is a hoot in this “all-star” TV movie, which is a weird hybrid of a demonic possession/70s disaster film. He plays a womanizing, defrocked priest traveling with a famous folksinger and a handful of other rich people on a nearly empty, trans-Atlantic flight from London. A wealthy, celebrated architect played by Roy Thinnes (from the 60s sci-fi series THE INVADERS) has reserved most of the plane to transport a medieval stone altar from a quaint English village church to his fancy East Coast country estate. Veteran TV actress Tammy Grimes plays a crazed British Wiccan, who keeps issuing dire predictions that removing the altar will end in disaster for all on the plane; naturally, she’s right!
There’s a demon locked inside the altar and it’s mad as hell about being disturbed. First it kills The Professor from GILLIGAN’s ISLAND (Russell Johnson) and then it focuses on a stewardess, and then it goes after Thinnes’s wife; it eventually manifests as a pile of spatter-y, diarrhea-colored poo on the floor of the first class cabin. Of course, everyone expects Shatner’s character to “do something” just because he understands Latin, but The Shat will have none of it—at first. “You don’t need a priest, you need a parachute!” he snarls at one hapless passenger. But when a little girl traveling alone is threatened, Shatner channels his inner James T. Kirk and does what needs to be done, by gum; without giving any spoilers, it involves Shatner spinning about wildly against a background of groovy “psychedelic” colors.
In addition to Thinnes, Grimes, and Johnson, The Shat co-stars with Buddy “Jed Clampett” Ebsen and Chuck “THE RIFLEMAN” Connors, among other familiar70s faces. Note: The film’s title recalls Shatner’s famous Twilight Zone episode, NIGHTMARE AT 20,000 FEET, but I don’t think that’s intentional; in 1973, TZ didn’t have the iconic pop culture status that it has now; it was just another has-been old series sold into syndication. On disc; also shows up sometimes on YouTube and cable.
IMPULSE aka I LOVE TO KILL (1974), directed by William Grefe, a 70s B-movie director. An absurd drive-in movie that looks like it was filmed on a shoestring, IMPULSE is by far the worst entry on this list, which is something to say, considering that the competition includes THE DEVIL’S RAIN (see below). Shatner plays a psychotic serial killer who romances lonely widows and then kills them for their money. He plainly hates the role and drifts from scene to scene with a petulant toddler’s grimace on his face.
The sets and lighting are both horribly cheap-looking, but the scariest thing about this film is Shatner’s haute polyester wardrobe, which includes a white, double-knit pimp suit (complete with matching pimp fedora) and a tight, low-cut tank top that looks ridiculous on 43-year-old Bill. The divine Ruth Roman, who 20+ years earlier had been a Hitchcock leading lady in the classic STRANGERS ON A TRAIN (1951), is reduced to playing an aging party girl who becomes one of Shatner’s victims; she gives it the old college try and actually succeeds in creating the only believable and sympathetic character in the film. Even more bizarrely, Harold Sakata (“Oddjob” from GOLDFINGER), plays a thug who gets a fatal, hot-wax shine from The Shat in a deserted car wash. On disc (unbelievably); a grainy, VHS rip can be viewed currently for free on YouTube.
THE DEVIL’S RAIN, (1975), a feature film directed by Robert Fuest, who’s probably best known for directing seven episodes of the original THE AVENGERS TV series. In addition to Shatner, this bizarre, drive-in quality cult flick stars a rag-bag of some pretty famous names: Ernest Borgnine; 40s film noir queen Ida Lupino; veteran character actor Keenan Wynn; Tom Skerritt; Eddie Albert from GREEN ACRES; and even a very young John Travolta, in his feature film debut. It also features Anton LaVey, the founder of the Church of Satan, in a cameo.
The woeful script plays like a confused mishmash of popular 70s film obsessions—devil-worshipping, grungy Westerns, ESP testing, and reincarnation. Even the tagline makes no sense: “Heaven help us when The Devil’s Rain!” The Shat plays Mark Prescott, the elder son of a Southwestern ranching family, which is hiding an ancient book that’s recorded the names of people who’ve promised their souls to Satan. The book belongs to a demon/Satanist named Corbis (Borgnine, acting gleefully Mephistophelean), who can turn humans into life-sized wax dolls with no eyes, and he wants it back. Shatner and Lupino (who plays his mother), fight Corbis for the book, but both end up as one of the eyeless, waxen dolls controlled by the devil-worshippers; the dolls have a habit of melting into a formless waxy goo when shot or drenched with water. Into the fray barges the younger Prescott (Skerritt), his ESP-gifted wife (Joan Prather), and folksy ESP doc Eddie Albert to rescue Shatner and Lupino. Can this unlikely trio save Ol’ Melty Face Shat and his Mom before they are washed away by The Devil’s Rain? Find out on disc or streaming; alas, there seems to be no RIFFTRAX treatment—yet.
KINGDOM OF THE SPIDERS (1977), directed by John “Bud” Cardos, a prolific B-movie actor and director active in the 70s. Shatner, Mrs. Sammy Davis Jr., and a handful of familiar Western character actors such as Woody Strode and Hoke Howell star in another drive-in movie that plays like a fairly standard creature-feature flick. However, cheesy matte paintings, horrible dialogue, and some truly cringe-y romantic scenes render KINGDOM OF THE SPIDERS more than eligible for this list. Set in the idyllic Verde Valley of Arizona, it starts out fairly promising when a struggling ranch couple (played by Strode and Altovise “Mrs. Sammy” Davis) find their prized calf ailing in the field. They call in Robert “Rack” Hansen (Shatner), a rough ridin’ veterinarian, for help.
Rack’s been busy out in the field chasing down his sexy, widowed sister-in-law and roping her like a cow—not kidding here—but he takes the call. (The sister-in-law is played by Marcy Lafferty, Shatner’s second wife.) The Shat takes some blood samples and sends them off to a government agency in the big city. Then nothing happens for a good thirty minutes or so, while the audience is treated to snooze-inducing mini-bios of nearly everyone in Verde Valley. A pretty blonde scientist (Tiffany Bolling) finally arrives in town, bringing bad news: the calf died of super-strong spider venom and she can’t figure out how that happened. Finally, things get cracking; waves of mutant tarantulas begin attacking the people of Valley Verde and they only get stronger when deadly pesticides are sprayed on them. It’s up to Shatner, of course, to save the day. This film seems to occupy a warm place in Shatner’s heart, as he fondly described his on-set experiences with tarantulas years later. On disc; turns up on YouTube regularly. Unlike THE DEVIL’S RAIN, KINGDOM OF THE SPIDERS has deservedly received the RIFFTRAX treatment in a separate disc edition.
AMERICAN PSYCHO 2: ALL AMERICAN GIRL (2002), directed by Morgan Freeman (not the A-list actor). This straight-to-video attempt to cash in on the success of the original AMERICAN PSYCHO (2000) stars Shatner and a teenage Mila Kunis (a bizarre combination that alone qualifies this film for the list.) It could have been a much better movie if the director had stuck with his apparently original plan of making a dark comedy, i.e. sort of like a college version of the Wynona Ryder classic, HEATHERS (1988). Alas, the script is not witty enough to make a dark comedy, nor is it creepy enough for a slasher flick. The movie just sort of occupies a dead, uncomfortable, increasingly campy middle ground between the two genres. (Ardent fans of AMERICAN PSYCHO beware; the plot has very little to do with the original film.)
The action starts out with Kunis as a child named Rachel who witnesses Patrick Bateman’s last murder and then grows up to be a criminology major at a prestigious East Coast university. Her favorite class, which covers famous serial killers, is taught by the foremost FBI profiler in the nation: one Robert “Bobby” Starkman—Shatner, of course. Rachel is obsessed with becoming Starkman’s teaching assistant—so much so that she’s willing to bump off all the other candidates for the post. In an often bizarre voiceover, she tosses off lines like: “I have to become a serial killer so I can stop other serial killers!” Shatner restrains his usual theatrical acting style quite a bit and is actually fairly entertaining as the lecherous old goat who seeks more from his female students than merely term papers. He actually succeeds in breathing some life into the film, but everything deflates once The Shat disappears, about three quarters of the way through the script. The ending is painfully ham-handed. On disc and streaming.