Thursday, February 4, 2010

Film #11: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

Some people have skeletons in their cabinets.
Dr. Caligari has a sodomizer in his.
Oh, I mean a somnambulist. My heavens, we’re just all thumbs on this keyboard today.

According to the fancy word book, a somnambulist is a person plagued with an abnormal condition in which motor acts, such as walking, are performed while asleep.
Emo-boy Cesare is such a sad sack, eternally asleep for the last 23 years and stashed in a wooden cabinet in the 1920 film “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari”. Cesare’s caretaker is the evil Dr. Caligari, a psychiatrist who has kept Cesare in this state in order to exploit his freakiness during public sideshow stage acts.
Seems the Doctor can awaken Cesare from his slumber just long enough to predict the future of any rum-dum in the audience willing to part with a dime. When a non-descript German town decides to throw a fair, Caligari sees the perfect chance to exploit his boy in a box.

Francis and Alan are two rum-dum townsfolk looking for a good time, and while attending the fair wander into Caligari’s somnambulist tent. During his performance, Cesare makes eyes at Alan and declares he will die in just one day, a premonition that comes true when Alan turns up murdered in his bed. Seems he was repeatedly penetrated by a pointy object, and somnambulist Cesare is instantly suspected.
In fact, all sorts of peeps are turning up dead or abducted ever since that damn fair came into town! When Francis’s insta-girlfriend goes missing, it is on like donkey kong. Francis and the police join forces to solve the crimes in the trippy 1920s silent film “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.”

The Low-Down:
Clap. Clap. Clap. Just when we had given up hope on the silent horror movie genre, in walks Caligari with his cabinet. Silent movies can only show, not tell their stories. This can sometimes be their downfall. But in The Cabinet of Caligari, it is its biggest redeeming quality. The German made Caligari “shows” with expert precision, as each frame is crafted to look as if the characters live in a nightmarish cartoon. Think about a Tim Burton movie, with its crazy angles, geometric shapes, strange set design, and abstract art cinematography. If Tim Burton was a student of German Expressionism, the makers of Caligari would be his master. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari Tim Burtons out Tim Burton movies!

The visuals are stunning. Everything is askew in each frame, and lighting is used in a way the RDHP has not seen since in a film. Long stretches of white light mix with paint to cast the set far into the distance. Crazy paper-looking forests rise up in the background. And this is 1920, people! It’s old… I mean, it’s just so… old. But yet so new. This is the oldest movie the RDHP will view during our cinematic time-traveling adventure. It is very surprising that the oldest movie on our docket would also be one of the cinematically freshest.

Each scene was set up more like a play than a movie, the characters gliding across the set as the camera stays stationary. Silent movies are so calming, typically. Maybe it is the slow movements of the actors or the never ending symphony of the soundtrack, but there is just something about these cracked relics that send instant sensations of serenity to its viewers. Caligari bucked this trend, however. It was just too insane to be calming. Each scene enthralls a viewer, its askew backdrops and props keeping you slightly off kilter throughout the picture -- as if walking through a German funhouse.

This movie was way ahead of its time, even down to the non-traditional ending that must have had 1920s folks doing spit-takes. Somnambulist jokes aside, if you only watch one silent movie in your life, let it be The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. It’s one hot injection of fun straight to your erogenous movie holes (your eyes, people, your eyes)!

RDHP Ratings:
C-rating: 4.5
Chris Dimick sleep-talks. “The movie is motion picture art. It’s official, Caligari has become by far my favorite silent movie. Unlike Cesare, not only didn’t I fall asleep ONCE during this enthralling quiet tale I actually found myself wishing for more movie at its conclusion. If I were comparing this against all other silent films, I would give it a perfect 5 rating. But, as a rule the RDHP compare films against all other films between 1920 and 2010. Therefore .5 points must be deducted for various reasons (time isn’t kind to beauty).
Such a creepy tone is set throughout the film. Silent films have a way of being inherently creepy, actually. All the people have ghost white faces. They mime everything all weird in their acting delivery. And the flickers and scratches on the film prints always makes me think of those creepy Nine Inch Nails videos from the 1990s.
Caligari takes silent film creepiness to a whole new level. Dr. Caligari’s head looks like some sort of pig-wart. Then you have Cesare, a rail-thin German man in a skin-tight leotard and dark eye makeup. Shutter!
The performances are creepy great, but it is the set that truly sets the horrific tone. Every scene is explicitly crafted with amazing scenery. Yet while visually stunning, Caligari doesn’t just depend on its looks to find a date. In a way, it also explores how thin the line is between reality and insanity, and how experience is relative to the mind of the beholder. Sexy and smart!? I’m takin’ it home to mama. The ‘Krauts have done it again!"

N-rating: 4.5
Nick Rich sleep-talks: “Chris stole my saying! I was totally going to remark that this film was more Tim Burton than Tim Burton! How ever shall I recover from the sting of this usurping of wit?!? Ahhhh, yes, I’ll just apply the sweet salve that is The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari to my wounded ego… that’s better!
This film was so amazing that beyond it’s awesomeness it also ushered in a RDHP first: Chris and I gave a film the same score! Such is the beautifully dark and magical film that is The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Major props to our steadfast follower Jim who recommended this film!
Note: For our attentive readers, yes, I gave this film the same score as Nosferatu, but if you recall I graded that film on a curve (giving it a 4.5 adjusted and a 3.0 in Nick watch-ability). Dr. Caligari requires no such affirmative action!
At first the schizo-scenery in Dr. Caligari feels a bit strange (as I imagine a descent into madness would), but as the film progresses you find yourself eagerly wanting to see new and more disturbing backdrops (again, as I imagine a descent into madness would feel like)! I found myself confused at times, but didn’t seem to mind as it felt natural in the context of the film. Speaking of natural, rest assured dear readers that the sleepwear of the featured fair maiden was realistic; however, I found it hard to believe that the men folk slept in their day-clothes! If they weren’t sleeping in them and took the time to get dressed while the maiden was being kidnapped then shame on them! If you can’t throw decorum out the window when faced with a home invasion, when can you?
A great film will take you on a journey you didn’t think of, didn’t want to go on and never expected… and Dr. Caligari does this in spades. Such a film makes you wonder what Hollywood has been doing for the past 90 years that it can’t come up with something more original and engaging!
The Skinny: Watch this film if you’re feeling Emo about movies today… slather on tons of hair product a-la-Tim Burton, mutter complaints through your tears and enjoy the wonder that is The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.”

Great Moments in German Expressionism:
German Expressionism was a huge movement in art, culminating in the 1920s. In post-WWI German reconstruction, the film industry was booming. But with a general lack of funding, it was hard for German filmmakers to compete with the lush budgets of American films.
The first Expressionist films made up for these money-problems by using set designs with wildly non-realistic, geometrically absurd sets, along with designs painted on walls and floors to represent lights, shadows, and objects. The plots and stories of the Expressionist films often dealt with madness, insanity, betrayal, and other "intellectual" topics, as opposed to standard action-adventure and romantic films.
In short, German Expressionism was about the dark fringes of the human experience. It can be both brilliant, and, in retrospect, hilarious!
Below, the RDHP explores various high-points in German Expressionism:





Quote of the Viewing:
Nick: There is not very much talking in this movie.
Chris: Yeah, it is pretty silent.
Nick: We should write Netflix and complain their sound sucks.

Honorable mention Quotes of the Viewing:
[Scene: Dr. Caligari opens up his somnambulist exhibit to a crowd of on-lookers]
Chris: Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Cesare the Sodomizer, only 10 cents!
Nick: Step right up kids!

[Scene: Cesare is fed a pudding mixture while sleeping in his cabinet]
Nick: So, he can eat while he is sleeping?
Chris: He must’ve taken some Ambien.

Things in the RDHP’s Cabinets:
Feces-filled mason jars
Uncle Ben’s Insta-Rice
The Boogieman
Naked photos of Whoopi Goldberg
30 year collection of TV Guide magazines
Ryan Seacrest's sexuality
Stacks and stacks of romantic mix tapes

RDHP Salutes the Year 1920!
This is the oldest movie the RDHP will screen as part of the horror project. In honor, a look at other happenings of the year 1920.

Jan. 1st – The Jazz Age begins:

Jan. 3rd - NY Yankees purchase Babe Ruth from Red Sox for $125,000

Jan. 10th - League of Nations established

Jan. 12th – Alabama secedes from the Union, rejoins when sex-with-siblings legalized:

Jan. 13th - Sex-with-siblings law reversed

Jan. 13th - NY Times editorial reports rockets can never fly:

Jan. 16th - 18th Amendment, prohibition, goes into effect:

Jan. 20th - The American Civil Liberties Union is founded

Jan. 29th - Walt Disney starts first job as an artist; $40 week with KC Slide Co:

April 20th - Tornadoes kill 219 in Alabama and Mississippi; Preachers blame sex-with-siblings law:

May 20th - Policemen raid the Cubs' bleachers and arrest 24 fans for gambling

June 13th - Post Office says children could not be sent by parcel post:

July 26 – Aliens invade Washington D.C. Thwarted by invisible germs

Aug. 18th - Tennessee ratifies 19th Amendment, guarantees women voting right

Aug. 19th - First Tennessee woman beat for "being all uppity" after voting:

Sept. 17th - National Football League organizes in Canton, Ohio. Twelve teams pay $100 each to join American Professional Football Association

Nov. 2nd - Warren G Harding elected president

Nov. 3rd - Dick Cheney receives first steam-powered heart transplant

Nov. 15th - Free City of Danzig forms under League of Nations protection:

Dec. 12 – The phrase “hot enough for ya” first uttered:


  1. LOVED the worst films of all time list from Wikipedia. I actually just saw 'I Know Who Killed Me' a couple on nights ago. It was truly terrible.

  2. Great to hear, thanks for reading! As for worst films, I'm glad your eye-balls are still intact after being subjected to that Lindsey Lohan trash. You, sir, are a saint for not going on a killing spree following that flick.