Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Cabinet of Caligari (1962): or, Crazy, Baby

October Horror Movie Challenge, Day 27!

Jane Lindstrom (Glynis Johns), a free-spirited and adventure-seeking young woman, is driving her little sports car through a mountainous stretch of countryside when her tire goes flat, forcing her to seek shelter at the palatial home of enigmatic Dr. Caligari (Dan O'Herlihy). After an extremely odd and disturbingly insinuating conversation, the doctor instructs his assistant Chris (Constance Ford) to prepare a room for their new "guest." As it turns out the Caligari estate is full of guests, each one more eccentric than the last and none of them in a terrible hurry to leave. As Jane's stay stretches from hours to days, she discovers weirdness upon weirdness: the doctor's study has a glass revolving door behind its ordinary wooden one, the gates are locked and electrically charged at night, and the doctor seems inordinately interested in Jane's early sex life.

Things go from strange to threatening when Jane sees a leering face in the skylight window above her bathtub, and later watches Caligari's henchman David (Lawrence Dobkin) beat lovable elderly nutcase Ruth (the show-stealing Estelle Winwood) to death with a cane! Despite the reassurances of kindly old codger Paul and periodic visitor Mark (Richard Davalos), Jane grows more and more frantic to escape Caligari's sinister clutches--and then a shocking revelation sends her into a tailspin of phantasmagoric madness from which she might well not recover...

Until director Roger Kay's 1962 flick The Cabinet of Caligari showed up on my "suggested for you" queue, I had no idea the film even existed. (The only other version of the 1920 film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari I knew of was the psychotronic brainfuckler Dr. Caligari, made in 1989 by Stephen Sayadian). I'm glad I gave this one a chance, because Kay (working from a script by Psycho author
Robert Bloch) delivers a neat update on the German-Expressionist classic, with beautiful black & white cinematography, bizarre and entertaining dialogue, and some truly odd images that will stay in your mind for quite a while.

The differences between this movie and its inspiration are significant. Here Caligari is a controlling Freudian madman, keeping Jane against her will and taunting her with scarcely glimpsed perversities. Kay and Bloch do away with the somnambulist Cesar and the carnival setting, focusing instead on the implications of the earlier film's ending. But while the majority of the action seems much more "real world" than in Weine's film, the climax in which Jane descends fully into madness is a real stunner. One particular sequence in which Jane sees a baker pulling loaves of bread shaped like infants out of a blazing oven even seems to prefigure David Lynch's Eraserhead in both theme and imagery--in fact, I would not be surprised to learn this film was a direct influence on that one.

The actors seem to pitch their performances to match the strangeness of the material. O'Herlihy, best known among horror geeks as the sinister Samhain stealer Conal Cochran from Halloween III, delivers his lines with such an odd accent and cadence that he seems almost like an alien from another planet impersonating Bela Lugosi. Glynis Johns's voice sounds like that of a particularly fluffy kitten that wandered into Dr. Moreau's transformation room, and her dreamy, high-pitched delivery never lets you doubt she's not entirely anchored in the real world. And Robert Bloch's dialogue--poetic, unnatural, and just plain weird--somehow manages to fit in perfectly.

Fans of the silent film by Robert Wiene--indeed any student of horror films worth his or her salt--will not be surprised by the explanation for the strange happenings at Chez Caligari. Nonetheless, The Cabinet of Caligari is a deeply odd and beautifully made film, and one that fans of the classics would do well to rediscover. 3 thumbs. 

"It will be morning soon. Halloween morning. A very busy day for me."

2 comments:

The Film Connoisseur said...

I didnt even know this one existed either, funny thing too, I just saw the original one. I was a bit underwhelmed by it. I mean, I enjoyed it, the art direction is interesting, but it is obviously low budget, the set's feel cramped and small and I got bored with it.

Yet I like the classic horror images that appear in it, like Cesar carrying the girl around, and the demented look on Caligari.

Thanks for the heads up on this update, I think there is yet another version out there, a more recent one. It would be interesting to check it out as well.

The Vicar of VHS said...

@The Film Connoisseur--The more recent version is Dr. Caligari, which is a more surrealist, wacky take, well worth your attention. It'd be interesting to do a triple feature and see how the narrative was taken up by successive generations, I think!

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