I suppose I’ve been intrigued by The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari ever since I realized it took slot #1 on Rotten Tomato’s Best Horror Movies of All Time List. Unsurprisingly, this list is heavily contested. Commentators will complain, for example, that King Kong sits in slot #5, even though it’s not technically a horror movie. The same might be said of Abre Los Ojos – the Spanish version, and, for that matter, the original version of Cameron Crowe’s Vanilla Sky – and Frankenweenie, which I can only assume doesn’t fall under the category of true blue horror. Still, every ranking is subjective, and even if I questioned the list maker’s assessment, I still had to see what it was about this old, silent, black and white film, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, that makes it such a monumental hit according to a major contemporary movie review site.
First, it wasn’t hard to find The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. As it turns out, Erie, Pennsylvania’s one remaining CD and DVD store – FYE, in the mall – carries myriad compilations of the really, really old stuff. I trekked from one location to the next – from Best Buy, to FYE, to Barnes and Noble – to find some 1960’s classics, like The Innocents and Black Sunday last year, without much success. However, the really ancient masterpieces, the ones that can be credited with the inception of modern horror, are almost literally a dime a dozen, like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu, the former released in 1920, the latter released in 1922 (both are sold in giant box sets with other old horror films for unusually cheap prices). With child-like anticipation, Michael and I popped the DVD in the player tonight and were instantly transported back nearly 100 years, to the silent film art of a century ago.
If Caligari is any indication, silent films are slightly harder to follow than their louder counterparts. To compensate for foreseeable difficulty, I will admit, here, that we read a partial plot synopsis before viewing the film. And we had to learn that a “mountebank” (in this case, a “mountebank” monk) meant a trickster. So here’s basically what happens. Spoilers will abound in my review, so be aware. If anything, hopefully my review will serve as a helpful guide should you be so bold as to try this nearly 100-year-old silent film classic on for size.
The story starts with a man named Francis telling a story to a stranger about a mountebank named Dr. Caligari who came to his town with a somnambulist, or sleepwalker/constant sleeper. The scenery suggests that the town could be everywhere or nowhere. Undoubtedly modern horror directors are inspired by the dream-like, slanting buildings and curvy roads of the unnamed mountain town in Dr. Caligari. Set design, though assuredly more simplistic in 1920, was no less artistic for its simplicity. Parts of Caligari look like truculent scenes from someone’s distorted nightmare.
Caligari – who is a wild-eyed, furry, remarkably menacing looking figure – registers his somnambulist, Cesar, for an exhibit at the local fair. Cesar has prominent cheekbones and deep, hollow eyes, and when he undertakes a murderous rampage, he looks vile and disconcerting. Cesar kills Francis’s friend, Alan (who vows to maintain his friendship with Francis, despite the fact that they’re wooing the same woman), in a subtly brilliant, now virtually non-existent “shadow-murder” scene. Cesar’s long, spindly, odious shadow arches forward with a knife and overtakes Alan in a deft move of subtlety very obviously absent in today’s horror. And in another sublimely creepy scene, Cesar lifts Jane, the beautiful town maiden, from her bed; his intent was to kill her, but his convictions collapse under the paradoxically ethereal weight of her beauty, and he merely kidnaps her. She is eventually rescued.
Soon, we’re transported to a psychiatric facility (probably a confine for all types of real horror in the 1920’s) and Francis is asking the doctors about Dr. Caligari. To his chagrin, he realizes that the evil Caligari heads the institution (under another name, presumably) and spent years seeking a somnambulist so he could follow in the footsteps of the original Caligari, an 11th century monk who had a somnambulist perform his evil deeds for him. The subservient doctors and Francis search Dr. Caligari’s desk while he’s asleep and find a note (splashed across the screen and hard not to laugh out loud at) that says, “A somnambulist was committed to asylum this morning. At last…!” The men chase the wretched Caligari down and he ends up in a strait jacket.
I would have been satisfied with the plot’s creativity and intrigue had it ended at that point, but it doesn’t. We find out that Francis is a mental patient, and his mania is based off the supposition that the chief doctor of the psychiatric hospital is the evil 11th century monk, Caligari, which is not really the case. Many of the film’s characters end up being patients at the psychiatric clinic; the film, complete with wavy, enigmatic scenery, has all been Francis’s delusion, albeit perversely piquant. At the end of the film, Francis finds himself in a strait jacket, but not without hope. The head of the psychiatric institution proclaims that now that he understands Francis’s delusion, he can work to reverse it. As such, this horror film, full of unexpected plot twists, ends with a surprisingly hopeful outlook.
I genuinely appreciate the story line of this movie and the effort that went into conveying such a complex tale when sound technology wasn’t even existent. Sporadic scenes and close-ups of facial expressions are interspersed with concise, on-screen quotations that do a remarkably helpful (if imperfect) job of explaining a complex plot and helping the viewer follow the film. But what was most memorable to me about watching the film was watching the expressive faces of the actors and the rudimentary yet effective setting and thinking, wow, this is almost 100 years old. I love contemplating the passage of time. Perhaps it was the morbid slant to my personality that kept thinking, not only are all of these people long since passed, but most of them were born in the 1800’s. As Michael noted, the oldest actor on set wouldn’t have been born far after the American Civil War.
But that’s classic cinema, and it’s a period of classic cinema that I’ve been astonishingly under-exposed to. Channels like TCM have preserved the classics for us, but truly old relics, dusty hidden gems like Caligari (which is, incidentally, a German film) are largely obsolete in pop-culture. For this reason, whatever shortcomings the Rotten Tomatoes Top 100 Horror Films list may possess, I’m glad it gave credit to this early horror classic, which must boast at least loose ties to Hitchcock movies, slasher flicks, and perhaps the broader array of present-day horror, including similar psychological thrillers that cause the protagonist – or the viewer – to ask “is it all in my head?” Am I glad I watched the film? Absolutely. I think any self-professed horror fan should see it, and I now plan on reviewing some of the earliest classics more frequently on Just Dread-full. Stay tuned for Nosferatu!