“Step rrrrright up!”
I feel like I’ve seen The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari before… or at least parts of it… but that doesn’t seem to be the case. I might’ve pretended I’d seen it before, like the dude in the book club who says that he’s read Moby Dick even though we all know he’s lying. But now I can officially cross it off my list. Caligari, I mean. I still haven’t read Moby Dick yet.
Whether it’s right or wrong, when I think of classic, silent-era horror movies, I instantly think of films made in Germany. I don’t know if the nation truly had a head start on horror cinema, but it certainly feels that way with classics like Dr. Caligari, Nosferatu, Vampyr, etc. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is the strangest of the bunch, with wild, crooked production design that forces buildings, streets, and doorways to tilt at absurd angles. The human characters are appropriately dressed for period and do not appear disturbed by their environments, suggesting that to them this is all absolutely normal. For the viewer, it’s like watching people unknowingly traverse a nightmare.
The film is about mad doctor Caligari who sets up shop at a local fairground to display Cesare, a somnambulist he keeps in a coffin-like cabinet. Though Cesare has slept continually for 23 years, Caligari can raise the sleepwalker to tell fortunes to the crowd. The fortunes are threatening and evil, leading to mysterious deaths throughout town.
The film is a classic and yet it didn’t exactly blow me away. Some plot threads were left hanging and the ending, though ahead of its time, wasn’t exactly to my liking. But you can’t deny its place in film history. Dr. Caligari has influenced innumerable pieces of film, fiction, and likely other types of art as well. You can trace the inspiration to Tim Burton, Orson Welles, and Junji Ito with little difficulty (Caligari himself even closely resembles Danny DeVito’s Penguin from Burton’s Batman Returns).
It’s a good movie. Indeed, it’s a great movie, and I’m happy I finally got a chance to see the film from beginning to end. But I’d be lying if I said I’m in love with the film or that it’s a new favorite of mine. I found The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari to be a film that’s easier to appreciate than it is to enjoy.
Tomorrow: Tony Scott’s The Hunger.
Writer of horror, science fiction, and dark fantasy. Lover of books and film. Lifelong Godzilla fan. Reluctant blogger.
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