Project Horror, Day 2: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari


When I was about 13 years old, I checked out a book about cult films from the library.  I was in junior high school, and just beginning to become aware of the fact that there were movies out there that weren't at the theater in my town, and that lots of people might not have heard of.  The book felt like forbidden knowledge - it had sections about movies that I knew I would never watch under my parents' roof.  Movies like Cafe Flesh and Blue Velvet.  Although I've never seen it until tonight, the one movie that stayed with me the most was this one, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

What about this movie made it stick in my head?  Look at the pictures in this gallery.  Most of them are movie posters, but look at the stills from the film.  They're all striking lights and shadows, severe angles, and stark contrasts.  They are like photos of a dream.

Bonus for anybody who likes Britpop...  Take a look at this picture of Jarvis Cocker of Pulp.  Now take a look at the guy in black in this picture.  I KNOW!

Caligari was released in 1919, nearly one hundred years ago.  I've got to say, though, that unlike Dracula (which I watched yesterday), this one really withstands the test of time.  It's not in-your-face terrifying, and it's not the kind of fear that you get from watching a movie and thinking about if it really happened.  It really does play out like a dream.  You watch the characters do things that maybe don't entirely make sense, but it doesn't matter - in dream logic things don't have to make sense.

The plot:  Two friends, both in love with the same girl, decide to visit a fair which has come to town.  At the fair, Dr. Caligari exhibits Cesare, a somnambulist (I had to look it up - it means sleepwalker) who he claims has slept for 23 years in Caligari's specially built cabinet.  Cesare "knows the past and sees the future," and can answer any question put to him.  When one of the friends asks how long he will live, Cesare tells him until dawn the next morning... which is exactly right.

I loved this movie.  The sets were as much a character as any of the actors.  The scene when Cesare actually opened his eyes was creepy.  As.  Hell.  And although I can't be completely sure about this, I'd be willing to bet that this movie introduced the concept of the twist ending.  Somehow in everything I'd read, I'd never seen what the actual ending to this movie is (I didn't tell it above), so when it came, it really did catch me off guard.

Here's the other thing that I loved about this movie - it brought back another of my dreams, but this one a very good dream.  For a long time, it's been my dream job to open in Lubbock a theater like the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin.  It's nothing that I expect will ever actually happen, just one of those pleasant daydreams that gets you through the especially crappy days at the office.  I've heard that sometimes at the Alamo, they'll bring in silent films and a local band, and let the band provide accompaniment for the feature.  This movie made me want to do that.  I'm about to plunk myself squarely into the mid-90s and say that I think Rasputina or Shakespears Sister would do a knockout job with Caligari.

I give it five cabinets out of five.


scumdog steev said...

I've never seen this movie, but it sounds interesting.

Regarding the Alamo - That's a cool (small) chain. We saw Metropolis there with a live band once, it was really cool. They do a lot of cult-type stuff, too, so that's also neat. Also, this story's a year old, but check it out: "Food-film combo business to open Lubbock location"

Danny said...

Yeah, I remember seeing that, but haven't heard any movement on it since then. I really do hope they bring one here.

Anonymous said...

Weird. As I read this, my wife turns to me and says, "Gemordet, that's 'murdered', right?" (in German). Kind of creepy.

Glad you liked Dr. Caligari. It's stagey and weirdly artful, I'm not sure many movies were ever like that again. Conrad Veidt, who plays the sleepwalker, was one of those Germans hip to what was going on in Weimar Germany and left with many others, who could, as the Nazis took power. He later played Major Strasser during the war, in Casablanca.

-Eric W

Danny said...

I knew I'd seen his name someplace before, but didn't bother to look him up on IMDB. That's awesome, and it's interesting to know that he was ahead of his time both artistically and politically.

Art films have always been a difficult sell, I guess, and even I have sort of a jaundiced eye towards movies that are "arty" - ones that try for some statement and either fail or just look ridiculous in the process. This movie really pulled me into its dream world, though. It really just worked. I'd be interested to see more like it, but the only thing that comes to mind off the top of my head might be Fritz Lang's work.

Kyle said...

This is a great flick. I saw this as part of a film class at A&M and ended up writing a paper about it for a completely unrelated English class.

The frame story was actually added post production which really alters the entire structure of the film and the story itself. Crazy, huh?

Danny said...

I didn't know that! I just now went over to IMDB and saw that same bit of information, and that it was added under studio and political pressure. One of the few instances where studio interference actually made the end product better!

Anonymous said...

I'm intrigued now, and as soon as I'm done posting this comment, I will add this to my Netflix queue!
I'm still chuckling from the..."I was in jr high and just realizing that there were movies that didn't show in my town..." HA! I think the higher-ups in Lubbock where hoping you wouldn't discover that there was life outside of The Loop until at least high school!
I hope one day you do open a theatre/drafthouse in Lubbock - I'd probably visit more often!

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