Thursday, July 7, 2016

Retro Review: THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI (1920)

Welcome to another installment of RETRO REVIEW where we take a look at films made before the year 2000.  Today we take a trip back almost 100 years to review the 1920 black & white silent film, THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI.  Enjoy!

In 1920, the world was still recovering from the War the End All Wars, World War I. Often seen as the moment in history the world lost its innocence, the scars of the war are most felt in Europe, and especially in Germany, who ended up being faulted for the war and being saddled with a huge debt. In the midst of this historical turmoil was a film movement was born that sought to try to cope with, or at least examine, this newfound sense of isolation, fear, and pain in the wake of the first world war, and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is often looked at as the pinnacle of the movement.

Directed by German filmmaker, Robert Wiene, Dr. Caligari is a film that explores themes of sanity, the nature of dreams, and our innermost fears with a style all its own. The film centers on a man named Francis who tells a story about a horrifying ordeal that he and his fiance, Jane, experienced involving a mysterious doctor named Caligari and his hypnotized somnambulist, Cesare. It is a dark tale of love, murder, and insanity that is worthy of the likes of Lovecraft himself. In fact, while Lovecraft's stories wouldn't become widely distributed in America, let alone Germany, until a few years after Dr. Caligari, it's unlikely to be a coincidence that this film released at around the same time that Lovecraft's writing career began, as Lovecraft taps into the same well of uncertainty and darkness that Wiene tapped into for this film.

Dr. Caligari is a film with a style that is somewhat typical for the movement that birthed it, but one that looks almost alien compared to what films, especially horror, looks like today. Even American silent horror at the time, like 1925's famous Universal film, The Phantom of the Opera, didn't look anything like this. Instead of going for any kind of realism, Dr. Caligari elects to make its sets and have its characters be incredibly stylized. Sets and buildings appear very twisted, angular, almost something that you would see in a cubist painting. As a result, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari has a dreamlike quality to it, evident as soon as you arrive to your first major set, that being the fair that Francis first sees Caligari and Cesare. Everything is at an odd angle, with carousels in the background tilted and with buildings in the distance being twisted and spiraling in a seemingly impossible fashion. The color filters applied to many of the scenes, like the heavy blues and oranges, also give it a sense of being some other plane of consciousness. Admittedly, that's one aspect that can differ between versions, as different home video releases have some different color tints to them. The actors all have a nice helping of make-up, making their facial expressions all the more pronounced, especially Dr. Caligari's. Cesare's make-up, meanwhile, is second to none, with the deep black eyeliner turning him into some otherworldly creature. The sequence where Caligari wakes him for the first time and seeing him slowly open his eyes is a moment that I'd like very much to be as iconic a moment as the reveal of Bela Legosi's Dracula, Lon Cheney's Phantom, and the shower scene in Psycho. It's that iconic.

Being a silent film, it's a film that unfortunately has something of a limited appeal. A lot of people seem to be unwilling to watch silent films, but Dr. Caligari is a film that I think needs to be seen today. It's a style that's lost to us, and it's something that could actually be seen as quite a good breath of fresh air today, with movies that strive to be as realistic and gritty as possible. It's a movie I would especially encourage people to see if they have any interest at all in the evolution of horror films, as Caligari's influence extends far after the movement it sprung from had long died. This film's exploration of surreal themes, it's dreamlike atmosphere, and its innovative use of shadows and color influenced countless movies after it, from the surreal stillness of something like The Shining to the use of light and darkness in Psycho. 

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a film that every fan of horror should see. Granted, due to it's age, it's not going to keep you up at night. But what it will do is give you a peek into the dark, twisted, and damaged mind of the world at the turn of the century, in an age where we only glimpsed the horrors that awaited us. If you want unique visuals, a thick atmosphere, surreal imagery, and an ending that will make you rethink everything you just saw, I would undoubtedly recommend The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

Tony's Score: 9/10

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