By Scott Dorward
The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (Germany, 1920)
“I must know everything. I must penetrate his secrets — I must become CALIGARI!”
I don’t know how I managed to get to my advanced age without ever seeing The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. It’s a horror classic and has remained a genre favourite for 100 years. While I have no aversion to silent films, this one just kept passing me by. Happily, the October Horror Movie Challenge has once again come to the rescue, giving me an excuse to rectify this terrible oversight!
The fair has come to town, bringing murder. It actually takes a little time to get to the murder. First, we meet the unsettlingly weird Dr Caligari, who has applied for a stall at the fair, featuring his spectacular somnambulist, Cesare.
Meanwhile, Francis has convinced his friend Alan to go to the fair, where they attend Dr Caligari’s show. Caligari opens what appears to be a coffin, revealing the still form of a young man. This, he explains, is Cesare, who has spent all 23 years of his life asleep. Caligari is able to awaken him for short periods, allowing him to answer questions from the audience.
Alan steps forward and asks, as you do, when he is going to die. With a needlessly sinister flourish, Cesare announces that Alan will be dead by dawn. And, sure enough, Alan is stabbed to death in his bed that night.
After a brief red herring involving a copycat killer, suspicion falls upon Cesare, who we see stalking through the strangely angled streets of the town by night. But if he is the murderer, what is his motivation?
Everything comes to a head as Cesare sets his sights on Jane, the love of both Francis and Alan’s life. But as the truth behind the crimes comes to light, this only leads to a further series of shocking revelations.
A huge part of the appeal of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari lies in its visual design. This is a dream world filled with exaggerated characters in heavy makeup. Huge rooms make adults look like children, lost in nightmares. Almost every item of furniture is the wrong size — clerks perch on impracticably huge stools like hunched vultures. The angles of every wall, door and window are violently askew, constantly undermining our sense of reality. I kept finding myself thinking of the maddening effects of strange angles in Hill House.
Every angle […] is slightly wrong. […] Angles which you assume are the right angles you are accustomed to, and have every right to expect are true, are actually a fraction of a degree off in one direction or another. […] Of course the result of all these tiny aberrations of measurement adds up to a fairly large distortion in the house as a whole.”– Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House (1959)
In The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, these deviations from true are far more exaggerated and their cumulative effect even more alienating.
The story’s antagonists are equally unsettling. Dr Caligari is a wild, deranged presence from the moment we first see him looming towards the camera. His manic expressions and exaggerated body language should come across as pantomime silliness, but their overall effect is inexplicably sinister. And Cesare is at least as unnerving as his master. His staring eyes, heavy goth makeup and stark black clothing make him look like a huge, angular carrion bird. Dr Caligari even makes him sleep in a crate which more than slightly resembles a coffin.
The relationship between Cesare and Dr Caligari is fascinating and disturbing. While Cesare is the living instrument of murder, he feels like as much of a victim as those he stabs to death. Caligari, as we discover late on in the film, has opportunistically taken ownership of a young man trapped in dreams since infancy, remoulding his mind. While Cesare looks witchy and lurches around like Frankenstein’s monster, there may be a frightened child trapped inside. Cesare is completely at his master’s mercy — incapable even of feeding himself, relying on Caligari to spoon mush into his mouth. This, to me at least, is more nightmarish than any murder.
Given The Cabinet of Dr Caligari‘s place in cinematic history, fascinating details abound about its inspirations, production and legacy. The Wikipedia article about the film is unusually detailed and a great starting point if you would like to know more.
I approached watching The Cabinet of Dr Caligari with a little trepidation. It was late at night when I put it on and while I was expecting it to be worthy, I wondered whether it would still be entertaining. Just because a film is a classic doesn’t mean that it’s going to be appealing to modern viewers. I needn’t have worried — the admittedly short 74-minute runtime sped past and I was surprised that it was over so quickly.
The story contains more than enough twists and turns to keep you engaged, although I did worry that the final revelation undermines much of what has built up to it. The performances and camera work are as stagey and artificial as you would expect of a silent film of its time. In this case, however, the stilted presentation works in the film’s favour, adding an extra layer of weirdness. And, of course, the set design and general visual aesthetic are stunning.
Don’t make the mistake I did of spending almost 50 years of watching other horror films before getting around to this one. It is well worth an hour of your time.
And as The Cabinet of Dr Caligari is in the public domain, I can legally link to the full film rather than just presenting a trailer. Enjoy!
The October Horror Movie Challenge
Please do join in and share your own thoughts with us about this or any other films as the month goes on. You can usually find us on Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, Discord, or lurking in the dark corners of your home.
If you would like to play along at home, my provisional selections are:
- 1 – Baskin (2015)
- 2 – The Bar (2017)
- 3 – The Editor (2014)
- 4 – The Beach House (2019)
- 5 – The Mummy (1959)
- 6 – The Wind (2020)
- 7 – Tigers are Not Afraid (2018)
- 8 – Voices From Beyond (1991)
- 9 – Dearest Sister (2016)
- 10 – Patrick (1978)
- 11 – The Transfiguration (2016)
- 12 – The House at the End of Time (2013)
- 13 – The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920)
- 14 – The Hallow (2015)
- 15 – Night of the Demons (1988)
- 16 – Deep Dark (2015)
- 17 – The Witch Who Came From the Sea (1976)
- 18 – Black Sheep (2006)
- 19 – The Battery (2012)
- 20 – Eaten Alive (1976)
- 21 – Satan’s Slaves (2017)
- 22 – Evolution (2015)
- 23 – Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood (1973)
- 24 – The Dead Center (2018)
- 25 – Your Vice is a Locked Room and I Have the Only Key (1972)
- 26 – The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears (2013)
- 27 – Here Comes the Devil (2012)
- 28 – Gretel & Hansel (2020)
- 29 – Two Thousand Maniacs (1964)
- 30 – The Stepfather (1987)
- 31 – In Fabric (2018)
Be warned that I may alter this list according to availability, what I feel like watching at the time, and sheer capriciousness.
A Final Note
If you have been enticed here by these posts, please do look around at some of our other film reviews. We also have a podcast, called The Good Friends of Jackson Elias, which occasionally covers horror films. If this appeals, you might want to check out some of the following episodes.
- The Fly
- A Dark Song
- The Thing
- The Ritual
- The Wicker Man
- The Stone Tape
- Event Horizon
- The Witch
- INLAND EMPIRE
- Nightbreed and Lord of Illusions
- Maléfique and The Ninth Gate
- Re-Animator and From Beyond
- Repulsion and The Babdook
- Man Bites Dog, Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon and S&man
- A selection of weird films
- David Cronenberg
- The films that scared us most
If you dig through the archives, you will also find episodes about a wide variety of horror stories and games. Happy nightmares!
The Masters of Cinema DVD has a number of terrific extras and options for viewing, including a feature commentary by David kalat, which would have made a better audio essay (since it rarely corresponds to the action on screen), but which contains great background and history. Picture quality is superb. Far better than the freely-available downloads.
Glad you enjoyed it Scott. One of my Halloween faves, though I can’t get anyone to watch it with me! I assume you have seen the other silent classics, Vampyr, M, Nosferatu, etc?
Yes, I’ve seen and loved all of those. There are other silent classics that I’ve neglected, however, like The Golem, The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera. I should add some of those to my list next year.
This one is worth cherishing if only for its remarkable aesthetic. A film from an era before directors had worked out what a film ‘should’ look like and all the better for it.