While at a faire in Germany, two friends encounter the mysterious Dr. Caligari and his somnambulist, “Cesare” – a man under deep hypnosis whom the doctor claims can foresee the future. When Cesare accurately predicts the death of one of the two friends, Caligari and his creepy meat puppet become likely suspects.
Here I am at 45 years of age, my kindergarten and 1st grade report cards (which I still own) are scratched with notes from my teachers, giving my parents warnings of an obsession I may have with “monsters” and “gore,” all the while those around me consider me some kind of horror guru, yet it is with great shame I reveal here that only recently did I finally treat myself to what is arguably the first “true horror film” – The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.
While most may have not seen it either, many fans of horror have at least heard of the film and its influence on the genre to be. However, even as a piece of cinema history in general, I find it very underrated – mainly because of its unique expressionism and script. And let’s face it, if there were ever any wonder how Tim Burton created the visuals in some of his films, it’s clear Caligari played a pivotal role in Burton developing his own style. From gothic-garbed characters to asymmetrically-shaped sets, doorways, and windows, there is no doubt he was heavily influenced by this German film.
With the exception of Lon Chaney’s Phantom of the Opera as well as the German Nosferatu, I’m not a big fan of silent films, so going in I had very little expectation I would enjoy Caligari. I was wrong. And as a bonus, the particular version I saw happened to have an eerily chaotic free jazz soundtrack which – to me – truly complimented the mood for the film much more than any music from the 20s could have done.
The majority of the film is told in a flashback with the protagonist “Francis” sitting on a bench with another fellow as he tells the story of the doctor and the somnambulist. Without giving anything away, the ending paid off tremendously, and I think I may have had a grin on my face as the credits rolled.
The movie holds up surprisingly well. And though I normally don’t care too much for remakes, I think this film is the perfect specimen for one. The storyline is still fresh enough to easily take our modern-day, desensitized audiences for a ride. Perhaps Burton himself would dare share with the rest of the world where his vision comes from and provide an adequate retelling.
Words: Chad Lutzke