The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is one of the foundational movies of film history, that also just so happens to be a horror movie. Coming at us all the way from 1920 and directed by Robert Wiene, this film is German expressionism incarnate. From its twisted and distorted sets to its trope-making twist of an ending, this is a cornerstone of horror cinema. Check out the trailer and then read what we have to say about the movie below, but be warned, there will be spoilers for this nearly-a-century-old storyline.
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Mark: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. This classic was my pick. I had to pick something that came out before 1960 for the game we were playing on the podcast, and this is one of those movies that I’ve been meaning to get around to. It has a perfect 100 on rotten tomatoes, is on a ton of those “movies to see before you die” lists, and is freely available online in its original form… so I kinda ran out of excuses.
Jack: Yeah man, it’s a must see. You must see it. Which is a shame, because, god damn. Shit sucked back in olden times huh? Like, sure, this movie established much of modern cinema, and Roger Ebert called it the world’s first horror movie and all, but ugggh. Once you get past the sets this is just a hell of a slog.
Mark: There’s more to this movie than just that, but I would say the you’re right that the majority of the schtick of this film is the set design. The sets were entirely handmade from paper, and painted with the shadows and lighting angles that the makers desired. Being made in the 1920’s, this thing reeks of German expressionism. Go ahead and google that… a screen grab from this movie is the first thing that comes up. What that means, in short, is that all the sets look warped and distorted.
Jack: True, and the sets go a long way to making this thing feel creepy. In that they actually make it feel creepy. Sort of. The full orchestral score took away from that. I get it, it’s a silent movie, but we’ve come a long way since the 1920’s and while an occasional sting from an orchestra can add to a film, a complete narration of string trills and runs gets grating pretty quickly.
Mark: To actually get into the story a bit, the whole plot is told as a flashback on the part of the main character, Francis. He’s basically just telling a buddy of his that he’s seen some shit in his time. There was this circus that came to his town when he was younger, but this was no average circus…. This was a murder circus.
Jack: The eponymous Dr. Caligari wants to be a part of this circus. Really badly. But unfortunately for him, this era of Germany is remembered for nothing more than its bureaucratic red tape. Caligari runs into that red tape, as this asshole bureaucrat won’t give him a permit to feature his act: a somnambulist. Which, in the clerk’s defense, Caligari looks like this, and is asking for a permit to show off some other creep, Cesare, who walks in his sleep and looks like this:
Mark: The Cesare reveal (the gif) is still pretty eerie even today. If you don't think that shot is creepy, you're wrong. It may have been the version I was watching, but was there some weird parallax in a lot of these shots? It almost seemed like there were two or more pieces of film that were overlaid to create the effect of the foreground and background moving separately. It made the Cesare scene seem even weirder.
Jack: It did seem weird. You’re absolutely right that this scene is creepy even by today’s standards. It’s bizarre and off putting.
Mark: And then the murders start happening, as is apt to happen when a murder circus comes to town. First it’s the town clerk, then it’s Francis’ buddy, Alan. Yada yada yada chaos ensues. Francis and a few other townsfolk investigate begin to investigate Caligari and his somnambulist, because… I mean…. Wouldn’t you?
Jack: Yes. Unequivocally yes. Although, to be clear, I wouldn’t have given that creep and his sleeping man a permit in the first place. That bullshit clerk caved eventually. That’s another thing old-timey Germany was known for. Corruption. Bureaucracy and corruption. That’s what most people remember about Germany, right? Anyway, Cesare goes on a murder-about, but changes his mind when he finds a beautiful girl and just kidnaps her at knifepoint instead. Much better. Then a mob gathers, Cesare collapses dead because you know, reasons, and the mob turns its attention towards the good doctor.
Mark: The whole chase scene has a bit of slapstick in it. I didn’t do this on this go around, but if I end up watching this again I’m going to play Yackety Sax over this scene and see how well it fits. Eh, fuck it, let’s just do it live.
Jack: Goddammit. I’m upset at how well that works, but I’m pretty certain you can play that over any old-timey running to great effect.
Mark: After all that shit goes down, Caligari ends up escaping in the chaos and slinks away mysteriously. Francis follows Caligari as he is escaping and finds him ducking into an insane asylum. We know a lot about those. He investigates further to find *gasp* Caligari is the lead doctor of the hospital! Whaaaa?!
Jack: We find out that Caligari is not actually Caligari, and that the ‘real’ Caligari was an 18th century shaman or something. this new Caligari is just some brash upstart, trying to experiment on a sleepwalker to become the cool o.g. Caligari. It’s really the original tale of a hipster liking the Black Keys until they released Attack and Release and became too mainstream, man.
Mark: Which brings us to the final twist. Remember how all of this was a flashback? Well turns out memory can be a bit subjective. The characters from the story are all inmates at the asylum and it generally appears that Francis made this thing right the fuck up. He was crazy the whole time! Zowie. This is still a pretty good twist even by today’s standards. The whole thing concludes with Caligari (who actually is the head of the asylum) explaining that he now knows how to cure Francis.
Jack: Maybe it was just how hard it was to follow the lack of spoken dialog and my difficulty with cue cards, but I did not see the twist coming at fucking all. And yeah . . . then it just sort of . . . ends. Ratings?
Mark: We use that joke almost every single week. Great work. Ratings.
For 1, think of how Detective Alonzo Harris would rate how much King Kong got on him:
And for 10, think of how Chewbacca Mom would rate new Chewbacca merch:
Mark: 8 - This is a bit of tilt upward. Generally with super old films like this one the story is pretty minimalist, but in retrospect there is actually quite a lot happening in this film. You get a copycat killer, a murderous mind-controlled somnambulist, and a big twist to top things off. Pretty complex for a movie that’s nearly a century old.
Jack: 9 - I know I kind of shat on this movie a fair bit for being boring, but none of that is for this bonkers-ass plot. The plot is crazy for modern day, let alone the fucking 1920’s. A creep wants to feature a sleepwalker in a circus, but is actually using him to murder people instead? Nuts. Then you add all the twists and turns and you’ve got yourself a stew going.
WORLD BUILDING / IMMERSION:
Mark: 3 - I would have to do a lot of mental gymnastics to move this thing any higher. I have a very hard time getting immersed in these movies where the dialogue cards are few and far between and the acting has to be wildly demonstrative to compensate. Beyond that, depending on which version of the film you watch, the words from Dr. Caligari’s diary can be nearly impossible to read. I appreciate the movie for what it is, but it’s not because of immersion.
Jack: 2 - I’m not going to sugar-coat it. This was a hard movie to sit through. They did do an okay job building a world, but it’s in no way immersive. It’s really boring, the orchestration is distracting, and the cue cards are hard to follow for my garbage millennial brain. Maybe if I were smarter this score would be higher, but for me, it just didn’t do a whole lot.
Mark: 3 - Again, older movies tend to struggle mightily in this category. There is, however, something incredibly unsettling about the Cesare reveal scene. I mentioned earlier that there seemed to be some parallax effect that separated the foreground from the background in many shots that made the subjects feel literally more three dimensional. I don’t know how they did that, or if it was intentional, but it did add quite a bit to the scenes where I noticed it.
Jack: 3 - I’ll just echo what Mark said, and add that the distorted backgrounds added a fair bit to a creepy atmosphere for me.
EFFECTS (OR JUDICIOUS LACK THEREOF):
Mark: 9 - I’m teeter tottering between a 9 and a 10 on this. In the end I think it’s too much of a tilt upward to hit the 10 mark. That being said, the reason this movie is famous is because of its set design. It creates a strange and twisted backdrop that augments that psychological horror contained in the plot. It went on to inspire many other aspects of set design and cinematography in ways that other movies of the era were never able to. Obviously there is a bit of age-adjustment occurring here, but it’s less than you would expect.
Jack: 9 - In fairness, one of the ‘effects’ I’m considering here is essentially the creation of modern cinema. So there’s that. But the twisted backgrounds were awesome, and Cesare looked pretty creepy, too.
Mark: 5 - I recommend this more on the “you should see this to broaden your knowledge of film” perspective than “see this for the enjoyment of it” perspective. It’s sort of like going to an art museum. You look at the art to get an interesting historical perspective or maybe to examine some interesting brush strokes or something, but it’s not a raucously good time.
Jack: 6 - Does this score have anything to do with my actual enjoyment of the film? No. But can you pretend to be a pretentious dick without having seen this movie? Well . . . yes, but watching this movie and talking about it can make you even more of a pretentious dick. It’s a must-see, but not because it’s a joy to watch.