The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
"The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" has a claim to many firsts. Not only is it one of the first horror films, but it's also one of the first films that is told in flashback form. At the beginning of the movie two men are sitting in a garden and appear to be discussing things concerning the supernatural. One man makes a comment about spirits, but the men pause in the conversation as a women walks by, brightly shining against the bleakness of the garden—her mind is elsewhere.
One of the men, Francis (Friedrich Fehér), tells the other man that the lady walking is his fiancee. He tells the man that the love that they have almost was ruined by a certain man named Dr. Caligari. Then we go back in time to a carnival-esque town that Francis and his friend Alan (Hans Heinrich v. Twardowski) lived in. There is a town fair and Alan drags Francis to it, they are followed by Dr. Caligari to the town clerk's office. He is hunched over with a cane, frizzled hair, and huge glasses. He is trying to get a permit for a his sideshow, featuring a somnambulist.
For those of you who don't know, and I'm including myself on this, a somnambulist is simply a sleepwalker. For those of you who already knew that, I'm sorry that I forced you to read an extra sentence...don't you wish you could get that time back?
I don't understand what's so special about an act that consists of a sleepwalker, but Dr. Caligari draws in a crowd to his tent and then presents his show. The somnambulist in question, Cesare, has slept for twenty-three years, his age in fact. He has never woken up, spending his whole life sleepwalking.
For his act, Dr. Caligari will wake up Cesare in order to shock the people. Francis doesn't take this act too seriously...maybe he thinks that it's a scam or maybe it just doesn't interest him. But his friend Alan is captivated by the showmanship and the dark side of act itself.
Cesare wakes up and blinks a few times before walking forwards in a Frankenstein fashion. Mind you that Cesare is one of the first monsters of monster movies. Then the interesting part—Dr. Caligari tells the audience that they can ask any question to Cesare...he supposedly knows everything. This sleepwalker, when awake, can see the past, present, and future. Alan is the first man who comes up to ask a question and he asks the typical: "When will I die?" The answer is haunting: before sunrise tomorrow.
Alan is shaken but Francis tells him to not worry about it, they go off and they flirt with Jane, the girl from the beginning. Within five minutes Francis realizes that both he and Alan are in love with Jane. He swears to Alan that no matter what happens with Jane, they will always remain friends. But in the night, a mysterious figure slips into Alan's room and kills him.
The somnambulist's prophesy came true. Francis becomes obsessed with the idea of Dr. Caligari being behind the murder somehow and he swears that he won't rest until he proves it. He becomes the opposite of Cesare who always sleeps.
"The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" not only contains several great scare moments but also has a fantastically smart script which always turns an unexpected corner.
The actors all have a ridiculous amount of black eye makeup on and the sets that they act upon are all weird angles, like a horror version of Dr. Seuss. Tim Burton obviously drew some inspiration from this movie or movies like it.
The music of the film is blatantly atonal, and when it's not—it's strict jazz. Sometimes it can be overbearing but for most of the movie, it works perfectly. Keep in mind that the music was added decades after the film's release.
"The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" is half strict horror and half mystery. Alan's death wasn't the first death, before him the town clerk got stabbed to death with a weird looking instrument.
The movies that this one predates are almost too numerous to count: "M", "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest", "The Prestige", and even "The Game" all take some cues from "Dr. Caligari".
This movie is about obsession and the effects it has on the mind. It also deals with the insanity surrounding obsession.
To be fair, once the movie has ended in a surprise fashion—you may want to go back and watch it again...you might find some golden eggs hidden away.
Score: 3 and a half stars out of 4
Posted by Micah Jones