**/**** Image B+ Sound B
starring Glynis Johns, Dan O'Herlihy, Dick Davalos, Lawrence Dobkin
screenplay by Robert Bloch
directed by Roger Kay
by Alex Jackson SPOILER WARNING IN EFFECT. The first thing we gotta do is get past the title. Contrary to popular belief (as exhibited in Pauline Kael's tome 5001 Nights at the Movies), The Cabinet of Caligari does not share its title with the classic 1920 Robert Wiene film. You're thinking of The Cabinet of DR. Caligari--emphasis my own. That being said, I have no right to be a prick about this, as every time I've typed "The Cabinet of Caligari" I've found myself instinctively inserting "Dr.".
Save those four central words from the title, a single visual effect, and a twist ending, The Cabinet of Caligari has absolutely nothing in common with The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. One fast determines that it's neither a remake nor a "re-envisioning" of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and so there is absolutely no fruit in comparing the two or holding it to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari's standard. The whole business quickly subsides. Now, comparing The Cabinet of Caligari to its contemporaries and near-contemporaries (Psycho, The Manchurian Candidate, and Shock Corridor), well, that's a different issue altogether.
Jane Lindstrom's (Glynis Johns) car breaks down, prompting her to make her way to an estate owned by the mysterious Caligari (Dan O'Herlihy). He invites her to stay the night, but the next morning she discovers that Caligari is keeping her prisoner. She grows to despise and fear her captor, who presses Jane to reveal personal facts about her sex life, forces her to look at pornographic flash cards, and peeps on her while she bathes. As much as Jane hates Caligari himself, she feels comfortable among Caligari's colleagues, sycophants, and servants and even begins to fall in love with a young man staying there. Still, none of these people seem interested in helping her escape. It's not exactly because they have strong allegiances to Caligari--indeed, they never really defend him against her allegations. Rather, they have a certain way of changing the subject. Strangely, Jane does not implicate these people in her indictment of Caligari, not even when she sees one of her newfound doctor friends beating a hypnotized woman with a cane as Caligari watches on. She understands that there is a relationship between them and she is curious about it, but as far as she is concerned, Caligari is the only real villain here.
It doesn't make sense for Jane's housemates to not help her if they have little fidelity to Caligari--and it doesn't make sense that she doesn't hate them the way she hates Caligari. And while we're at it, it doesn't make sense that Caligari would invite her to spend the night, just as it doesn't make sense that she would accept his invitation. (It also seems a little too tidy that she gains a love interest during her time there, particularly since there is barely any courtship building up to the relationship.) Jane fails to acknowledge this senselessness. I've heard the term "dream logic" applied to a variety of surreal and absurdist films, but I can't remember it ever feeling more appropriate than it does here. The thing we often don't acknowledge about "dream logic" is that it is, in fact, a form of logic--distinguishable from the logic used in the waking world, but a form of logic all the same, with its own distinct set of rules and regulations. Everything Jane does in the film seems to be continuous with her waking self, but at the same time, she appears to have implicitly accepted the rules of this dream world. The Cabinet of Caligari is dramatically inert. We are never really involved with the characters and, accordingly, there is very little suspense. It's a talky film and the dialogue is, by design, expositional in form but not in outcome. I'm certainly not dogmatic when it comes to films that value concepts over people, but The Cabinet of Caligari is dreamlike in a very cerebral way--more Last Year at Marienbad than Eraserhead--and as such it's a detached, dull experience.
The film was scripted by Robert Bloch, who authored the novel on which Psycho is based and went on to have a lustrous career in the B-movie circuit cranking out exploitation pictures about "crazies" (after The Cabinet of Caligari, he wrote Strait-Jacket and The Night Walker for William Castle). Bloch sets his film up as anti-psychiatry propaganda and then reveals that it's actually pro-psychiatry propaganda. It turns out that the entire film has existed within Jane's head: she was a nut who had to confront Caligari--the manifestation of her fears of psychiatry--before she could be cured. Bloch's twist ending is every bit as undermining as the one in M. Night Shyamalan's The Village or David Fincher's The Game. The first ninety minutes prove to have existed only to justify the last ten. Not only that, but anything we could have taken away from those first ninety minutes is ruled null-and-void by Bloch's definitive deconstructive analysis--to say nothing of the fact that the psychiatrist's explanation feels simplified and painfully condescending, a lot like the one that infamously closed out Psycho.
But when all's said and done, that switch from anti-psychiatry propaganda to pro-psychiatry propaganda simply feels moralistic and dishonest. They sold the film as a horror picture, as a frank play on our subconscious fears of psychiatry, and then they deconstruct it using psychiatry to show us we have nothing to fear. I felt like a kid tricked into eating his broccoli. Typical of the underlying hypocrisy in Bloch's approach, Jane's love interest turns out to be the shrink's son--a revelation that provides the film with a sentimental happy ending while at the same time peddling the lurid suggestion of incest.
Early on, I began to recognize the film's peculiar social interactions. The Cabinet of Caligari is basically the "Chinese railroad worker" scene between Janet Leigh and Frank Sinatra in The Manchurian Candidate spun-off to feature-length. I mentioned that it's fruitful to compare The Cabinet of Caligari to The Manchurian Candidate and its contemporaries. The major difference between them is that The Cabinet of Caligari is a film about psychiatry, psychology, dreams, clinical insanity, and the like, whereas the others simply use the science as a means of illustrating larger issues. Novice viewers may see The Cabinet of Caligari as the more complex work, but in actuality all the depth is on the surface. The relatively traditional narrative quality of The Manchurian Candidate, Psycho, and Shock Corridor not only makes them greater cinematic experiences, but also leaves them wide open for analysis and application toward a context greater than that of mere psychiatry.
Visually speaking, The Cabinet of Caligari is as accomplished and inventive as anything from Fuller, Frankenheimer, or Hitchcock. The director, Roger Kay (misidentified as Robert Kay within the DVD's liner notes), hails from television--back when hailing from television was kinda the early-Sixties equivalent of hailing from music videos. The first shot of the film is wonderfully evocative: a demi-circle of light materializes from the dark before transforming into a subjective shot of a car driving through a tunnel. I also loved a scene where a childhood version of Jane comes onto the screen and shares the same space with her. In a restrained but filmic way, Kay establishes Jane's dreamscape for the audience; it's so good that the explanation embedded in Bloch's smartass ending is a particular tragedy.
I think there's a reason you've never heard of him, though. Kay is a very good filmmaker, but he's not an artist. Hitchcock would take Bloch's material and adapt it to fit his personal agenda; Kay doesn't evince a personal agenda, leaving him at the mercy of the material. The Cabinet of Caligari doesn't seem to be about anything except itself, an attribute that cancels out any relationship the creator may have had with his creation. In the post-digital age, especially, talent without moral intelligence, passion, or soul is in gross overabundance, and the only level on which a film like The Cabinet of Caligari can hope to work is as evanescent eye candy.
Fox issues The Cabinet of Caligari in pan-and-scan and 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfers on opposite sides of the same disc. The film retains some minor print damage in its conversion to DVD, but the black-and-white image features lush contrast and excellent detail. Barely-distinguishable Dolby 2.0 stereo and mono listening options fare a little worse: Though both sport adequate depth and clarity, the soundtrack is just plain old and worn and lacking in the vitality of the visual presentation. A theatrical trailer and movie recommendations round out the platter. Bonus points rewarded for the main menu, which looks to have appropriated The Man Who Wasn't There's poster art. Originally published: November 1, 2005.