Feb 21, 2014

Dr. Caligari

Not surprisingly, Robert Wiene’s cinematically revolutionary German expressionist masterpiece The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) aka Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari has spawned countless cinematic remakes and tributes including the horrendous British non-remake The Cabinet of Caligari (1962) penned by Psycho writer Robert Bloch, the self-reflexive midwestern-inspired postmodern work Caligari’s Curse (1983) directed by documentarian Tom Palazzolo, the modernist dystopian silent musical-horror-spoof The Cabinet of Dr. Ramirez (1991) directed by American theater director Peter Sellars, and the quasi-plagiaristic 2005 American remake The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari directed by David Lee Fisher (who shot the entire film in front of a green screen, with scenes from the original 1920 film being superimposed in the background), but undoubtedly the greatest and most insanely idiosyncratic of these films is the quasi-sequel Dr. Caligari (1989) aka Dr. Caligari 3000 directed and co-written by Austrian-born auteur-pornographer Stephen Sayadian aka ‘Rinse Dreams’ (Nightdreams trilogy, Café Flesh) and co-penned by Jerry Stahl (Twin Peaks, Bad Boys II). Indeed, not only is Dr. Caligari a somewhat worthy, if not more wayward and only semi-serious sequel to Wiene’s silent masterpiece as well as director Sayadian’s first (and last) non-pornographic work, but also a sister film of sorts to the filmmaker’s first major work Nightdreams (1981), as it features the reappearance of the mentally perturbed and severely sexually repressed housewife character Mrs. Van Houten. Sort of like Richard Elfman’s Forbidden Zone (1982) albeit keenly kaleidoscopic and with a more Europid as opposed to Judaic sense of humor, as seemingly directed by the sinisterly sardonic bastard love child of David Lynch and Carmelo Bene, Dr. Caligari is a rude and raunchy nightmare of the psychosexual, psychodramatic sort that thankfully pays tribute to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari more in name and reference as opposed to simply mimicking the aesthetics of its German expressionist namesake. A rare and somewhat artistically successful example of a pornographer leaving the aesthetically unmerited ghetto that is the porn world to create a quasi-arthouse work, Dr. Caligari proves that it was no fluke that Sayadian’s apocalyptic porn flicks Nightdreams and Café Flesh (1982) managed to achieve cult status and be played at Midnight Movie screenings. Like both The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nightdreams, Dr. Caligari is set in a surrealist loony bin where the distinction between the doctors and patients begins to blur, but unlike the two other films it features such succulently unsavory things as Cronenberg-esque birthday cakes with animated guts, chicks with mutant prick arms who see it fit to anally rape their hubby, banal doctors who turn into trannies with a taste for cunnilingus after being injected with granular brain fluids, and one of the most exquisitely dressed and sexually sinister villainesses of cinema history. Directed by an Austrian-born auteur who once stated regarding old school Teutonic cinema, “That period between 1919 -1938, it’s in my brain. It’s so much a part of who I am and what I do and how I look at things,” Dr. Caligari is a singular work that manages to reconcile German expressionism with a quasi-punky New Romanticist aesthetic straight out of Slava Tsukerman’s equally culturally pessimistic sci-fi cult classic Liquid Sky (1982). The late great eponymous character of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari might be dead, but his shockingly sexy femme fatale great-granddaughter of the same name (Madeleine Reynal, whose only other film role was in the Mystery Science Theater 3000-approved sci-fi romance Space Mutiny (1988)) has the same demented DNA and when it comes to mental patients she likes to play quite perniciously in a fiercely fetishistic fashion that puts the deranged divas of Naziploitation and women-in-prison films to complete and utter shame. 

 Debauched diva Dr. Caligari is the queen psychotherapist of a pandemonium of a mental institution named the Caligari Insane Asylum (C.I.A.) with the motto ‘Better Living Thru Chemistry’ and she is in for quite the treat when a seemingly impotent husband named Les Van Houten (Gene Zerna) decides to have his wanton wifey committed to the surreal sanitarium for two weeks due to her unnerving nymphomaniac-like proclivities. Dr. Caligari has grand plans for Mrs. Van Houten, but two robot-like busybody rivals docs, Ramona Lodger (Jennifer Balgobin of 1980s cult classics like Alex Cox’s Repo Man (1984) and John Hughes’ Weird Science (1985)) and her hubby, Dr. Lodger (David Parry), prove to be a thorn in her side. Luckily for Dr. Caligari, the head doctor, Ramona’s somewhat stern but fair father Dr. Avol (Fox Harris, who is probably best known for playing J. Frank Parnell in Repo Man), is not wise to her wayward ways of mental medicine. Ultimately, Dr. Caligari—a mad megalomaniac madam who proudly brags, “I’m the most celebrated psychotherapist in the country. Dr. Wilhelm Reich, Dr. C.G. Jung, Doctor….Caligari”—decides to 'cure' her patients by balancing out the particular mental illness of one patient with the particular opposing mental illness of another via hypothalamus injections, with Mrs. Van Houten swapping her psychosis with the equally opposing psychosis of a shock-therapy-loving lunatic of a cannibal named Gus Pratt (John Durbin, who got his big break in film playing ‘Zombie Corpse #1’ in The Return of the Living Dead (1985)). Dr. Caligari also decides to mess with pussy psychotherapist Avol’s mind after he tries to confront her, thus turning him into a carpet-munching tranny and the literal lily-licking lapdog of the good doctor after injecting him with the exceedingly erotic and feminine Mrs. Van Houten’s nympho psyche. Since she has made the unwitting mistake of preserving her great-grandpa’s brain of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari fame, Dr. Caligari is in for quite a surprise when Mrs. Van Houten decides to inject herself with a bit of the Caligari genius. In the end, Van Houten manages to not only take on the psyche of Caligari, but also injects Dr. Caligari with her own horndog psychosis via a hypothalamus shot. In a psychodramatic twist, the lunatics take over the loony bin, though the difference between doctor and patient was always blurred from the very beginning. 

 As with most of auteur Stephen Sayadian’s porn films, Dr. Caligari is an innately grotesque absurdist work of the culturally pessimistic persuasion that is more anti-erotic than erotic, which the director himself seemed to recognize when he stated of his work in a recent interview with twitchfilm.com, “But I think the art world was always too turned off by the porn, and the porn world too turned off by the art. Which if you think about it, is the perfect formula for failure.” Additionally, Dr. Caligari is far too patently perverted, scatological, and tastelessly tongue-in-cheek to speak to the souls of certain humorless arthouse fans, thereupon making it a work with a rather marginal, if not loyal, audience. Shot in the studio of Sayadian’s friend Ray Manzarek, the keyboardist of The Doors, on a meager budget of $175,000 over a six week period utilizing a misleadingly static camera (as the director confessed, “I figured, instead of losing time with fancy camera moves, we could just put the actors on platforms and the sets on wheels. There are lots of shots that look like dollies or cranes but are just static.”), Dr. Caligari is a striking example of what a creative filmmaker can do with rather limited resources. Indeed, that being said, I do not think it is a stretch to say that Sayadian is one of the few filmmakers in cinema history whose experience working in porn with small budgets and limited studio sets gave him an advantage when it came to making a serious feature film for virtually pennies. Rather unfortunately, while Dr. Caligari received mostly rave reviews from mainstream press sources like Entertainment Weekly and NY Post, Sayadian would never make another non-pornographic work and was forced to create cheap shot-on-video works like Party Doll A Go-Go! (1991) and Untamed Cowgirls of the Wild West Part 1: The Pillowbiters (1993) before giving up filmmaking entirely. 

 While I cannot say that I think all, or even half, of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari fans will enjoy the film, Dr. Caligari is certainly a work that will leave no one feeling like they endured a complete Jean-Luc Godard retrospective nor Ron Jeremy marathon.  In other words, its relation to Wiene's silent film is not much more than a nice little novelty for obsessive cinephiles, as a work that stands quite well on its own and never bores with pedantic intellectualism nor contrived eroticism. Compulsively convoluted in the best sort of way and more aesthetically subversive and immaculate than anything directed by the pretentious humdrum hacks of so-called ‘Cinema of Transgression’ like Richard Kern and Nick Zedd, Dr. Caligari is like a vulgarian neo-vaudeville show set in anti-Reaganite hell that is occupied by David Cronenberg, Hans Bellmer's autistic son, a bunch of 'psycho-chic' chicks that look like Sean Young’s character from Blade Runner (1982), a couple swarthy closet queens that look like they could be related to Conrad Veidt, and Kenneth Anger’s irreligious heterosexual brother. An unhinged depiction of “unending torment” (or at least that is how lead Mrs. Van Houten describes her life) where an odious oriental bitch in a neon pink straitjacket describes how her supposedly German grandmother “made all the potato salad for Himmler’s picnics…Goebbels too” and where the authentic melancholy and despair of German expressionism is reduced to the level of a naughty neo-surrealist scat show, albeit with a sometimes foreboding atmosphere comparable to Lynch's Eraserhead (1977), Dr. Caligari personifies true cult cinema like no other yet it has yet to develop true cult status, which is a shame that the American filmgoing public must bear. As auteur Sayadian recently revealed in the same twitchfilm.com interview, “Since I stopped I don’t think anybody picked up the mantle. I mean, Lars von Trier, he’s superimposing heads [in his upcoming Nymphomaniac], why would you do that?…Just about a year ago I got the go-ahead for a new film. We just finished the script and are getting it ready to shoot. I think it’s something dying to be released. Not because I’m doing it, but because nobody else is…So I really can’t wait.”  With that acknowledged, one can only hope that Sayadian is still the sort of man that enjoys archaic kraut cinema and has a fetish for murderous man-sized baby dolls.

-Ty E


jervaise brooke hamster said...

ALL British made films are 'horrendous', never forget that Ty E, OK.

teddy crescendo said...

Reading this reveiw made me think: Isn`t it about time Ty E reveiwed "The Dark Backward" (1991).