The Cabinet of Caligari Review

When Jane Lindstrom’s (Glynis Johns) car breaks down, she finds herself not too far away from a mansion. Seeking help she goes there and is greeted by a man named Caligari (Dan O’Herlihy). He’s a psychiatrist who immediately takes an interest in the young woman. Jane soon discovers though that he’s far too obsessive, and when she questions him about leaving he refuses to let her go. What ensues is a series of psychological tests as Jane sinks deeper into the mansion’s clutches, while around her its guests do nothing to help her. Just who is Caligari and what kind of place is this mysterious mansion?

What do you do when faced with the challenge of updating one of the most influential movies of all time for a swinging generation? Personally speaking there is no way that I’d even attempt to remake The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and more to the point I wouldn’t want to. Roger Kay has adopted a similar attitude, but the film isn’t in name sake only. It’s obvious that The Cabinet of Caligari strikes similarities in the form of its psychological content. What does work in its favour is that it keeps an identity all of its own. When viewing the film I can provide my own assumptions of its history. To me the film feels like an extension of its original source; Caligari could well be a descendant of the famous doctor, after all his methods aren’t entirely dissimilar. Unlike the somnambulist Cesare however, Jane is subjected to heavy medication, which in turn brings about a state of paranoia and fear.

It’s actually all very clever and come the final summation we can readily see the influence of Robert Wiene’s 1919 classic. Roger Kay might not have done a remake per se but clearly he and Bloch have taken the original’s blueprints, with Glynis Johns being a female replacement for Francis. And although its visuals are in no way on par with the classic Caligari it is at the very least competently directed. Shot in Cinemascope, Kay obviously milks the medium for all he can. The interior shots are often elongated works of art; showing off the streamlined and modernised house, with a touch of expressionism thrown in for good measure. It doesn’t create so much tension, as it does in providing good aesthetic value; and with his rigged cam Kay manages to pull off some nice transitions. It isn’t until the final ten minutes that Kay even begins to challenge Wiene’s visionary masterpiece, by coming up with an effectively eerie hallway sequence, which unfortunately suffers from a cheap edit to make it appear more foreboding and never-ending. Still it’s a sequence that truly highlights the madness of the entire film, and as homage’s go it’s a fitting tribute. But when Kay isn’t feeling quite so inventive he sticks to some very tired methods, because he probably thought they were cool at the time when everybody else was doing it. You name it; cheap dissolves, shoddy childhood flashbacks and some hackneyed romance do little to earn it brownie points

But The Cabinet of Caligari relies on its script more than anything else. Its psychological story telling is well crafted, with thanks of course going to Psycho author, Robert Bloch. Released two years after Hitchcock’s classic, The Cabinet of Caligari bears some striking similarities, which isn’t entirely surprising considering that this early on in the decade the 60’s was riding high on thrillers of its like. Naturally, Bloch’s approach to the subject is methodical; well researched, feeling like a branching out of ideas from the man who helped create a defining moment in cinema history. Judging the writing isn’t so much a problem; though granted it can border on pretentious at times, which isn‘t helped when Bloch‘s script ended up being diluted. It’s the execution that ultimately brings the film down a notch or two. While Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was a predominantly serious affair, Kay’s take on the subject feels almost tongue in cheek, which I‘m pretty certain isn‘t the intent. But of course there is only one reason for this, and that it because its dialogue drifts toward rambling most of the time, and characterisation is bizarre and unintentionally hilarious at the best of times; need I even mention a ridiculous plot device that involves impotence? Bloch’s original script reportedly contained far more engaging dialogue, but when you have an out of her depth Glynis Johns (in a predicament not unlike Janet Leigh’s) and a ham-tastic Dan O’Herlihy spouting some of the most insidiously loopy dialogue known to man you end up with a comedy of errors. And yet for all the faults it’s undeniably entertaining. Hats off to Herlihy in his practically unrecognisable guise (which is perhaps a little too overshadowed) as a mondo-bizarro psychologist, with a fascinatingly eccentric accent; when all is said, and even heard, he is simply brilliant. In fact whenever Caligari is off screen things become a whole lot less interesting. I’d refer you to the scene which steals the entire film; when Caligari asks Jane about her first sexual encounter. I could even quote it but it would do little justice, so I’m going to give you a little mp3 sample instead, which I just made:

“Click me now, now, do it, yes!”

The rest of the cast are an interesting assortment to say the least. In fact it appears as if Kay’s influences derive a great deal from Hitchcock; I wonder if his casting of J. Pat O’Malley as Martin had anything to do with the fact that he bears quite a resemblance to the famous director? With several supporting actors Kay manages to give each enough screen time, although half of them do nothing more than provide clichés, which lends the plot some extra padding. There’s Jeanie (Vicki Trickett) the nosey maid, Ruth (Estelle Winwood) the elderly woman who tries to conceal her age as much as it’s allowed and Mark Lindstrom (Richard Davalos) as the love interest, though one that is intriguing more than it is effective. Dr. Frank David (Lawrence Dobkin), the mysterious Christine (Constance Ford) and finally Paul (who could he be?) round off the list.

So while The Cabinet of Caligari might have a few loose cogs it most certainly is an interesting film. I’d have to question its publicity campaign for advertising this as a terrifying feature, because in all honesty much of it isn’t. Saying that though composer, Gerald Fried executes a suitably stylish score to carry the events along. Much of its time is spent coaxing the underlying themes with its subtle string arrangement, but naturally it accompanies Jane’s desperate situations far more vigorously. It’s interesting then that The Cabinet of Caligari has almost everything going for it; a little tightening up in the script and better casting could have lifted it above slightly average. As failed endeavours go this is undoubtedly an under appreciated one, which can now be savoured on digital disc for those who missed out on this obscure slice of early 60’s madness.


Considering most of the cast and the director himself has now departed it’s no surprise that The Cabinet of Caligari finds its way onto DVD with no extra material. Still one can’t be too fussy when it comes to this little seen flick, which holds up well on the medium. I do have one complaint however with concerns to the packaging and that is it reveals a major spoiler with regards to an actor. Personally speaking I wasn’t struck by the twist, and hopefully many won’t be but take care and try not to pay attention to the synopsis on the back. I also noticed that FOX list the director as Robert Kay - way to go!


The film comes on a double-sided disc, which contains the original, anamorphically enhanced 2.35:1 aspect ratio on side B and a horrendous Pan&Scan job on side A. Needless to say I went with the former, but if you care to scroll down I have provided some comparisons between the two.
So onto the transfer itself things looks good, all things considered. Letting the film down the most is aliasing, which tends to frequent the disc, along with a dose of Edge Enhancement. The picture’s grain ranges from light to heavy, with the heavier scenes showing the occasional shimmering that appears to be source related. Most importantly black levels are solid, shadow detail is very good and contrast levels appear normal. For a film this old and relatively unknown it has been well stored and looks as good as we can expect on DVD for the time being.

For sound we get a nice and clean English mono track, along with a choice of English Stereo and Spanish mono. For purists, English mono is the way to go here and it sounds just fine. The dialogue, of which there is plenty is constantly clear, while Gerald Fried’s interesting score is given a solid work out.

And now prepare yourselves for The Shockening. This is why pan&scan should be banned:


Theatrical Trailer

Do not watch this prior to the film; it reveals major spoilers which will have you sussing the film far too early. Nice to have though.


The Cabinet of Caligari

isn’t a great film; it’s a promising one with some good ideas. It has its own silliness to thank for its sheer entertainment value, and it’s surely nothing like Roger Kay originally planned it to be. It’s great to see this finally get a DVD release, so if anything it’s worth a watch at least once. There’s far worse out there, so take a gamble if you fancy a laugh, or simply wish to delight yourself in its absurdness.

6 out of 10
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