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Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (2005)

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (click for larger image)Starring Doug Jones, Daamen J. Krall, Judson Pearce Morgan, Laura Birkell

Directed by David Lee Fisher


Amongst the recent explosions of remakes cluttering movie theater screens and vid-store shelves none come with the sort of intrigue that David Lee Fisher’s update of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari – Robert Wiene’s silent era classic, which pretty much helped create the horror movie – does. Whereas most reduxes aren’t content to do a little terminological tap-dancing and call themselves re-imaginings (despite the fact that they are little more than tired retreads of better material, only pumped-up and dumbed-down with CW-bred pretty young things and an instantly dated Top 40 soundtrack), Fisher earns his right to call his film a remix rather than remake. See, the director’s audacious idea is to go one (or three) steps beyond even what Gus Van Sant did with Psycho. Fisher has taken modern actors and a newly written screenplay and pitted them against a green-screen that was then painted over with actual computer-scanned footage from the 1919 original.

From there actors are put into the original Cabinet in place of the real stars, having them acting against the first film’s jagged, surreal backgrounds. It’s German Expressionist art-horror pretension for the 300 era!

But the question is: does this experiment work?

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (click for larger image)The simple answer is … yes and no. I was alternately in thrall of and repelled by Fisher’s expansion, which does a lot interesting and a lot that’s interesting … but doesn’t work. It’s an imaginative and lavish (for a low-budget endeavor) film school venture at best, and is worth watching for horror fans who are willing to root around the edges of the genre for the weird and self-consciously artistic. But it also has lapses in judgement that, while not fatal, distract from the director’s attempt to add new life to an aged property.

Watched today, the first Caligari is slow-moving, primitive and painfully rudimentary exploration of a damaged psyche. But that’s just because we’ve been spoiled by nearly a century’s worth of narrative, cinematic and psychological enhancement. Taken for what it was, for the era, the film is an artful classic and in Wiene’s hands, established the use of mis-en-scene to metaphorically embellish the wretched twistedness of insanity. The trippy, proto-psychedelic almost Escher-like backgrounds gave a simultaneously dreamy and nightmarish quality to the tale Caligari, a doctor traveling around with a genuine somnambulist, Cesare, earning money by waking the blank-eyed sleepwalker in front of large crowds, where he would make dead-accurate predictions for the future. When Cesare predicts that a young artist will die – and he does – his best friend tries to prove that Caligari is involved not will with that death, but a series of others haunting his town.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (click for larger image)Fisher retains fidelity to the source material, not just in the terms of the backgrounds, but in the plotting too. Where this film is different is in the use of dialogue to propel the narrative along. And this is where the new Caligari gets dicey. See, while some of the dialogue works, the rest doesn’t. The problem is that the screenplay tends to lean toward the anachronistic. At times I felt like I was watching an episode of CSI or a twenty-something soap-opera taking place in a turn of the century German village. It was too modern, too hip, too not 1919. As for the acting, it was fine, especially Daamen J. Krall as the new demented new Caligari and Doug Jones – Pan of the labyrinth himself! – as a seriously creepy mime of a Cesare. Laura Birkell as the love interest for our hero (Judson Pearce Morgan) was, however, a bit too bodacious (if you get my drift) for a silent film heroine.

All in all, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a fascinating film that’s worth watching just for the experience of experiencing it. It will bore some, outrage others and enthrall some more. It’s not a failure of any kind, but an absorbing stunt that has given birth to a director who will make many more interesting movies in the years to come. Just don’t watch this if you have an allergy to pretentious material. It may harm you.

3 1/2 out of 5

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Jon Condit