Thursday, October 06, 2005

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

Directed by Robert Wiene, 1920

I wonder if the nightmare set designs of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari would work in modern cinema. More than the ghoulish makeup, melodramatic expressions of terror, and twist ending, the backdrops contributed to an effective sense of horror. I suspect they work best in the harsh shadows of black and white.

Caligari is considered one of the first horror movies ever filmed. Its zombie background is a little less certain, but I consider it an adequate early iteration of the genre. Instead of the living dead we find a carnival somnambulist, with a maddened asylum director filling in as zombie master. A series of murders ensues in a geometrically impossible town of slanted shacks and askew foundations. Since I love unreliable narrators, I appreciated the distinctive bookends that cast doubt on the main story. For impatient audiences who find it difficult to adapt to the slow pace of a 1920s silent film, a hint: you'll miss a few overwrought gestures if you watch it in fast-forward, but you won't miss a panel of dialogue.

Zombie explanation: A somnambulist falls under the care of the asylum director, who obsesses over a medieval tale of somnambulistic murder. The director moonlights as a carnival barker and sends poor, sleeping, balletic Cesare out on pointless homicide sprees.

Contribution to the zombie canon: Except for his surprising grace and a preference for porridge over human flesh, the somnambulist is a zombie in appearance, purpose, and deed. Caligari is a very early contribution to a monster that would later evolve into zombies.

Favorite moment: Every beautiful set-- the leaning hut, the icicle cell, the sharp-angled wall. I was astounded by a scene in the name Caligari appears at odd angles, written over the scene behind it. Not only was it perfectly evocative of the identity transformation occurring on screen, it was an unexpected effect for such an old film.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Yeah, I've gotta agree that Caligari works as a zombie movie (and it's better at this than most obvious zombie films). While we're liberally defining zombie flicks, I encourage you to watch Der Golem. Instead of a reanimated corpse, we've got an animated clay statue that wreaks vengeance on the enemies of a psychopath. In my opinion, it's a more enjoyable movie, and the visuals are at least equally amazing as Caligari.

-Johnny Lockjaw