Saturday 15 June 2024

Shudder Saturday: Dr. Caligari (1989)

If you're going to make a film connected in some way to one of the greats of horror cinema, and one of the landmarks of German expressionism, then you'd better be prepared to take some chances. It would be futile to simply try emulating the original classic. Which is why I breathed a sigh of relief when I saw that Dr. Caligari was a strange and surreal horror comedy that also mixed in a large helping of erotic experimentation.

Madeleine Reynal plays Dr. Caligari, the granddaughter of the famous Dr. Caligari we saw onscreen many decades ago. She uses her patients to perform numerous experiments, allegedly attempting to cure people with some extreme methods that force them to act out of character in a way that will reshape their unbalanced minds. A few people try to put a stop to these dubious practices, but that outs them in danger of having their own minds changed by the doctor.

Directed by Stephen Sayadian, who also co-wrote the film with Jerry Stahl (the two having previously worked together on both Nightdreams and CafĂ© Flesh), I can at least say that this was an interesting viewing experience for me. While it wasn't something I fully enjoyed, I could appreciate the commitment to the core ideas, and it was good to watch a cult film that didn't felt as if it truly earned that label, as opposed to those that feel designed, and forced, that way. 

The relatively low budget is turned into a plus on many occasions, with the "cardboard and sticky tape" production design coloured and lit up in a way that makes it feel like a natural environment for these bizarre characters, and Sayadian handles the material with a fantastic ability to maintain a sense of danger and threat in between moments of silliness and surrealism.

It helps that the cast are unafraid to lean in to the absurdity of everything, delivering their dialogue with perfect amounts of arched eyebrows and camp. Reynal is amusingly devious as our titular character, David Parry and Jennifer Balgobin are two individuals leading the campaign to fight back against her dangerous medical practices, and there are a number of amusing moments for Fox Harris, Laura Albert, Gene Zerna, and John Durbin, all caught up in the unfolding medical mayhem.

I never want to rewatch this, and I won't ever say I'm a fan, but I admire the atmosphere throughout. It's a lust-filled trip through a wonderland of super-charged libidos and mad science, where nobody seems to find a comfortable middle ground between being completely out of control and being completely repressed. You can sense the breath on your skin, you can feel the air warming up around you, and it does well to maintain control of a narrative strand that winds from one odd minor set-piece to the next. That's more than I expected when it started.


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