BORDERLINE WEIRD: DR. CALIGARI (1989)

DIRECTED BY: Stephen Sayadian [AKA Rinse Dream]

FEATURING:  Madeleine Reynal, Laura Albert, John Durbin

PLOT:  The granddaughter of Dr. Caligari (of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari fame) performs illicit neurological experiments on patients in her asylum, focusing especially on a nymphomaniac and a shock-therapy addicted cannibal.

Still from Dr. Caligari (1989)

WHY IT’S ON THE BORDERLINE:  This is a good time to explain that the category “Borderline Weird” does not refer solely to a movie’s inherent strangeness, but to whether it’s both weird and effective enough to rank among the most recommended weird movies ever made.  No doubt about it, Dr. Caligari is about as weird as they come, and would make a list of “weirdest movies regardless of quality” on first pass.  The problem is that this movie is held back by amateurism in the production (especially the acting) and a lack of focus in the story.  I wouldn’t feel ashamed elevating it onto the official List of 366 films, but I wouldn’t want it to take the place of a more serious and professionally produced film, either, so Dr. Caligari will be locked up in the Borderline Weird asylum until I figure out what to do with this curious case.

COMMENTS: The origin and history of Dr. Caligari is almost as strange as the film itself.  Director Stephen Sayadian is better known as Rinse Dream, the creator of arty avant-garde hardcore porn films with ambitions of crossing over into the mainstream.  His Café Flesh (1982), the story of a post-apoclayptic future where most of the population consists of “sex negatives” forced to obtain erotic fulfillment vicariously by watching “sex positives” perform, was generally well-reviewed and very nearly the crossover hit Sayadian craved.  It and was released in theaters in an R-rated version for those with tender sensibilities.  Seven years later, the director again attempted to return to the mainstream with this, his only work aimed directly at an audience not wearing raincoats and sunglasses.  Intended as a midnight movie, Dr. Caligari had some limited success in LA theaters, and then gained a small but devoted following when released on video.

Dr. Caligari never got a proper DVD release, however, and fell out of the public eye; most people don’t even realize it’s available on DVD.  The film’s executive producer, Joseph F. Robertson, later formed Excalibur Video, the Internet’s largest pornographic video mail order site.  He apparently kept the exclusive distribution rights to the film and decided not to promote it, and legitimate new copies of the film can only be ordered from Excalibur with little fanfare.  A copy of the DVD comes packed in a generic case also used for porn films (thus the picture of Ginger Lynn in black lingerie that decorates the rear).  The DVD contains no special features, not even a chapter menu, and when playback starts you are treated to an amusing short wherein a nude woman tries unsuccessfully to dodge those colored vertical bars that used to be broadcast by TV stations as a test pattern during the wee hours before infomercials became all the rage.  The overall presentation, while lacking something in the respect department, does set the mood by giving you the feeling your watching something legitimately obscure and underground.

Sayadian’s pornography background is evident from the first scene, a “nympholeptic”‘s wordless dream of taking a bubble bath and being stalked and raped by a razor-wielding man with a kewpie doll head.  In fact, although the film is not especially arousing or dirty, the movie’s most memorable imagery all has a strong sexual edge, such as the woman with breasts designed by Salvador Dalí, a futile attempt to fellate a scarecrow whose pants are sadly stuffed only with hay, and the giant tongue that emerges from a pulsating wall of otherwise undifferentiated flesh.

Unfortunately, Sayadian’s pornography background is also evident from the acting, which is almost universally below professional standards.  John Durbin, who plays electroshock junkie and serial cannibal Gus Pratt, is actually pretty good, delivering manic, mile-a-minute monologues with a demented glee.  The rest of the cast, however, takes an overly artificial and mannered approach to their roles that is indeed weird, but not very effective.  Caligari’s psychiatric foils, a husband and wife team who finish each others sentences and exhale each other’s cigarette smoke, overact like unchecked, overconfident community theater refugees.  Topheavy Laura Albert was clearly chosen for her physique and willingness to disrobe rather than her acting abilities—her previous film roles included such juicy parts as “topless girl,” “nude dancer,” and “rocker chick #3.”  (In Albert’s defense, she later became a stuntwoman who worked steadily in Hollywood for ten years and is still going strong).  But the main thespic problem is Madeleine Reynal (Dr. Caligari), in her first and only role.  She dresses like Cleopatra and speaks a bit like Marlene Detriecht, but with no facial or verbal expressions except a perpetual sneer.  We do not hate her, or love to hate her; she’s pretty much dead on the screen.  She is a villainess who gets no joy out of her villainy.

The actors often mumble or slur their lines (or in Reynal’s case, the accent is simply too thick at times to make out what she is saying).  This is a shame, because the humorous dialogue often sparkles when it’s audible.  “Your wife has a disease of the libido,” Caligari informs a worried husband.  “Speak American!” he demands.  “Funny thing about desire… if it’s not crude, it’s not pure,” Caligari muses.  “I’m a juice dog… I’m a twicthing skee-ball… and you won’t let me shiver,” Pratt campily complains when the sadistic doctor teasingly withholds his electroshock therapy.  Co-writers Sayadian and Jerry Stahl display a gift for absurd dialogue, but unfortunately the actors’ inability to convey emotion or properly enunciate sabotages some of the potential and makes one lament the wasted opportunity.

If the script shows promise that is undermined by the acting, at least Sayadian has a genuine talent for creating distinctive, frequently mesmerizing visual atmospheres.  What impresses Dr. Caligari‘s fans are its ever-inventive off-center sets and Dayglo costumes, an ultrahip graphic pop universe that’s a constant delight to behold and a perpetual invitation to overlook the film’s flaws.  The director uses the low budget to his advantage, creating backgrounds that deliberately look cardboard and unreal rather than striving for a realism he couldn’t hope to attain.  Lurid lemons and hot pinks dominate the palette, set against inky black backgrounds (the movie was filmed entirely in a warehouse, which allowed complete control over every detail of the presentation).  True to the “Caligari” brand, Sayadian takes visual inspiration from German Expressionism, including lots of improbably slanted doorways and odd geometric backgrounds, but the style is as much a spoof as a tribute.  He undercuts the threatening nature of those unnatural spaces by painting them in bright pop colors, producing an ironically light motif.  Expressionism sought to project the character’s interior emotions—usually some species of torment—onto the exterior world to exaggerate their psychologies.  In Dr. Caligari, the only thing projected on the film canvas are the director’s own irreverent stylistic choices.  That’s not a criticism—not every movie about involuntary neurosurgery performed on cannibals by German dominatrixes seeking world domination has to be dark and brooding.  There’s certainly room in the film universe for a lighter, comic approach to such material.

Ultimately, Dr. Caligari is a flighty little movie that never takes itself the slightest bit seriously.  Its overarching message seems to be “never seek psychiatric advice from a doctor who dresses in a vinyl minidress with metal cones covering her breasts.”  It’s well worth a watch if you’re looking for something sexy, surreal and silly to fill an hour and a half.  “Chinchilla!”

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

…unbelievably weird… if you’re like me, and love to watch films that are like bad acid trips, I highly recommend you search this film out.”–Michael Sullivan, The Unknown Movies

12 thoughts on “BORDERLINE WEIRD: DR. CALIGARI (1989)”

  1. You didn’t mention the departed Fox Harris, the only actor in the film with a real history, and that this was the final movie he made before his death.

  2. Standing alongside all the crazy, unhinged or outright bad performances in the film, Harris’ professional job kind of blends into the background. I didn’t know it was his last performance; he is credited as appearing in Alienator (1990), but that could have been completed before Caligari but released after. Harris’ other credits include small roles in Repo Man, Sid and Nancy, and Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers, which is an extremely hip résumé.

  3. This is without a doubt the craziest/funniest/most memorable film I’ve seen in years. It’s almost impossible to watch all the way through in one sitting, but in small doses, it’s jaw-dropping. Highly recommended — but for the love of GOD, don’t take LSD while watching it…

  4. I’ve gotta say, I think the acting is pitch perfect in this movie. Everyone sounds like they’re completely batshit. Just long shots of deranged monologues, and some of the most bizarrely choreographed dialogue scenes I’ve ever seen. In my opinion these actors pulled off a perfect atmosphere of surreal insanity. Considering the tone of the movie, and that of his and Jerry Stahl’s previous films (Nightdreams, Cafe Flesh) I’d have to say that’s exactly what they were going for. Speaking of the their earlier films, they may be two of the most surreal porno flicks ever made. They’re the type of movies that are almost too bizarre to call porno. If you haven’t seen them I’d recommend you do. Some of the most insane sex scenes ever put on film. With scenes like a woman giving oral to a giant box of Cream Of Wheat (Nightdreams) or a woman having sex with a mutant rat milkman while 3 guys who look like cavemen in baby clothes sit in highchairs banging bones on their trays while looking on(Cafe Flesh). In my opinion they’re two of the greatest examples of porn as art. Right up there with some of the films from The Cinema of Transgression movement. Just my opinion. I’ll shut up now.

    1. Hi Shane, glad you liked the film. Both Nightdreams and Cafe Flesh are in the review queue, but it will be quite a while to get to them. We don’t want to get in the habit of reviewing porn but I agree that these are the two most famous examples of porn as (surrealist) art.

  5. I disagree with most of the review here. This movie is exactly how it should be. The acting is exactly how it should be. The dialogue is excellent, full of wordplay and insinuation, actually genius! I think the reviewer just didn’t “get it!” I have several copies as well as a laser disc. I highly recommend it! Especially if you like cult movies and dark humor!

    1. Exactly Jim. This movie accomplished what it was set out to accomplish which was pure absurdity through the eyes of someone looking from the outside of the US’ overuse of drugs and mental hospitals for anything deemed unusual.
      Also the absurdity of Caligari herself and the methods she uses are, in my opinion, a reflection of the vast influx of all the new pharmaceuticals and practices that were in practice around the time this film was made.
      It’s an absurd, dayglo, surreal vision of late 80s – 90s psychology.

  6. I’m afraid that I really have to side with the guys who argued your personal points of detraction regarding why CALIGARI wasn’t entirely up to snuff as the other, more consistent `weird films reviewed and `recommended’ by you in the main section… It is my impression that Sayadian’s magnificent, absurdist and positively one-of-a-kind effort simply was not your cup of tea. True, Reynal in the role of the lead character leaves a bit to be desired in comparison to the joi-de-vivre and delirious lunacy and fun which every other member of the cast consistently exudes throughout! Although, I will not shirk from admitting that the film is just down-right silly, it certainly well-deserves a space (and mention) in film history, even if only for it’s preternatural audacity for being such a fucking little shit!

    1. If I were doing the review again I’d probably so it differently, since I appear to have given people the wrong impression that I disliked the movie. But I think there maybe a phenomenon at work here where, because this movie is so unique and so far underground, people expect a reviewer to champion it and pump it up, not analyze it objectively like any other movie that comes across his desk. Let me go on record saying I’d fight hard to get this movie the real release it deserves.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *