365. DR. CALIGARI (1989)

“This film is like the offspring of Cronenberg and Troma.”–Luther Phillips, “The Life and Times of Stephen Sayadian”

Weirdest!

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Madeleine Reynal, Laura Albert, John Durbin, Fox Harris

PLOT: Mrs. Van Houten is suffering from “nympholepsy” and erotic nightmares; her husband takes her to the Caligari Insane Asylum to be treated by the controversial granddaughter of Dr. Caligari (also named “Dr. Caligari”). A couple of her co-workers are concerned about the fact that seventeen of Caligari’s former patients have been “irreversibly warped,” and scheme to get her fired and rescue Mrs. Van Houten from her care. But Dr. Caligari refuses to accept the asylum director’s demands, and her experiments in neurological personality transfer intensify.

Still from Dr. Caligari (1989)

BACKGROUND:

  • Stephen Sayadian, who worked as an advertiser and a photographer for “Hustler,” made a couple of hardcore pornographic films under the pseudonym “Rinse Dream.” Nightdreams (1981) and Cafe Flesh (1982) were not mere wank material, however, but highly surreal (if explicit) avant-garde experiments that were often more disturbing than erotic. Dr. Caligari was his first and only attempt to make a (relatively) mainstream feature film.
  • The financier told Sayadian he could write and film whatever he wanted, but he had to use the “Caligari” name in the title.
  • As was the case with his other cult films, Dr. Caligari was co-written with Jerry Stahl, another interesting character whose memoir “Permanent Midnight” (later made into a movie) is one of the best first-hand accounts of heroin addiction ever written.
  • Dr. Caligari briefly played as a midnight movie under the title Dr. Caligari 3000. It gained a small cult following on VHS. The film’s executive producer, Joseph F. Robertson, was a porno executive who later formed Excalibur Video, at one time the Internet’s largest adult video mail order site. He kept the exclusive distribution rights to the film with Excalibur, but his plans to release more low-budget cult films never materialized. When Robertson sold Excalibur, the rights to Dr. Caligari went with it. The new owners have shown little interest in Dr. Caligari, but legitimate new copies of the film can only be ordered from Excalibur on DVD-R. Occasional rumors of a restoration and proper release of the film have yielded no results so far.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: During an erotic hallucination, Mrs. Van Houten opens a doorway a large pulsing column of flesh with scars and wounds and orifices that ooze candy and paint. A mouth with a waggling tongue appears on the bag of meat, growing until its larger than her head; she writes against it while the giant tongue licks her face.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Dalí boob crutches; giant tongue head licking; scarecrow fellatio therapy

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Although it plays at being a dark and disturbing trip into the twisted psychology of a nympho and her sadistic therapist, in reality Dr. Caligari is a campy flight 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 attached to 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!”


Original trailer for Dr. Caligari

COMMENTS: Stephen Sayadian’s pornography background is evident from the very first sequence of Dr. Caligari. It’s a “nympholeptic”‘s eight-minute wordless dream of taking a bubble bath and being stalked and ravished 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 flesh.

What impresses Dr. Caligari‘s fans most are its ever-inventive off-center sets and Dayglo costumes, an ultrahip graphic pop universe that’s a delight to behold and a perpetual invitation to overlook the film’s flaws. Sayadian has a genuine talent for creating distinctive, frequently mesmerizing visual atmospheres. His sets, costumes and props transcend their budget, 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 that totally swallow the available light (the movie was filmed entirely in a warehouse, which allowed complete control over every detail of the presentation). True to the “Caligari” brand, the director 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. The opening credits, which frame stills from the eerie 1920 original in with geometric figures in a “Miami Vice” color scheme, set the fond but distant tone. Sayadian undercuts the threatening nature of his 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 terrifying existential angst—onto the exterior world to exaggerate the character’s tormented 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.

Although the slim B-movie plot is little more than a frame to hang the stylized visuals on, co-writers Sayadian and Jerry Stahl display a gift for absurd dialogue that occasionally launches guffaws. “Your wife has a disease of the libido,” Caligari informs a worried husband.  “Speak American!” he demands. “Your wife’s files have been destroyed—I destroyed them,” she explains. “Terrific, now what do I tell Blue Cross,” he complains. “Funny thing about desire… if it’s not crude, it’s not pure,” Caligari muses. “I’m a juice dog… I’m a twitching skee-ball… and you won’t let me shiver,” patient Pratt campily complains when the sadistic doctor teasingly withholds his electroshock therapy. (The best lines go to the cannibal Pratt: “you don’t think I’d boil her peepers, do you? Kind doctor, sauteed is the only way to serve an eyeball.”). The line “my skin has wrapped me in this gruesome mistake” has a new trans-resonance in the modern age of sexual dysphoria. And the accusation “Why are you defying the laws of reality?” might be aimed at much as the filmmakers as at Caligari herself.

My original review, from almost a decade ago now, complained about the acting, which is generally below professional standards. The actors often mumble or slur their lines (or in Caligari’s case, the accent is simply too thick at times to make out what she is saying). Years later, I still maintain that the “stylized” acting is more a detriment than a virtue. John Durbin, who plays electroshock junkie and serial cannibal Gus Pratt, is the exception, delivering his manic, mile-a-minute monologues with a demented glee. For the most part, 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 found a calling as a stunt woman who worked steadily in Hollywood for twenty years—and is still going strong). She does fine in the dialogue-free sequences, when her overreactions are intended to evoke silent movie theatrics; when it comes time to deliver her lines, though, her inflectionless monotone can become numbing, and hides the skewed beauty of the lines. At one point she’s asked to imitate Durbin, and isn’t up to the task; Durbin does much better with the roles reversed. Albert is probably the worst actress, but I think the main thespic problem is Madeleine Reynal (Dr. Caligari), a model seen here in her second of only two roles1. She dresses like an Egyptian queen 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. Since Albert and Reynal are the two main characters, the actors’ inability to convey emotion or properly enunciate sabotages some of the script’s potential and makes one lament the wasted opportunity.

I understand Sayadian was drawing from a small pool of non-SAG actors and chose a minimalist style to try to work within their limitations. I’m sure if Meryl Streep and had volunteered for Dr. Caligari, the perfectionist director would have eagerly cast them. But while the talent pool explains why the acting is uneven, it doesn’t make much of a difference to the viewer. But, in the end, so what? I don’t want that criticism to be your take-home message. Bad acting doesn’t necessarily hurt a cult film, much less doom it. It can even add to the atmosphere. With great actors, I’m sure Sayadian would have made a much different film. But it’s the visual compositions, which hearken back to the director’s days as a provocative and transgressive still photographer, which impress here. (Mitchell Froom’s pipe organ and synth score doesn’t hurt, either). Where else will you see a psychiatrist who looks like Cleopatra dressed as a dominatrix plying her trade in a booth (a la Lucy in “Peanuts”) underneath a slanted sign reading “Dr. Caligari!” (complete with exclamation point, and a Pac-Man representing the “C”)? A hospital head in a neon yellow lab coat mixing cocktails in front of a window behind which white-robed women pose, next to a glass skull on a pedestal? A baby doll wearing rubber gloves making love to a nude woman on a gurney? These are everyday sights in the Caligari Insane Asylum. I wouldn’t mind spending a weekend there in a Thorazine haze. Why are they defying the laws of reality? “Chinchilla!”

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… consistently outrageous and imaginative… What really counts the most is the film’s terrific stylized look, which is bargain-basement surreal created by a striking use of miniature and minimalist settings (generally constructed against a black backdrop).”–Kevin Thomas, The Los Angeles Times (contemporaneous)

“…this has all of the weird atmosphere and polymorphous perversity of [Sayadian’s] Café Flesh without the hardcore… It bears comparison with a few other weirdies, like Desperate Living or Forbidden Zone, but it isn’t quite in their league, despite the high-quality patter (Sayadian can write funny speeches by the ream) and overheated atmosphere.”–Kim Newman

…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

IMDB LINK: Dr. Caligari (1989)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

Episode 236: Dr. Caligari – The Projection Booth podcast on Dr. Caligari includes rare interviews with Jerry Stahl and Sayadian

The Life and Times of Stephen Sayadian – Overview of Sayadian’s career

BORDERLINE WEIRD: DR. CALIGARI (1989) – Our initial “borderline weird” (later renamed “list candidate”) review

HOME VIDEO INFO: As mentioned in the “Background” section above, DVD copies Dr. Caligari can only be ordered from Excalibur Video. Most people don’t even realize the movie is available. 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)2. The DVD has no special features, not even a chapter menu, but when playback starts you are treated to an amusing short with a nude woman who tries unsuccessfully to hide behind those colored vertical bars that used to be broadcast by TV stations as test patterns. 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.

Dr. Caligari can also be bought on VHS. It hasn’t been licensed for streaming or Blu-ray, although Sayadian has been trying to recapture the rights to the film as recently as 2015.

(This movie was nominated for review by “Cassandra”; it was one of our very first movie suggestions Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

  1. Her only other performance was a minor role in 1988’s Space Mutiny, a cult film of a different variety.
  2. At least, back when I ordered it in 2009; the packaging may have been updated since

8 thoughts on “365. DR. CALIGARI (1989)”

  1. Not huge into erotic films, but this looks amazing! I wonder how it would compare to something like Final Flesh?

    1. The script literally could have been written by the same person. Both movies are heavily satirical and are alternately really funny or really pretentious, though intentionally so.

      Visually they very different. Caligari is all day-glo camp with a late-night public access vibe while Final Flesh is a high-concept riff on the fetish porn industry that looks like, well, porn.

  2. I saw this film when it originally came out at the Avon in Providence, RI. I always remembered the tongue. I think this movie is always a good pairing with Liquid Sky. It’s like they represent the style arc through the 80’s; Liquid Sky showing us the more junky, thrifty, punky New Wave aesthetics of the early 80s, while Caligari goes for a more bold candy color dominated by late 80s synth pop styles. Many groups which lasted through the entire 80s like Duran Duran and The Human League (or especially someone like NIna Hagen) – you can see these stylistic changes in their fashion during a chronological viewing of their music videos.

    1. That’s fascinating! I noticed Liquid Sky is a near-constant for midnight movies, and seems to only be growing in popularity. Definitely need to check it out now!

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