Dr. Caligari Blu-ray Review
Blu-ray Release: June 13, 2023
Video: 1.85:1 & 1.33:1/1080p/Color
Audio: English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Mono
Subtitles: English SDH
Run Time: 78:54
Director: Stephen Sayadian
Mrs. Van Houten’s (Laura Albert) libido is dangerously out of control. There’s only one place for her: the Caligari Insane Asylum, where Dr. Caligari’s (Madeleine Reynal) experiments in psychosexual therapy have led her to the brink of a radical treatment involving hormonal exchange. Having drugged and imprisoned Mrs Van Houten’s sexually repressed husband, Caligari sets out to extract the incurable nymphomaniac’s brain fluid and inject it into the head of a cannibalistic serial killer (John Durbin), who is addicted to electroconvulsive therapy. What could possibly go wrong? (From Mondo Macabro’s official synopsis)
Among the most important films ever made, Robert Wiene’s 1920 Expressionist masterpiece The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari inspired a century of horror movies, noir thrillers, and arthouse experiments, yet somehow wasn’t the subject of a dozen remakes. Wiene himself attempted a surrealist ‘talkie’ remake, but died before it came to fruition in 1938 (a little thing called World War II complicated production). Producer Erich Pommer and writer Hans Janowitz each attempted to secure the rights for a Hollywood remake in the early ‘40s, but were both tangled in legal red-tape. Janowitz and, later, director Ernst Matray also planned sequels in the later ‘40s, but these failed to materialize. A film entitled The Cabinet of Caligari was finally released in 1962, but the original script, by Psycho author Robert Bloch, bore no connection to Wiene’s film. The title was apparently forced on the project by director Robert Kay.
At some point, filmmakers intent on updating The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’s horror elements lost interest, leaving arthouse and theater types to pick up the baton, beginning with Stephen Sayadian’s quasi-sequel, Dr. Caligari, in 1989 and followed by Peter Sellars’ The Cabinet of Dr. Ramirez (1991) and David Lee Fisher’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (2005). As the most transgressive of the three and the only one to have a decent home video footprint, Sayadian’s film is the one that managed to cultivate a reasonable-sized cult following. Sayadian began his career as a satirical illustrator for Mad Magazine and National Lampoon, eventually graduating to creative director at Larry Flynt Publications in the mid-’70s, where he worked on ad campaigns for Hustler Magazine. Later, he moved with Flynt to LA, where he designed poster art for movies, including John Carpenter’s The Fog (1980) and Escape from New York (1981), and Brian De Palma’s Dressed to Kill (1980), discovered the area’s punk rock culture, and started bringing his specific graphic ideas to his own movies. He teamed-up with Hustler writer Jerry Stahl and photographer Francis Delia for two pornographic features, Nightdreams (1981), which Delia directed, and Café Flesh (1982), which he directed. While not particularly popular with the adult film market, they did break out as ‘midnight movies,’ thanks to their uniquely artistic approaches.
Dr. Caligari was Sayadian’s third feature and third pairing with Stahl, who co-wrote. As a pseudo-sequel, it engages with its source material in a sardonic manner, using it as a basis for campy performances, caustic humor, a dash of social satire, and colorful, austeure variations of the original film’s stark Expressionistic sets. The avant-garde and thoroughly late-‘80s production and costume design is the most striking aspect and is breathtaking enough to override the affected performances, overwrought dialogue, and on-the-nose satire, all of which can become grating, depending on one’s tolerance for performance art and irony (for the record, Alex Cox and Fred Olen Ray favorite Fox Harris is the cast all-star). While sexually-charged, Dr. Caligari is not a pornographic film. Sex tends to be a surrealistic experience, implied and discussed in detail, but not explicit. The violence follows suit and tends to be more grotesque than gory. The combined effect is like a New Wave music video co-created by pop art icon Keith Herring and director Ken Russell, including a cornucopia of Cronenbergian abominations – a cake filled with pulsating viscera, an arm transformed into a veiny phallus, and a wall of flesh that leaks pink fluid and produces a tongue the size of actress Laura Albert’s head.
Dr. Caligari was released on VHS and Beta from Shapiro Glinkenhaus in 1990 (were stores still renting Beta in 1990?). Image Entertainment put out a 1.66:1 Laserdisc and somebody issued a DVD-R rip of the original VHS that was available via mail order only. I don’t think this was 100% legal, but the versions I found still available have Shapiro Glinkenhaus’ logo. In March of 2023, Mondo Digital released a 2000 copy limited edition 4K UHD of the film, which sold out during the pre-order process. There were rumors that the standard edition would also be a 4K disc, but, probably due to budget constraints, it is a 1080p Blu-ray (technically the film’s Blu-ray debut). They’re using the same 4K remaster, just not the same resolution. Perhaps in part due to Sayadian’s stark and garish photography, perhaps due to the quality of the 4K scan, this is a fantastically dynamic and sharp transfer, whether you opt to watch it in 1.33:1 or 1.85:1. Personally, I opted for the former, because the 4x3 square ratio fits the compositions better (I suspect the film was shot with the video market in mind). The colors pop against deep black backgrounds and edges are tight without any halo issues. The whole transfer is borderline hyper-clean, but there’s still plenty of texture and fine grain.
For the record: Mondo promised news of a standard edition UHD “later this year” on the Blu-ray.com forums back in April.
Dr. Caligari is presented in its original mono and uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0. To match the surrealism and performance art qualities of the film, the sound design is often abstract, mixing stark silence with loud foley work and the kind of buzzy dins you’d hear in David Lynch movies. The track is a bit on the quieter side, considering that it’s uncompressed, but never became distorted when I cranked it up a bit loud. Part of the problem is just that the mix is a bit flat and the dialogue volume is sort of all over the place. I assume these are issues with the original tracks. Mitchell Froom’s music mixes waltzes, ‘traditional’ Gothic horror, and ‘50s sci-fi cues with quirkier synth and free jazz elements. Froom was an accomplished keyboardist and ex-member of Crowded House. He was also producer and/or performer on albums from Bonnie Raitt, Tracey Chapman, Sheryl Crow, Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan, and others. And, hey, if the affected dialogue does bother you, this disc also includes an isolated music and effects track in Dolby Digital mono.
Commentary with writer/director Stephen Sayadian – Sayadian offers up a relatively extensive look at the making of Dr. Caligari, from the larger work of the cast & crew to the art and media that inspired the film (it turns out that there are more Cronenberg homages than I had noticed), creative choices, technical processes and planning, and meaning, though he still leaves most of that up to audience interpretation. It’s not wall-to-wall information and Sayadian loses momentum towards the end, but there are still valuable nuggets that help to demystify this particularly esoteric movie.
Beyond the Door (30:27, HD) – Sayadian returns for a really good on-screen interview that features most of the same information as the commentary, just in a more compact form. I’d personally suggest watching this before the commentary, but it’s probably a matter of taste.
Meet the Doctor (18:18, HD) – Actress Madeleine Reynal discusses her audition, the rehearsal process, working with Sayadian and the cast, costume and make-up, the mechanics and style of the sets, the surrealistic dialogue, special effects, and her favorite sequences.
The Scandalous Mrs. Van Houten (20:16, HD) – Via video link, actress Laura Albert answers similar questions to Reynal, covering her audition, her character, learning the strange dialogue, Sayadian’s direction, her castmates, working on the most transgressive scenes, revisiting the film for its restoration, and the possibility of changing the film post-#metoo (which seems like a nonsensical question to me, considering the film’s messaging).
Bongo His Glug-Glugs (9:43, HD) – In the final new interview, screenwriter Jerry Stahl briefly recalls conceiving the film and revisiting it during a Q&A, his other collaborations with Sayadian, TV’s cultural influence, creating the film’s strange language, and intended social commentary.
The images on this page are taken from the BD and sized for the page. Larger versions can be viewed by clicking the images. Note that there will be some JPG compression.