Criminally Neglected: Dr. Caligari (1989) - Reviewed

Are you ready for possibly the weirdest, most insane movie ever made? Check out Chris Jordan's in-depth article about this should-be-cult-classic and find out.

Have you ever seen a film so absolutely, indescribably nuts that it renders you speechless? A movie that leaves you staring at the screen, mouth agape as the credits scroll, wearing a catatonic stare as you ask yourself, “what the hell did I just watch?” I'm not talking about a film that disturbs you into a state of shock; I'm talking about a film that is so utterly weird that you can barely comprehend how it was produced by a sane human mind. A film made with such unhinged imagination that probably no one besides its filmmakers had ever thought that way before. Think about films you've seen that made you feel that way. Think about a movie that you might be tempted to call the weirdest movie ever made. And then let me tell you that you're probably wrong; there's almost certainly a way weirder movie out there that you haven't seen yet... and it's called Dr. Caligari. No, not the 1920 landmark of German Expressionist cinema; I'm talking about its hallucinatory 1980s counterpart that seems like it fell through a rift from another dimension where everyone is utterly mad. Strap yourself in: we're going deep into the annals of obscure film history to unearth the strangest movie you've almost certainly never seen.

Stephen Sayadian and Jerry Stahl's Dr. Caligari is a difficult film to describe, as mere words cannot do it justice. It is a nightmare produced by a troubled mind, which follows no internal logic except that of a bad dream. It is extremely unsettling, yet also campy and darkly funny. Its art design is eye-poppingly surreal while also minimalist. Its acting isn't “good” in an objective sense, but it is exactly what it needs to be. Its script willfully avoids making sense in a way that recalls William S. Burroughs, yet is very, very quotable. It's the sort of movie that you can't fully be prepared for until you've experienced it yourself. I am unsure of whether it can truly be said to have a “plot” in the typical sense, but such as it has one, it revolves around the inmates and doctors who inhabit the Caligari Insane Asylum, a dystopian hospital in a nightmare world. The star patients are a chronically-hallucinating nymphomaniac (Laura Albert) and a creepily cheerful cannibal (John Durbin), and the hospital staff is caught in a tug-of-war between the obviously crazy Dr. Caligari (Madeleine Reynal) and her merely really weird chief of staff (Fox Harris, best known as the lobotomized scientist from Repo Man). The journey these characters go on is less a linear story and more of a slippery and surreal tumble through a bad dream about sex and madness and death and repression, full of haunting images and hilariously non-sequitur dialogue.

"This is the cell where we keep the viewers
who lost their minds after seeing this movie."
In a way, what director Stephen Sayadian has done with Dr. Caligari is take expressionist filmmaking to its absurd (though perhaps logical) conclusion. Just a year before this film, Tim Burton brought the sharp angles and deep shadows of German Expressionism crashing into the 1980s with Beetlejuice, giving the art form a hyper-stylized neon facelift. Dr. Caligari takes what Burton did to extreme reaches, going back to the art form's silent film roots and modernizing it with a fierce, gleefully excessive vengeance. No, this film is not silent... but Sayadian directs his actors to deliver all their lines in the stilted, exaggerated, not-entirely-human manner that silent film actors had to use to overcompensate for their inability to speak. Doing this in speaking roles is really, really bizarre, and it serves both to deliberately call attention to the artificiality of the whole thing, and to further cultivate the nightmare-like quality of it all. They are real, live people who somehow have dove right into the Uncanny Valley. It's a bravely weird choice, but for what the film is going for, it really works. Sayadian's art design, meanwhile (yes, he also is the film's production designer), looks like it came from Burton's psychotic evil twin. Sharp, angular set-pieces painted in bright neon colors populate the environments, in stark contrast to the pervasive sense of gloom created by the shadows. These set-pieces float isolated in a black void, embracing the artificiality of the production's sound-stage environment while also further adding to the contrast of color and darkness. Into these scenes come visuals which are truly the stuff of nightmares: a wall of flesh with a giant mouth and tongue, a birthday cake with internal organs, a man with a baby doll's head and a straight-razor. Much of the imagery is extremely psychosexual in a way that's reminiscent of a possibly-even-weirder David Cronenberg; the emphasis is definitely on the “psycho.”

Equally unpredictable and bizarrely psychosexual is the script, by Sayadian and Jerry Stahl. It has no desire to ground its madness in any sort of rational reality, and offers no sane characters to provide audience identification. It simply dives headlong into craziness, as if to simulate for viewers the experience of being immersed in a hallucination, or losing their minds. I mean all this as a compliment: while this approach to writing certainly won't be for everyone, it is ultimately what allows Dr. Caligari to stand alone as a truly unique film. The only other movie I can think of with a script so immersively mad is Eraserhead, but this may even be stranger: Eraserhead at least is set in a clearly recognizable nightmare vision of blue-collar America, while Caligari's universe doesn't even have a clear real-world analog. Stahl's dialogue is as deliberately stilted as the performances delivering it, with lines that are so bizarre that viewers will find them as endlessly quotable as they are head-scratching. Lines like “Describe your life in three words or less.” “Un. Ending. Torment.” Or “pleasure will short your circuits; I could leave you an erotic husk.” Or one character's sole refrain of “Chinchilla! Chinchilla! Chinchilla!”

Lynch, Cronenberg, and Tarsem...
eat your surrealist hearts out.
At the time he was writing this, Jerry Stahl was living under the influence of a severe drug addiction, which he later chronicled in his autobiography Permanent Midnight, the film adaptation of which starred Ben Stiller as Stahl. His script for Caligari has a distinctly William Burroughs-esque feel to it, in the unnatural dialogue and strange, fractured logic of the not-quite-narrative, and one cannot help but wonder if his heavy substance abuse at the time contributed to the similarity of style and sensibility. It seems likely that it had some effect; after all, the film basically does play out rather like a bad drug experience. But it's equally possible that the similarity is simply the result of the two writers thinking along a common anarchic and avant-garde wavelength; it definitely would take a very particularly warped creative mind to come up with this stuff, regardless of how that mind might be altered. After Stahl got sober, he wrote a bunch of episodes of CSI, the second of which (2001's Slaves of Las Vegas) introduces a character he created: the philosophical dominatrix Lady Heather. With her poetic monologues about the philosophy of BDSM, Lady Heather seems like she dropped in straight from the world of Dr. Caligari (albeit filtered through the more accessible lens of network TV), leading me to draw the conclusion that while drugs may have amped up the weirdness of Stahl's screenwriting, the ideas, sensibility, and dark humor are all his own. But either way, Dr. Caligari is Jerry Stahl's very own Naked Lunch: his career-landmark fractured masterpiece. Make no mistake: it isn't all just quotable weirdness and hallucinatory situations. There's a lot going on in this script on the idea level, even if it is often a bit hazy.

There are a lot of compelling themes kicking around in Dr. Caligari's mad world, at least in fragments: themes about the hypocrisy of American sexual repression, about the fluidity of sexuality and gender expression, and about the existential pain of gender dysphoria. The central philosophy of the film seems to be that the complexities and ambiguities and multifacetedness of sexuality and gender are essential to the human experience, but the ways that our uptight society tries to force those things into neat and polite boxes are not only mad, but breed madness in those who try to abide by such social mores. In other words, “polite” society is insane, so why drive yourself even more insane than you probably already are by repressing essential parts of your identity? As Dr. Caligari says, “you've got to learn to just say yes,” to your madness and your sexuality. As with everything else in the film, Sayadian and Stahl approach the themes in such an unhinged, scattershot, lunatic way that you have to go a bit mad yourself to approach it all from an analytic standpoint, but these ideas are certainly there in potent, jarring flashes. As with its approach to narrative, the film doesn't really tell you these things so much as it lets them wash over you, like a deeply unsettling dream that you know is tapping into important issues in your psyche, but that is doing so in a somewhat oblique way that makes it as difficult to pin down as it is haunting.

Why can't more reboots be like this?
Sayadian and Stahl had previously collaborated, exploring similar themes and art styles, on a piece of transgressive cinema called Cafe Flesh, which experimented with the use of pornographic content for ironic purposes of social commentary (though the experiment yielded only debatably successful, if oddly compelling, results). Dr. Caligari was meant to be their debut feature calling-card to announce their arrival to the midnight cult crowd. It should have marked the start of a brilliant career of strange movies for the duo of provocateurs... but alas, it was not to be. As it stands, this is their last collaboration, and the only wide-release film that they made together. Shortly after this, Stephen Sayadian became very ill, and dropped out of the film industry to recover. After writing a few episodes of Alf and Twin Peaks, Jerry Stahl likewise dropped out of film for a while to get clean, but re-emerged in the early-2000s as a successful screenwriter in his own right. His screenplays include Bad Boys II and the Nicole Kidman and Clive Owen vehicle Hemmingway & Gellhorn, in addition to his recurring TV work. Sayadian has yet to make any similar public comeback, but it is worth noting that his career in the 1980s is quite a bit more substantial than just Caligari and Cafe Flesh; in fact, you've probably seen some Stephen Sayadian art without even knowing it was his. He directed music videos throughout the '80s, including The Ramones' Pyscho Therapy, Weird Al's I Lost on Jeopardy, Rockwell's Somebody's Watching Me, and Wall Of Voodoo's Mexican Radio – all of which bear his very unique visual style. He also was a prolific designer of movie posters, including the iconic one-sheets for Tobe Hooper's The Funhouse, Brian DePalma's Dressed To Kill, and John Carpenter's The Fog.

With the unique vision and talent on display in all of those works – especially the glimpses of what he could do with a larger budget in the Ramones and Rockwell music videos – it is all the more unfortunate that Dr. Caligari stands at Stephen Sayadian's last film, when it should have been his first big one. But on the other hand, if he is going to go down in history as a one-major-film director, at least that one film is spectacularly unique. More unfortunate still is that this one film has been allowed to fade so far into obscurity: it has been out of print since the mid-1990s, with its rare VHS and even rarer laserdisc commanding insanely high prices, while no official DVD release is anywhere in sight. While a film this audaciously unusual certainly won't be for everyone, it deserves to be more well-known – and more easily seen – in cult cinema circles. A company like Severin, Synapse, or Arrow really needs to give it a blu-ray restoration and get it back in print; it seems like something they (and their customers) would snap up in a heartbeat, but perhaps it has faded so far into the netherworld of obscurity that it isn't even on their radar. In the mean time it is at least relatively easy to see without having to buy an overpriced used tape or bootleg DVD-R, as it can usually be found – unofficially, of course – on streaming sites like YouTube. If you're lucky you may even be able to locate a version that is sourced from its quite nice-looking (though still sadly fullscreen) laserdisc transfer, which is a definite step up over the more common VHS rips.

"This is your brain on VHS."
Still, a film this unique deserves better than to only be available through bootlegs. Perhaps the best way to encourage a cult-savvy blu-ray label to rescue Dr. Caligari from its sad fate is to get word of the film back out there, and to rekindle its cult status via the streaming versions that currently circulate. Getting in touch with those labels about the film couldn't hurt either; given its unusual level of obscurity, it's totally possible that they might not even know it exists. If this is your first time learning about the good Dr. Caligari and her asylum, do yourself a favor and locate a version to watch... if you're feeling brave. I've done my best to describe the film and its context, but no words can really do it justice, or prepare you for the one-of-a-kind experience that you're in for when you watch it. It's a trip that you have to take for yourself. You may not be the same after Caligari has experimented on you... but that's because you will have experienced something totally unique, which is a rare thing to find in a movie.

Chinchilla! Chinchilla! Chinchilla!


- Christopher S. Jordan