Cinema/TV, Film Notes

Film review – Dr Caligari (1989)

My notes on Dr Caligari (1989)‘Call me sentimental, but when I see a fresh sheep trotter, I can’t help but think, “There is a god.”’

The only non-porn credit for writer-director Stephen Sayadian (aka Rinse Dream), this has all of the weird atmosphere and polymorphous perversity of his Café Flesh without the hardcore. Given that The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1919) is such a seminal picture, a key title in the evolution of the horror film and the experimental art movie, it’s a surprise that there haven’t been more follow-ups. This purports to feature the grand-daughter (Madeleine Reynal, with curious cadences) of the original doctor (whose brain shows up in her experiments) and is at least as valid an addition to the canon as the 1962 Cabinet of Caligari with Daniel O’Herlihy or the 2005 remix with Daamon Krall. The titles use stills from the Robert Weine film, probably ripped out of the Lorimer edition of the script, decorated with cake-icing swirls and lettering, and the whole film tries for an update of the artificial feel with stylised studio sets, harsh lighting and bizarrely unnaturalistic performances (which, along with the ranting dialogue, makes this seem a little like a stage ‘happening’ on film rather than a movie).

Dr C’s latest star patient is Mrs Van Houton (Laura Albert), an erotomaniac housewife with an extremely uptight husband (Gene Zerna), and her treatment somehow stretches to a scene in which a door opens disclosing a wall of flesh (including mouths) which Mrs Van H interacts with sensually. Meanwhile, the doctor’s partner Dr Avol (Fox Harris) is brainwashed to unleash his inner Mamie Van Doren, which upsets his daughter Ramona (Jennifer Balgobin) and son-in-law Dr Lodger (David Parry), who hope to take over the institute (its acronym is CIA and its slogan is ‘Better Living Thru Chemistry’). Also about the place are various weird patients, like the woman (punk singer Jennifer Miro) who keeps repeating ‘chinchilla chinchilla chinchilla’, a grinning cannibal (John Durbin) who is addicted to shock therapy and a new Cesare (Barry Phillips). We also get a sheep’s trotter being shaved on a dinner plate, a number of suppurating ankle wounds. After various crises and couplings, Mrs Van Houten and Dr Caligari exchange identities (a matter of passing on a wig).

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. Actually, this might have been more impressive if it ran to hardcore sex scenes or full-on musical numbers – it does seem that its major influence has been on Michael Ninn’s sequels to Café Flesh, which poach ideas and general tonal things from this. It features a few members of Alex Cox’s LA rep company and Abbe Wool, co-writer of Sid and Nancy, was production co-ordinator. The music, which prefigures Angelo Badalamenti’s David Lynch scores, is by Mitchell Froom, who did similar service on Café Flesh (and the Sayadian-scripted Nightdreams) and later wrote the title song for the Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies.


2 thoughts on “Film review – Dr Caligari (1989)

  1. Kim Newman I think Sayadian falls into a category – with Richard Elfman, Curt McDowell, Slava Tsukerman, Frank Henelotter, Chris Windsor and a few others – of fringe artists who were never going to make a lot of movies, and who we’d probably like less if they did wear out their welcome. I suppose David Cronenberg, David Lynch and Guy Maddin started out like them and did evolve into having something like careers.

    James Forrest Must confess that I found Dr. Caligari a great disappointment. This might have to do with the stage bound artificial feel that you mention and that it resembled a student film. In the end it annoyed me.
    To be fair, this could be why I was never a fan of Cafe Flesh, although watching it at the Scala on a double bill with Thundercrack, is one of my favourite movie memories.

    Stephen Bissette One of our CCS alumni loves to show DR CALIGARI every couple of years to unsuspecting students on movie nights. Though I have CAFE FLESH, and savored all the other Sayadian adult films during my video store manager years (we had ’em all in the adult room), I’ve never quite had the need to share the Sayadian experience. Love the films for what they are, but — well, again, they are what they are.

    Posted by kimnewman | November 29, 2018, 11:56 am
  2. A small but devoted cult following for Sayadian is assured. Whatever it’s flaws, this film is sure to delight a contingent of cineastes, with it’s way-out design, humour and punk/Alex Cox alumni. Elfman, McDowell, Tsukerman et al comparison completely valid. A cultural moment completely passed and very limited mainstream penetration. ‘Destroy All Movies’ and ‘The Weirdo Horror Film’ chapter of Nightmare Movies make a strong case for ‘punk’ movie as genre. Roots in underground cinema and reclaimed material of early to mid century. Looking back through crap-coloured glasses, seems like a golden, frozen moment, before the demands of the marketplace squeezed anything other than formula-variation out of the picture. Or maybe there was a concerted effort to stop Simon Dunkl in his sprocket wheels?

    Posted by William K | November 30, 2018, 2:47 am

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