Judge George Hatch advises you to promptly lock this cabinet and throw away the key.
Was someone suffering from a case of writer's Bloch?
First, let's talk about ripoffs.
When Psycho was released in 1961, the clever advertising insisted that No one, NO ONE, will be admitted into the theatre after the start of each performance. Later that same year, ballyhoo-meister William Castle used another approach for his ripoff, er, homage, titled Homicidal. His promotion alerted audiences that toward the end of the film, there would be a "Fright Break" for anyone who felt they might be too terrified to watch the finale. You can follow the yellow line down the aisle to Coward's Corner and your full admission fee will be promptly refunded.
Advertising hucksters decided to combine the best of both campaigns for 1962's The Cabinet of Caligari, and came up with a movie tagline that warned folks, No one will be permitted in or out of the theater during the last thirteen nerve-shattering minutes! After watching the recently released DVD of The Cabinet of Caligari, I think any passersby who showed even a vague interest in the film's lobby cards would have been immediately offered a discount admission fee, some popcorn, and soda, and hauled in anytime during the movie just fill some seats. And those same people may have ripped out their seats and used them to bully their way past any dedicated ushers who tried to keep them inside the theater after the first 13 minutes of this miserable film.
The Cabinet of Caligari was written by Robert Bloch, whose notoriety was boosted beyond a small group of pulp fiction connoisseurs into a household name after the success of Psycho. I have no idea why this title was chosen, but the film has no connection whatsoever with the landmark German Expressionist classic, The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari (1920), directed by Robert Wiene. I'd like to cite this as another ripoff, but I wonder how many average theatergoers are familiar with the original film?
Yes, there are a few disorienting visuals and surreal off-kilter frame alignments during a dream sequence. Also, the set design of the "cabinet"—or house—of the new Caligari owes as much to Edgar G. Ulmer's visionary The Black Cat (1934) as it does to the 1920 film. What's missing in The Cabinet of Caligari is a decent, coherent storyline and characters we care about.
On a sunny afternoon, the carefree Jane Lindstrom (Glynis Johns, Mary Poppins: 40th Anniversary Edition) gets a flat tire and makes her way to the estate of a sinister man named Caligari (Dan O'Herlihy, Fail-Safe), who welcomes her with open arms as if he'd been expecting her. Caligari and his assistant, Christine (Constance Ford, All Fall Down), invite Jane to stay the night. "You're obviously exhausted from your journey, and we have plenty of room."
Jane is introduced to several other "guests" who appear friendly, but remain secretive about their relationships with the mysterious Caligari. When Caligari refuses to let Jane retrieve her car the next morning, she tries to call for help, but there's a lock on the telephone dial. She confides in the sympathetic but dotty old Ruth (Estelle Winwood, Dead Ringer), and learns that they are all virtual prisoners under Caligari's control. Ruth says she knows a secret escape route, and will give Jane the details at their next meeting. That night Jane is awakened by screams, and discovers the elderly Ruth being tortured and beaten by her own husband (!), who is under the mesmerizing spell of Caligari.
The next morning, Caligari summons Jane to his private office to question her about what she claims to have seen. To enter, Jane has to push her way through a revolving glass door. "The door is neutral," says Caligari. "It neither rejects nor permits entry. The choice is yours, Jane." These meetings quickly become part of Jane's regular daily schedule as Caligari probes her subconscious. He shows her purportedly pornographic images that disgust her, and she catches him spying on her from a ceiling vent while she's in the bathtub. During subsequent interviews, Caligari asks her to expound on the intimate details of her sexual relationships with men. Whenever she races for the revolving door, he locks it and imprisons her in a "glass cage" until she's willing to cooperate.
Meanwhile, the handsome young Mark (Richard Davalos, East of Eden) has also offered to help Jane escape, but he rarely shows up as promised. When he arrives late, he brings her presents as apologies, like a fragile music box that plays a tune which Jane finds oddly familiar, conjuring up childhood memories.
In their final confrontation, Caligari shatters Jane's psychological facade, and she experiences a montage of flashbacks, but these surreal and hallucinatory visions raise more questions than answers.
Scripter Robert Bloch must have been typing on autopilot when he wrote The Cabinet of Caligari, with its many resemblances to Psycho: A stranded young woman seeking shelter in a foreboding residence, and a proprietor who's a Peeping Tom watching a woman undress down to a white bra and half slip. Even the Oedipal references are rehashed. You have only to check the names of the characters at IMDb for the spoilers.
On the plus side, Fox's 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer looks spectacular. Cinematographer John L. Russell (Park Row) has an assured eye for widescreen composition and makes the best of the sets and material he was given. The viewer has the option of watching the film in its original aspect ratio or a pan-and-scan version on the flip side of the disc. Both the Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo and Mono sound terrific, and Gerald (The Grissom Gang) Fried's score is one of the best contributions to this otherwise dismal film. The original theatrical trailer is also included.
I grew up during the 1960s and have both fond and disturbing memories of films I saw at an impressionable age. I can now look back at some, such as The Alligator People and Dead Ringer, and view them as camp classics. Others, like Lady in a Cage, are still provocative because of their bold and disconcerting content.
But The Cabinet of Caligari remains a loser in my book.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
• Original Theatrical Trailer
Review content copyright © 2005 George Hatch; Site design and review layout copyright © 2013 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.