The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’ is considered one of the most important horror films of the silent film era. It’s ability to invoke an authentically haunting mood and maintaining a genuine mystery is a marvel even over 100 years later.
In a small German town, a local fair is beginning to set up. It is to feature rides, food vendors, and entertainment acts. Local scientist Dr. Caligari goes to the town to acquire a permit to showcase his spectacle – somnambulism (AKA ‘sleepwalking’). He is in possession of a cabinet which holds a mystery man named Cesare who has been sleeping his entire 23 years of life. The Dr. is able to awake him in front of a crowd where he then foretells prophecies – supposedly with the ability to know the past, present, and future. A man named Mr. Alan steps up to ask the first and only question which is, “how long do I have to live?” Cesare responds by saying he will be dead by dawn, and his foretelling turns to be accurate. For the next few days, miscellaneous crimes and murders sporadically happen at night leaving the town in disarray.
One local man, Mr. Francis, who is Mr. Alan’s best friend, wants to get to the bottom of this and he has a weird suspicion about the Dr. and the Somnambulist in question.
This movie was awesome! All of the set design look like full sized staged sets – and there is well over 30 or 40 of them – and they are beautiful to look at it. Most of them are built at off-kilter side angles which give them a surreal, almost Tim Burton-esque vibe, which adds to the sepia black & white tone and the silence of the film. The music bounces back and forth from traditional creepy low-end piano, to almost comical carnival faire. The story is broken into six acts and the film sweeps by in only 76 minutes.
The design of Somnambulist Cesare is pretty scary with a lot of eyeliner and a white-out face, and all the costumes are lovely and aesthetic for the period. This is literally a slice of time that has stayed preserved and retained its potency. While it doesn’t feature any traditional violence or big jump scares, this movie has a very foreboding atmosphere that sweeps you in and rattles your nerves.
The story itself dives into rather unusual territory, ending with the final 2 acts being a grand explanation and pulling back to reveal a bigger picture ordeal that allows the piece to be completely coherent without shedding any dread that reeks off of the characters.
It’s not hard to tell why this movie has the staying power it still has. While it’s arguably not as visceral as say, ‘Nosferatu’, it features the same sort of set up and execution that allows it to be a thoroughly enjoyable time. If you are interested at all in seeing how the basics of horror cinema came to be, I highly suggest this one. It has a good pace and plenty of wonderful set design that alone make the film worth a viewing.
“The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” is currently streaming on Shudder.
‘Til Next Time,