Sometimes we lose track of the connection between film making and other forms of art. Today, horror movies seem so perfectly correct. So mechanic in their ability to provide proper lightning, anatomically correct bodies, and the perfect blood splatter to reveal the perfect crime. Frankly what was once innovative now seems drab. The perfect picture of a situation or feeling that is much more expressionist and imperfect in nature. That is what makes The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari so inviting, it is so different from what we are now used to.
The fact is that the unstable mind is nowhere near mechanic or perfect in nature. The doors are not square and the stairs don’t spiral up or down. Essentially, through every pair of eyes something different is revealed. During the 1920’s in Germany, where The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was created, nothing was what it seemed. Coming off World War I, the German population as a whole was reeling from death and severe economic depression. The arts began to reflect the sentiment of soldiers and citizens realizing that the world is not a utopia. German Expressionism was essentially born, which brought along subsets of artistic movements, including Dadaism.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a silent German Expressionist film that exploits the advantages of this new artistic movement and adapts it for horror fans. The narrative of the film is told through a frame story, meaning most of the movie is a flashback told by the main character, Francis (Friedrich Fehér). Francis and his friend, Alan, visit a local carnival together. There they meet the captivating Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss), who is exhibiting a somnambulist, Cesare. The doctor controls Cesare through hypnosis and wakes him up for the crowd to witness. Cesare has the ability to tell the future. Alan asks Cesare how long he will live, but the answer is not what he had hoped. It is predicted that Alan will die before dawn.
Of course, Alan dies before dawn and so begins the hunt for the killer. The twists and turns that occur during the movie will not be strange for hardened horror fans. In fact, many of the plot twists will seem cliché. Still, no matter what you do, don’t fall into the trap of thinking this 1920 silent film is boring and worth shutting off. The ending and ride as a whole is expertly crafted. Viewers will be drawn to the German Expressionist set designs, acting, and incredible sounds. With a lack of speaking, the music becomes the voice of the film. The score incorporates minimal sounds, guitar work, and jazz. You can argue that it is one of the best uses of sound in a horror film.
The sign of a great movie is the mark it leaves on future generations of horror directors. I see The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari in Hitchcockian films, found footage films, Tim Burton films, and even Scorsese films. It is the perfect blend between art and history. What is even more amazing about this film is its longevity. Even today, viewers can relate to the characters, scares, and designs.
Are there any negatives about this movie? Youngsters may be put off by the lack of color or sound, which over the course of an hour and ten minute movie can get a little bit boring for even the older crowds. Furthermore, while this movie may have a lasting effect, it doesn’t have a lot of repeat value. It is an experience that everyone should have once, but not necessarily over and over again.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari integrates history and art into an incredible film that every horror fan should watch. The fact that a silent film from 1920 can still generate scares and praise from viewers is overtly impressive. Modern horror films need to take heed; minimal effects and technology can still create a scary experience as long as you have skill and creativity.
If you liked The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, you might also like Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956).