The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (remix)

Ryan Daley’s Review:

1919’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a staple of early 20th century silent cinema, an incredibly slow but visually intriguing film that served as a sort of launching point for German Expressionism. Most viewers are subjected to this yawner during a community college film class, or on PBS during one of those rum-and-coke nights when it’s just too much damned work to change the channel. Director David Lee Fisher has crafted a solemn, reverential remake of this ancient classic; as a director, he has respectfully accomplished the disquieting task of retaining the memorable mood and tone of the original film while still managing to showcase his own creative vision.

The Kraut original begins with a framing story, as an emotionally damaged man, Francis, tells the story of Dr. Caligari and his “somnambulist”, Cesare, who can allegedly predict the future.

Dr. Caligari attempts to secure a permit to show his sleepwalker exhibit at the Annual Fair at Holstenwall, a decidedly parabolic German village. The moody town clerk snubs Dr. Caligari a couple of times before begrudgingly granting his permit, only to find himself stabbed to death later in the evening.

Enter best buddies Frances and Alan, two men in love with the same woman, Jane. Jane is sack-tickling both men with the promise of nuptials, but the men vow to be B.F.F. no matter whom she chooses. The compadres swing by the Annual Fair in Holstenwall and stumble upon Dr. Caligari’s booth. The men are intrigued and join the audience, only to be royally bummed out when Cesare predicts that Alan is going to die before dawn arrives. Sure enough, later that evening Alan’s murder is conveyed via grappling shadows on the wall (I guess that’s the way things went down in 1919), and the aggressively inept local authorities are all over the case.

There is a 3rd murder attempt in the streets and a local deviant is captured; the authorities are certain that they’ve got their man. Unfortunately, the authorities are total Keystone Kops-era fuck-ups and it only takes about 10 scratched frames before the real killer, Cesare, is climbing through Jane’s bedroom window and throwing her over his shoulder. Chased by the local townsfolk, Cesare abandons Jane and falls to his death. The cops can’t figure out how Cesare managed to abduct Jane since he was witnessed sleeping in his wooden cabinet the whole evening. Turns out Dr. Caligari is a crafty motherfucker who decided to put a fake Cesare dummy in the cabinet during the nights that Cesare decided to go out murdering. Dr. Caligari is pursued into an insane asylum and in a strangely topical twist, it turns out that he’s the asylum’s director, with Francis as his patient, which totally explains all the wacked-out expressionistic set design.

Fisher’s remake is a loving and painstakingly crafted reimagining of this ground-breaking original. Using the same set designs and shooting in a lush and respectful black and white, Fisher updates his version with dialogue and fleshes out his characters with a fair amount of background. For instance, in Fisher’s update Francis is worried about Alan going off his meds, so they’re going to the Annual Fair at Holsenwall to get totally fucked up; they toot huge 40s of booze while tottering around the merry-go-round and organ grinder. Dr. Caligari’s encounter with the town clerk is expanded with overtones of disenfranchisement, as the town clerk isn’t openly willing to deal with “carnival types.” And speaking of fleshing out his characters, Fisher’s Jane is far more beautiful and alluringly busty than her 1919 countertype, her salacious C-cups serving as an antidote to the melancholy chiaroscuro.

Both versions feature stunning black-and-white visuals but the pacing of Fisher’s version is a little easier to grow accustomed to. It should be noted that the primary strength of Fisher’s movie lies in its ability to reinterpret the original. Without having seen the 1919 version, Fisher’s film might come across as an overwrought yet well-produced Drama Club experiment. But the respect he shows for the original silent version transforms Fisher’s movie into a companion piece rather than an homage. For classic horror film fans, Fisher’s update is indispensable, a glorious reimagining of one of cinema’s most influential movies.

Tex Massacre’s Review

As grade school students, we were once reminded of the importance of the three “R’s”. As movie goers, many years removed from our pencils and books, studio executives and filmmakers who secretly continue our educational experiences have brought about a new batch of similarly connected studies—Remakes, Reimaginings and now, The Remix. The Remix is film as Hip-Hop. It exists as the idea that you can sample cinema and breath new life into it. Think about Woody Allen’s 1966 feature WHAT’S UP TIGER LILLY, where the venerable funnyman took the Japanese spy film “INTERNATIONAL SECRET POLICE: KEY OF KEYS and by virtue of replacing the entire dialogue track changed the film into a wild comedy about the secrets of egg salad. Essentially, the film remained unscathed; still the experience is akin to singing Queen’s classic Under Pressure to Vanilla Ice’s self-aggrandizing boasts. While Director David Lee Fisher is hardly responsible for a crime as heinous as Ice Ice Baby, his “remix” of Robert Weine’s 1920 masterwork THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI is surly set to ruffle a few purists tail feathers.

Perhaps the greatest controversy of the last several cinematic years was committed when cult director Gus Van Sant decided to film Alfred Hitchcock’s Pièce de résistance PSYCHO as a shot for shot remake. Cinéastes cried foul and virtually no one patroned the project when it arrived to the jeering masses. Fisher courts the same type of fears as he has attempted something that would seem impossible only a few short decades ago. The first-time filmmaker has digitally scanned all of the set design from Weine’s film and superimposed a current cast to recreate one of the most sacred pieces of German Expressionism ever committed to celluloid. And what will the most controversial aspect of this production be? It’s simply the fact that not only does Fischer manage to move German Expressionism forward 90-years, he does so as the most sincere form of homage.

Truth be told, the original Caligari was more inventive for it’s breathtakingly garish backdrops and stark lighting schemes, looking like a Salvador Dali nightmare of bent buildings landscaping a bleak world of carnival sideshow charlatans and imposing authoritarian order. Since Fisher leaves the entirety of the original ambience intact, his actors have only the task of populating it. That Fisher’s cast is afforded the opportunity to voice their thoughts over the once silent film, does little service in either direction to the final product. Expressionism by virtue of it’s name alone dictates that the focus is on the visual and in that manner, a shot-by-shot recreation is the ultimate solution to the quandary of whether or not a new millennium filmmaker can approximate a style of production that passed its prime decades before most of the current viewing audience was born.

As the plot has not changed in this latest version, the story once again centers on Francis Geist’s (Judson Pearce Morgan) quest to protect his ladylove Jane (Lauren Birkell) from the dastardly clutches of the evil Dr. Caligari (Daamen Krall) and his equally terrifying sideshow somnambulist Cesare (Doug Jones). Again, the filmmaker takes no liberty with the story here and the original twist ending remains intact in all its glory. The key to the success of the Remix is only that Fisher approximates the original so closely. If it does nothing else, the film might just send newer genre fans scurrying to the back catalogue of Fritz Lang, F.W. Murnau and G.W. Pabst.

Ultimately it could be argued that David Lee Fisher brings nothing new to the table and effectively the same thing could be achieved if you blue screened Buster Keaton’s THE GENERAL and added Jim Carrey into the mix as the put-upon Confederate soldier Johnny Gray. What I think the filmmaker has achieved is something a bit more interesting. The Remix version of THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI may not be poured over in film school classes on Theory or Art like the original, but it may just serve as a brilliant and unsuspecting bridge between the world of what once passed for popular entertainment and what the post-MTV-jump-cut-masses find fits their attention deficient addled brains. And, I think that any doors that can be opened to cinema as art are thresholds that should be crossed with unreserved abandon.

Official Score