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Psychological Horror Film

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

This is one of the earliest horror classics and appears on virtually every list of the greatest horror movies ever made. Released in 1920 it was certainly a groundbreaking film at the time with it's bizarre impressionistic backgrounds and powerful twist ending and there is little doubt it advanced the genre. However for modern audiences it is far from an accessible piece of work. Filmed in grainy black and white on a stage set with a series of strange painted backdrops it is a silent film and consequently relies heavily on the text cards to convey what is going on. The story is unusually complex for a silent movie and it unfolds like a surreal nightmare.

We open with a man named Francis who recounts the tale of his friend Alan. We flashback to a local carnival where we meet Dr. Caligari and his mysterious cabinet. Within the cabinet lies a man named Cesare, a sleepwalking clairvoyant whom Caligari claims has the ability to tell the future. Caligari is able to wake him and Alan makes the mistake of asking when he will die, Cesare tells him he will die at dawn. When Alan is murdered Francis suspects Cesare did it under the command of Caligari and things get even messier when the fiancÚ of Francis, a girl named Jane, is kidnapped by Cesare. The townspeople give chase until Cesare drops dead from exhaustion and then Francis goes after the man he really believes was responsible, Caligari himself. They end up at an insane asylum for the shocking grand finale.

Hammy and melodramatic acting were common place in silent movies and this is no exception. Werner Krauss as Caligari is definitely the worst offender but Lil Dagover as Jane runs a close second. The action is accompanied by orchestral music which fits nicely and certainly adds to the drama.

To be honest I found the story quite confusing and while this was probably partly due to the medium it may also be down to the fact that the original screenplay written by Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer was significantly altered by the producer Erich Pommer.

The film was hugely influential and received universal critical praise for its expressionist style. It has been cited as an influence on the development of film noir and many of the horror elements and devices have been copied over the years. It is a shame but the familiarity of the ideas was another element which lessened the impact for me, while the film deserves praise for being the first to portray certain horror devices they have been used so often in subsequent films which I watched before seeing this that they have lost their evocative power.

Muddled story, thin characters and hammy acting aside this is visually unique and it is astounding what they were able to do with painted backdrops and a simple lighting rig. While it no longer has the power to really scare, it does create an eerie atmosphere and includes some memorable imagery.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is undoubtedly a landmark in the horror genre and essential viewing for students of film but I think casual horror fans are unlikely to enjoy it.

Short Review

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