Monday, June 21, 2010

Dr. Caligari (1989)

Directed by Stephen Sayadian
Starring Madeleine Reynal, Laura Albert, Gene Zerna
Rated R

"My feelings are like filthy prayers. I want to scream in your face."

To many, writer and director
Steven Sayadian may better be known by his pseudonym, Rinse Dream. As Rinse Dream, Sayadian primarily created adult films. A few of his better known features include 1981's Nightdreams and 1982's Cafe Flesh. While these were strictly hardcore affairs, his unique style was still heavily apparent and earned him a certain amount of respect as an innovator in the porn world.

Aside from his adult film career, Sayadian's legacy may best be represented by the otherworldly mind fuck that is his 1989 cult classic, Dr. Caligari. To accurately describe this movie with words is impossible, but a few adjectives that come to mind when approaching this one-of-a-kind film are surreal, perverse, bizarre and nightmarish. Beyond that, all I can attempt to do is convey the story as best I can and hope that you, the reader, will seek out this criminally ignored masterpiece of the avant-garde to experience for yourself.

Let me first point out that the dialogue sounds a lot like drug-fueled poetry mixed together with Beck lyrics, for example, “I'm a juice dog...I’m a twitching skee-ball...and you won’t let me shiver," and "I see that face and I'm a love-slut, uh-huh."
While outwardly a lot of the lines make little sense, they somehow come together perfectly in this world where insanity is logical and reality is nothing but an illusion. These madcap verses are only made more punctuated by the overly expressionistic, theatrical hand gestures and body postures that accompany them.

As far as story goes, the plot revolves around Dr. Caligari herself, played masterfully by
Madeleine Reynal
, who sadly has never acted before or since this feature. The enigmatic Caligari (granddaughter of the infamous Dr. Caligari from the 1920 silent film, "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari") is a doctor at the Caligari Insane Asylum (or C.I.A. for short). The doctor's techniques for treatment are highly experimental and considered dangerous by many of her colleagues.

The film opens with one of Caligari's current patients, Mrs. Eleanor Van Houten (Laura Albert) experiencing a hallucinatory episode that includes a straight razor wielding Kewpie doll-faced man, her masturbating to herself on TV, and a pus filled boil erupting on her ankle. It is made quite apparent that Eleanor is having some issues.

It turns out that Mrs. Van Houten is suffering from a "disease of the libido", as Caligari describes it. In simple terms, Eleanor and her husband Les (Gene Zerna) are having intimacy issues that are due to Mrs. Van Houten's sudden nymphomaniacal leanings. They used to have a traditional suburban lovelife, but now Les doesn't know what to do with his lust driven wife. This is where Dr. Caligari comes in.

After an unsuccessful stint of more traditional therapy, Dr. Caligari decides to take things a step further and installs an implementation into Eleanor's forehead so that she can infuse her brain with the hypothalamus fluids from another of her patients - a cannibalistic child killer with a penchant for electrocution - by the name of Gus Pratt (played with maniacal giddiness by John Durbin). In an attempt to kill two birds with one stone, Dr. Caligari prescribes the same treatment for Mr. Pratt. This operation serves to radically switch the prime personalities of the two patients, turning Gus into a spank happy horndog, and Mrs. Van Houten into a flesh hungry psychopath.

In Caligari's mind, this procedure solves the problem nicely (or at the very least has entertaining results), but to the ethically minded Nurse Ramona (Jennifer Balgobin) and Dr. Adrian Lodger (David Parry), such madness must be stopped. The couple's goal is to expose Caligari's evil ways, with or without the help of overly trusting hospital director and father of Ramona, Dr. Avol (Fox Harris).
As for how everything culminates from here, I'll have to leave that for you to find out.

In case my review didn't make it evident, I love this movie. Although I find it futile to do Dr. Caligari justice by writing about it, I hope I have intrigued you enough to at least give it a watch. I'm pretty sure you'll never see anything like it again (Richard Elfman's Forbidden Zone is probably the closest thing I can think of), but if you do, make sure to let me know.

Unfortunately, the only legitimate copy of this movie on DVD is nothing more than a generic cased VHS rip available from Excaliber Films, but the quality is pretty good and it's only $4.94. Here's the link:

I don't know the politics behind why this hasn't gotten the royal treatment that such labels as Blue Underground or Subversive Cinema have given so many other nearly forgotten classics, but in the meantime go pick up a copy from Excaliber, sit back, and enjoy the ride.

- Jeremy Vaca

1 comment:

  1. Ah yes, Dr. Caligari. My friend was kind enough to loan me his VHS of this fine, fine obscurity a few years back. Why can't all movies be this friggin' weird?


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