It’s December, which on this blog means… more Caligari movies? Hm. Last year, December was nothing but Christmas and/or winter holiday movies, but this year I’m breaking that pattern up a bit. See, I’ve been meaning to do these three Caligari movies for months now, so I’m forcing myself to do them now. Santa and all that will be coming eventually, but so will at least one break from the format since Spider-Man: No Way Home is coming out this month. With that out of the way, let’s dive into The Cabinet of Caligari, a movie hampered by its title.
What is the original The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari about? A bit rhetorical since I covered it a few days ago, but it’s largely about a mad scientist who uses a sleepwalker to commit murders, with a twist (I’ll get to that soon enough). That’s absolutely not the plot here. Jane (Mrs. Glynis Johns, AKA Mrs. Banks in Mary Poppins) is stuck at the mansion of the sinister Caligari after her car breaks down. There are some sympathetic characters who want to help her, but Caligari is cruel and unfeeling, seemingly taking joy in her mental anguish. But what’s really going on?
Then the title spoils it all. There’s no sleepwalker, but we do have a Caligari. This movie I guess thought it was sneaky by avoided adding “Doctor” to its title, but the groundwork is already there. The original Caligari was a cruel man who was revealed to actually be the head of a mental institution the main character was in, and that’s the twist for this movie as well. Did they really think no one was going to figure it out after the first few minutes? Did they really think that adding a fake beard and wig would fool anyone into not recognizing that the cruel Caligari and the helpful Paul have the exact same voice? Because yeah, turns out Jane had a mental breakdown, and everything she experienced was an intensive form of therapy to snap her back to reality. It worked, but there’s no way in hell a licensed doctor could get away with that today. Seriously, the movie bends over backwards at the end to say that these borderline inhuman tactics were good, actually, because they worked.
The story isn’t necessarily bad, but by throwing the “Caligari” name in the title, it tips its hand too much and spoils the ending way, way too early. Like, imagine a movie called A Sixth Sense about a psychologist who gets attacked at the very beginning and then deals with weird patients for the rest of the movie, but at the end it’s revealed he’s been dead the whole time. Would that really surprise anyone since The Sixth Sense is so well known? Hell, The Cabinet of Caligari doesn’t even have a cabinet! Writer Robert Bloch–the writer of the novel Psycho as well as a friend of HP Lovecraft’s–says the director, Roger Kay, ignored his script and did his own thing, and that would make sense for this unfortunate film that doesn’t know what it really wants to do.
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