Life on Venus — The Films of Rinse Dream, Part 3

How long must we as polite bloggers wait before openly spoiling the plot of a movie? Does the need for warnings ever go away? I can see both sides of the argument when it comes to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. One person may say it’s over a hundred years old. If you really wanted to watch it, you would have by now. Film has changed a lot since then. You’d probably just think it’s boring and outdated anyway. It’s been imitated, remade, endlessly analyzed… it’s enmeshed in the fabric of pop culture. That makes it fair game. Another person may argue that it’s still highly watchable. The classics never go out of style, and everybody should see it because it’s important. Not all of us have unlimited free time to cross every title off our “to watch” lists. Not all of us own it, or realize that it’s streaming on multiple apps. If that’s you, here’s your chance to stop reading and get your priorities straight.

Credit: The Simpsons, Disney

In the silent film classic, the title character hypnotizes a man named Cesare (typically pronounced chay-zar-ay) into killing for him. The word “somnambulist”, meaning “sleepwalker”, is used to describe Cesare, though he’s more of a Rip Van Winkle type, said to have slept continuously for twenty-three years. He is awoken for the first time during a demonstration at the Holstenwall town fair, where he ominously predicts a spectator will perish by sunrise. “Cabinet” refers to an upright coffin he’s kept in while sleeping. As the protagonist finds out, Caligari is actually the director of an insane asylum, recreating a series of murders he read about in an old text and became obsessed with. Caligari isn’t even his name. He adopted it from the tome. Cesare is a patient of his. The story can be seen as an allegory for blindly following authority. We all know how that worked out for the Germans.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is the most enduring example of the German expressionist film movement, an outgrowth of the greater expressionist movement, which favored subjectivity over objectivity, thoughts and emotions over realism. Its set design is a timeless work of art. The sharp architectural angles, shadows, and disorienting perspective reflect the unstable state of mind of the characters. It feels like the buildings are about to collapse at any moment, bringing the world down with them, creating a sense of unnease. The movie’s impact is still being felt a century later. It was highly influential on the horror and film-noir genres. In fact, it’s considered one of the first true horror films, predating Nosferatu and others that come to mind. It was also instrumental in getting the post-WWI ban on German films lifted in France. Cesare, with his black and white makeup and tight, black outfit, may have inspired the goth scene, as well as Tim Burton.

Credit: TwiTV, YouTube

I mentioned Rob Zombie in my last two posts, so I might as well mention him here. As I recall, my first exposure to Caligari was through Zombie’s “Living Dead Girl” music video, which mimics the most iconic parts. It stars a little-known actress named His Wife, who he never cast again.

1989’s Dr. Caligari is like the original’s half-sibling. You wouldn’t know they’re related unless someone told you, but once you do, you can sorta see the resemblance. It’s among the top weirdest movies I’ve seen, more of a mind fuck than learning that Shaggy is actually the unintelligible rapper on “Angel” and “It Wasn’t Me”, and that the clean vocals were done by two different guest singers.

It was written by Stephen Sayadian and Jerry Stahl under their real names. Sayadian also directed, production-designed, and art-directed. It’s the only non-pornographic title he helmed. Ironically, it was produced by Gerald Steiner, the owner of a mail-order porn company.

Welcome to the final post in this series. For Part 1, detailing Nightdreams 1-3, click here. For Part 2, detailing Cafe Flesh, click here.

Sayadian’s quasi-sequel was set into motion when Steiner caught a dream sequence he did for an unreleased film titled Nursery Crimes (Where is this? Somebody please find it!). Steiner was impressed by Sayadian’s unique visual style and approached him to write and direct something for him. Sayadian advised Steiner to watch the two films he’d already made. Steiner did so and proposed an R-rated remake of Nightdreams. Sayadian wasn’t thrilled about the idea, but set to work on a script. Two weeks later, Steiner decided he wanted to use a variation of the title “Dr. Caligari” because it was in the public domain and was something people would recognize. Sayadian was against this. He countered with “Caligari a Go-Go”, thinking it would give the production a psychedelic feel. Steiner shot down the suggestion. Sayadian held onto the suffix and pulled it back out for Party Doll a Go-Go Parts 1 & 2. “Party Doll” is a term he took from a 1950s song and first used in Cafe Flesh. He likes to recycle and further develop ideas.

Either Steiner insisting on linking the project to Robert Wiene’s masterpiece was a total coincidence, or he saw the parallels between it and Sayadian’s work. Nightdreams, for example, was shot completely indoors on sets and takes place in a sanitarium, just like TCoDC. Their endings are also quite similar. Moreover, Sayadian had been using irregular angles since at least 1984 (see “Pavlov’s Dream II”) and sometimes cakes his models’/actors’ faces in white makeup, like Cesare, for added contrast.

The budget for Dr. Caligari was initially $100,000. After a few days of photography, Steiner liked what he saw and bumped it up to $165,000. Or $175,000. He later claimed half a million to attract more lucrative distribution offers. Some sources climb as high three-quarters of a million. It was shot in a soundstage owned by The Doors’ Ray Manzarek. You won’t see a single exterior shot. Not one. There were five weeks of rehearsals and pre-production followed by another ~four months of filming. Continue reading