Venus Revisited

As promised, here’s a quick rundown of Mondo Macabro’s “Limited Edition” Blu-ray release of Dr. Caligari. It comes in a cool, double-sided slipcover, has a booklet containing an essay titled Going on a Radiation Vacation by Heather Drain, and two discs, playable in all regions, one being “4k Ultra-HD”. The restored picture is stunning, revealing surprising new details. I feel like David Hemmings in Blow-Up, spotting the gunman, then corpse. Between its impeccable image quality and the timelessness of its costumes and hairdos, this “surrealist neo-noir reworking of the 1920 German expressionist classic” maintains a modern look. I’d believe any release year they slapped on it.

Extra features include commentary by writer/director/production designer/art director Stephen Sayadian, interviews with Sayadian, co-writer Jerry Stahl, antagonist Madeleine Reynal, and star Laura Albert (screen-recorded via VideoLink), a trailer, and optional English subtitles. The interviews combined are as long as the movie. Stahl’s is the shortest at 9:43. I would have listened to him talk for an hour. Although I’d already pieced together most of the movie’s production from previous interviews, these extras offer quite a few revelations. Overall, this release is a massive upgrade from my old DVD and was worth the price of admission. Below are twenty things I learned or didn’t notice before. For a summary of the plot, please refer to my long-winded review.

Credit: Mondo Macabro/Vimeo

1) The opening shot was the final one filmed. We can now clearly see that Caligari’s asylum is several distinct buildings.

2) The slogan “better living thru chemistry” was taken from the DuPont chemical company.

3) Stahl seems to say in his interview that he wasn’t consciously referencing or commenting on anything with his dialogue. “When you grow up in America on TV, when your parents are basically the TV, you just absorb these things on a cellular level, and when you write, sometimes to your own surprise, they come back out… Caligari, in some way, in a very specific way now that I look at it, mirrored what was happening societally at the time when psycho-pharmaceutical solutions to mental and emotional problems began to dominate.”

4) Madeleine Reynal (the title character) was a blonde, Argentinian print model with little acting experience, chosen for her body language. I assumed she was doing a bad German accent, but that’s just the way she speaks.

5) The glue used to apply her fake eyebrows left her eyes red and irritated. Sayadian took one look and remarked “I love it!”

6) Laura Albert was chosen for the part of Mrs. Van Houten because she was the only actress who didn’t mention how weird the script was.

7) The woman who appears to Van Houten in her TV is also Laura Albert. Their interaction is an homage to Videdrome.

8) The dialogue coming from the TV is hard to make out because it’s distorted. The fine folks at Mondo Macabro have transcribed it for this release. It reads:

I know you’re watching me. I feel your eyes like wet fingers touching me in special places. I’m so moist I can’t stop. I’m feeling so… so open. Do you know what shame is? When you feel your sex like a live thing doing its own bad, little dance? Expose me, Mr. Gone Gone. Make me squirm like your eyeballs in their sockets. And do you really know I’m juicy bad? Wanna wanna watch? You wanna watch me shimmy? I’ve got a shimmy button really low down. Take me, daddy, please. I am a tongue bomb. I am life on Venus. I know how to make it sizzle. Pleasure will short your circuits. I could leave you an erotic husk. Am I your sex dream, or maybe a whole new me?

9) The baby mask worn by Van Houten’s intruder was modeled after a particular type of doll called a “Kewpie”.

10) The second Van Houten shown from the breasts down observing herself being raped was played by Michelle Bauer, making her third consecutive appearance for Stephen Sayadian.

Credit: The Simpsons, Disney

11) The crutches supporting the breasts of the patient at 18 minutes are referencing Salvador Dali, who often put them in his paintings.

12) Fox Harris (Dr. Avol) was terminally ill during shooting. Though he didn’t share this, he urged Sayadian to pick up the pace.

13) Avol was named after Beverly Hills neurosurgeon Milton Avol, a convicted slumlord Sayadian read about in the L.A. Times, which gave Dr. Caligari a favorable review.

14) The term “Charlie chokes”, meaning artichokes, came from a patient Sayadian worked with at a mental hospital.

15) The entire movie was storyboarded by an artist named H.R. Gerard, “almost like a graphic novel”. Gerard also storyboarded Evilspeak (1981), starring Clint Howard.

16) The large-headed crying woman who appears in this, the music video for Wall of Voodoo’s “Do it Again”, and Untamed Cowgirls of the Wild West Part 2: Jammy Glands From the Rio Grande was meant to resemble Margaret Keane’s subjects.

17) The topless human lamp seen for a few seconds from 1:00:08 to 1:02:20 is porn actress Nina DePonca, credited as “Vera Butler”. Sayadian erroneously identifies her as “Nina Ponchilla”.

18) Cannibal Gus Pratt quotes two different presidents. “A thousand points of light” was a phrase used by George Bush Sr. “Where is the rest of me?” is screamed by Ronald Reagan in Kings Row (1942).

19) Pratt’s soliloquy toward the end was recycled from the unproduced script for Hormone Alley.

20) Hollywood legend Lawrence Tierney once asked for a sexy movie to watch while spending the night at horror director Jeff Burr’s home. Burr, perhaps jokingly, handed him a VHS copy of Dr. Caligari. The next morning, Tierney said something to the effect of “Nobody in the world could jerk off to that!” Sayadian heard this and took it as a compliment.

In Pursuit of Creative Fulfillment

Writing, for me, is a lot like performing an exorcism. I don’t know why I do it. It’s stressful and I’m just relieved when it’s over. My natural talent is drawing, specifically simple, offensive cartoons unbeholden to rules of perspective. A few years back, my favorite director released a documentary about Mike Diana, the first and thankfully only US artist ever convicted of obscenity, for selling self-published comics through the mail. I saw a bit of myself in Diana. Our styles are similar. It never occurred to me that parlaying my passion for doodling diseased cocks and machete-wielding elephants into a living was an option. I fell into a mild depression, wondering where I’d be if I truly applied myself. I stopped nurturing my talent because I lived in cramped apartments for years and never really had a good workspace. That’s what I tell myself anyway. It was easier to work from a laptop. I have an office and a huge finished basement now, and still haven’t picked it back up. That tells me I’m my own biggest obstacle. Seems I’ve gotten used to this “writing” thing, as frustrating as it is. I’m not a fountain of creativity. The words don’t just flow from my fingers. It’s something I have to work at.

Movies have always been my muse. I used to get disapproving comments from my saintly grandmother for drawing violent Friday the 13th comics with boobs in them. I also had a series called “Bug Killers” based on the puppets from Puppet Master. Each diminutive character had their own weapon or ability for combatting insects. After that, until about fourth grade, I stuck to drawing “good stuff” — mostly animals — so as not to concern the adults. It takes a special kind of movie to get the ol’ creative juices flowing. Once they’re pumping sufficiently fast through my body, I find the best approach is to get all my half-formed thoughts down in a big wall of text and revise it from there. If I can’t get the piece to take shape right away, I come back a day or two later with a fresh set of eyes. If I still can’t get it to read how I want, it slowly consumes me. I begin to question my grasp of the English language. I obsess over grammar and trivial word choices. I think why is it I can say something in conversation, be understood, even get a laugh, but when I write it down, it doesn’t sound right? I keep checking what I have, hoping it magically rearranged itself into Shakespeare. By this point, I’m stabbing my groin with religious objects. I ask my wife to read over my writing. She identifies any typos and tells me it’s fine. Hearing that is like hearing the hero of a bad horror movie yell “Fight it! I know you’re still in there! Don’t let it win!” I splash a little holy water on my keyboard and hit publish, ridding myself of the evil. I usually don’t watch the movie again for a long while. I move on with my life.

Me being tormented.
Credit: The Happiness of the Katakuris, Tubi TV

My wife.
Credit: The Exorcist III, Tubi TV

The truth is, I don’t consume many movies these days. I start plenty, but end up turning them off at the first sign of nudity. My kids are constantly running around, and the titles I pick out are often unsuitable. So, I just watch halves and thirds. When a title captures my interest, the first thing I do now is check the parents guide on IMDb for sexual content. Naturally, it tells me a woman shits on a dog’s erect penis or something equally heinous, limiting when I can watch said movie to past my children’s bedtimes. If there’s no advisory, I’m back to square one with my finger riding the home button. That’s a dangerous game.

Remarkably, I managed to post 61k words last year an average of just over twice a month, the most since my old blog. My goal for 2023 is to keep increasing those numbers. I’d love to get the engagement up too. I want to make WordPress the lively community I remember it being a decade ago. I went through a period of mourning when my favorite blogger stopped posting. I’m still healing, honestly. If you were around to see the comet that was Dr. Humpp’s Curious Collection streaking through the sky, count yourself lucky. I miss the camaraderie I had with him and others.

In between posts, I do my best to read, like, and comment on as much of my fellow bloggers’ work as I can. I spend a fair amount of time in the reader scrolling through the horror tag searching for similar sites. Lately, I’ve noticed an uptick in Fangoria wannabes spamming multiple news items an hour. I hate that shit. I hate this whole clickbait/podcast/streamer/content creation culture we’re in now. I may “monetize” my site in the future by adding one of those clichéd “buy me a coffee” donation buttons, but not today. I’m more apt to click on a site with a domain than a .com domain because it shows me the author is in it for the love of the game. If I can offer some free advice, always acknowledge your visitors. Reply to comments. Nobody wants to go unheard. Also, I never like a post with the expectation of getting one in return, but after a point, it’s common courtesy to check out what your visitors have to offer. Unless someone’s writing is super witty or funny, I lose interest and unfollow after the tenth or twentieth unreciprocated like.

Shout out to Beau Montana of The Internet Ruined Everything, Bert, Billy Peppers of Space Rats From Outer Space, Kevin Hurtack of Gun Smoke & Ghouls, and Film Miasma for keeping the mice away! Stay possessed 🤮

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