THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI
(1920, Germany, Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari)
A man in black with murder in his eyes creeps into a beautiful woman's bedroom at night. A mad doctor uses his expertise for his own evil ends. A serial killer has a town in panic.
The influence of these silent movies inspired and influenced much of the far more famous 'golden age of horror' of early 1930s Hollywood, and predate most of the American silent horrors. Many of the key creative talents, actors, directors and production designers, soon moved to America where their ideas and style fed into that pre-code horror boom. Much like today, if something was a success abroad, Hollywood were happy to invite in the talent responsible.
Basically, these are very rewarding films for fans of horror, seeing the genre being born and taking shape. Despite their age, they're also unique nightmares, wildly creative and beautifully crafted. The make-up for the creatures in Nosferatu and The Golem is hugely effective. The set designs for The Cabinet of Dr Caligari are wildly surreal, and bravely presented for almost the whole length of the story. The question is, are these warped surroundings also part of the story...
A murder in a small village coincides with the arrival of a new attraction at the local carnival - Dr Caligari and his mysterious assistant, who sleeps all day and night in a coffin-like cabinet. The murdered man's friend is determined to track down the killer, spurring the police (who spend most of their time at their desks) to make an arrest before it happens again...
While many of the first horror films were based on classic stories, this has an original script, inspired by a real murder and fuelled by public desperation at the end of the Great War. It has a social message, critical of mental health institutions. The surreal presentation may have disguised their sentiments, but the metaphors were all too clear. A late rewrite (which I thought I had been enforced on them) changed the story's message by means of an added prologue and epilogue.
This isn't just a story of murder and madness, everything about it looks psychotic. The whole film takes place on angular expressionistic sets. Like above, instead of a rooftop, the set merely suggests a rooftop - the only recognisable shapes here are two rough windows and a surreal chimney stack.
Conrad Veidt is the iconic 'monster' - tall, stealthy, with the ability to look demonic. An excellent and versatile actor, he's an early horror star, with leading roles in Waxworks, The Hands of Orlac, The Man Who Laughed and a remake of The Student of Prague (1926) again opposite Werner Krauss. He then made a fairly smooth transition to roles in 'talkies', appearing in Michael Powell's The Spy In Black and The Thief of Baghdad (as Jaffar!) with one of his last roles being in Michael Curtiz' Casablanca.
For years it was very hard to see these early films on anything but very scratchy prints (often with truncated or missing shots). Bootlegs, videotapes, public domain DVDs and YouTube compression have compounded the film faults making these movies very hard to appreciate. But now that some have been carefully restored and released on DVD, I've finally been able to understand their 'classic' status.
I think the best versions are currently the Kino International restoration on DVD in the US, and in the UK, an earlier restoration from Eureka, which is commended for it's orchestral score and subtle colour tinting.
DVD Beaver compares the Kino version to the 1996 restoration used by Eureka (illustrated with screengrabs)...