Movies, The Forsaken

The Forsaken: Dr. Caligari (1989)

Although I announced I would start it as a feature, I’m not entirely sure what to do with “The Forsaken.”  The original plan was just to cover TV shows that were either failed pilots or at most lasted only a season.  But I thought that might be too limited, so I’m going to instead start out with a movie that’s fairly obscure and still relatively hard to get on DVD.  Maybe that makes the original concept meaningless in a time when you can often, if not usually, find even the most obscure movies posted on YouTube or for sale online on homemade DVDs, but, hey, I’m my own writer, editor, and producer.  So, to quote the immortal words of Eric Cartman, “Whatever, whatever.  I do what I want, I do what I want.”

Besides, I’d be failing my moral duty if I didn’t take even the slightest excuse to share one of my own absolute favorites, Dr. Caligari.  No, no,  not Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari from 1920;  I’m talking about its 1989 sequel.

The titular Caligari here is the granddaughter of the Dr. Caligari from the 1920 film, although she acts much more like a cross between a female Dr. Freud and a subdued and postmodern incarnation of Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS.  Caligari presides over the CIA (not that one; the Caligari Insane Asylum, of course), but her unorthodox habit of keeping her patients in line by drugging and having sex with them has roused the suspicion of her colleagues, Ramona and Gus.  However, even they can’t guess at Caligari’s plans to use her star patient, a neurotic housewife apparently plagued by a phobia about pregnancy, Mrs. Van Houten, to perform the world’s first “libido transplant.”

As you can probably guess from the visuals, the movie really isn’t a horror film except in a loose sense.  Nor is it really a straightforward avant garde take on the source material;  if anything, it really feels more like a loving spoof of David Lynch with some mid-career Ken Russell thrown in for good measure than a bona fide experimental postmodern “art film.”  What the film does have in common with the original is that it draws constantly on the warped, surrealist visuals of German Expressionism, but even then those are filtered heavily through a late ’80s art deco aesthetic.  It’s safer to place Dr. Caligari in its own category altogether, even though frankly it does a better job of conjuring up the spirit of Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari than even Robert Bloch’s 1962 remake.

Part of Dr. Caligari‘s renegade and impossible to label nature is that it was directed and co-written by Stephen Sayadian, whose all too brief film career specialized in the very niche field of avant garde porn.  His only other major film was Cafe Flesh, a stylish sci-fi porn where the premise has the survivors of a nuclear holocaust divided between a vast majority of people who are practically eunuchs and a small minority who can still sexually perform.  The government mandates that the latter publicly perform sex acts before the former (oh, and it also had a surprisingly awesome soundtrack).  Unlike Cafe Flesh, Dr. Caligari can’t accurately be called a porno either, in spite of a couple breast shots (one of which is completely warped to nightmarish degrees) and a scene involving cunnilingus via a TV screen (it’s better seen than described), but the film is awash with psychosexual symbolism and references to sex and reproduction.  You might even call Dr. Caligari the world’s first purely intellectual and abstract porno.  It’s as good a brief description as any.

Its pure, undiluted strangeness alone makes it notable, but there’s much more to it.  Dr. Caligari is the rare type of film that has both a healthy sense of humor about itself and is completely, unflinchingly committed to the universe it has constructed around it.  Characters strike unnatural, melodramatic poses and pop flamboyantly in and out of scenes.  The dialogue is with the rare exception deliberately stilted and artificial, often delivered in a practiced monotone (especially by Dr. Caligari herself) and peppered with non sequitors  and philosophical quotes like “That’s the funny thing about desire.  If it isn’t crude, it isn’t pure.”  A cannibalistic serial killer re-enacts one of his murders with himself in drag as the victim.  And Dr. Caligari ends one scene by counting in German and suddenly dropping vertically out of view.

Sure, it has flaws.  A few scenes drag, and when the said serial killer character gets introduced he seems to get more than his fair share of screen time for the middle portion of the movie.  For all that, though, this is one of the few movies I would unhesitatingly slap on my list of “Top Favorite Films of All Time.”  Its cleverness and humor comes through in every visual and scene. Most of all, it’s one of precious few movies where you can honestly say that there’s nothing else quite like it out there.

From what I can tell, many others have agreed with me since 1989, but for some reason Dr. Caligari never really seemed to reach much of an audience.  Critics (at least the ones specializing in underground cinema) loved it and it was a hit in the American urban midnight theater circuit of the early ’90s, but it never got much of a wide release and remained unreleased on DVD until 2002 – and even then it was only through a small outfit called Excalibur Films that usually only releases pornography, and which will advertise sex toys on the same page you can buy a copy of the DVD from.  Despite any relative success it had, it was also Stephen Sayadin’s last film, something I find as inexplicable as it is unfortunate.  If you’re one of a special, privileged species of film geek, you can get it on Laserdisc, on which it apparently had a pretty (if still relatively) large run;  it sometimes  turns up on VHS (my quasi-artsy mom-and-pop rental joint had a copy, which was how I was introduced and indoctrinated), and Excalibur still sells the DVD.  Given the film’s obscurity, you can find a surprisingly large number of clips here and there online – although still not enough, in my opinion.

Even though it’s a little hard to find by post-Internet standards, it’s still worth it.  Even if you like cult cinema but hate what usually gets termed “art films” there’s a pretty good chance you might dig it.  Give it a chance, and feel free to join those of us who are still working to give this movie the cult recognition it never quite got in the years after its release.

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