The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari (1920)

DECEMBER 10, 2008


Silent movies are not my friend. In addition to the obvious increase in how much time I spend on sleep-inducing reading, I also can’t get away with the “resting my eyes” approach, because there aren’t even sound effects or tone of voice to get the jist of a scene (though, come on, how long am I actually awake after my eyes first close?). And even when I’m wide awake, I can’t let my eyes wander, because I won’t “hear” the dialogue. So it should come as no surprise that despite its standing as one of the most important horror films of all time, The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari was never high on my to-do list.

But it’s not just my sleepiness; I was also afraid that having already seen the past 90 years of horror movies that owe their existence (albeit in a Kevin Bacon-y way) to the film, I wouldn’t enjoy it all that much anyway. The ending has been long since spoiled, and the set design – the film’s most lasting contribution – would probably not be as impressive anymore. It’s one thing to try to watch an original when you’ve already seen the remake and try to undo your memories, but in this case, we’re talking about trying to forget EVERY HORROR MOVIE EVER in order to fully appreciate its contribution to the genre.

That said, I still enjoyed it. The sets may not be as “Wow!”-y anymore, but they ARE still impressive, and I would find myself paying more attention to the background than the foreground (i.e. the actors) every few minutes. I just wish half the movie wasn’t filmed in “Closed Iris O-Vision” so that I could actually see some of them in their entirety. And even though I knew the conclusion, the actual meat of the story was largely unknown to me (right down to the vocabulary – I had to look up “somnambulist”), so I remained engaged despite knowing that it was all in the guy’s imagination. And the scene where Cesare goes after the girl in her sleep is pretty goddamn creepy, if I do say so myself.

I also love the “Cesare” dummy that makes an appearance in the 3rd act, because I actually wasn’t sure if it was supposed to be a dummy or a corpse at first. Then a guy begins tossing it around the set, which pretty much gave me the answer. But hey, it’s a pretty good looking dummy!

I was also tickled to be reminded at how goddamn slow people used to read. A card reading “Case histories and notes” stays up for a good 10-15 seconds, which is more time than I need to individually say each letter in the phrase. But at least I could read that one; a few minutes later (or before, I forget. Same reel at any rate) there’s this:

There have been a few low-budget remakes and modernizations over the years, but no big Hollywood production. Given the film’s reputation for its impressive sets and twist ending, I find this kind of surprising. Surely the Saw guys could have some fun with the concept (say what you will about Repo – the set design, by the same team from Saw, is fucking amazing, which is even more impressive when you consider the film’s budget was lower than the last 2 Saw sequels). And the furor over such a proposed remake would be more entertaining than either film, so it’s win across the board!

I wish I could have loved the movie, but it’s just too hard to forget everything that has followed its lead. It’s a shame, but that’s just how it is. I still enjoyed it and would love to watch a special edition’s features (not to mention a better print than Mill Creek offered), however it won’t be dethroning anything on my top 10 list. Sorry, purists and “everything new sucks” types! I will say this though, to all readers who have recently had children – when they get old enough and want to join you for your horror movie watching, make them watch the classics first!

What say you?


  1. I've seen parts of this once but I was so tired that I never finished watching it (kind of like "The Terror").

    Will be watching this again shortly.35

  2. i have the exact same problem with silent movies

  3. this might be my favorite horror movie though. this or the orphanage.

  4. I've only watched one silent movie all the way through and liked it: "The Phantom of the Opera". The movie had good pacing, which is why I think it kept my attention and didn't bore me. That and Lon Chaney, Sr, was awesome and still to this day made the best Phantom make-up.
    THe only other silent movie I saw all the way through was "Nosferatu", and I thought it was ok, but slow. Orlok is still awesome, though.


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