Adventures with dubious mental health practices

The lunatics have taken over the script writing in Dr. Caligari

It’s a film that requires a few sentences of clarification whenever you bring it up. “No not The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari the 1920 silent classic; I’m talking about Dr. Caligari the horny pastel-coloured fever dream from 1989. You know; with the verbose cannibal and the screaming nymphomaniac.” Then the person you’re speaking to either lights up with recognition or (more commonly) stares at you like you’re making it up.

Believe me I’m not making it up. This film exists although it’s now pretty damn hard to find. Dr. Caligari (1989) drops a few hints that it is a semi-sequel to the 1920 film but it takes the surrealism of the original as a starting-off point before charging full-tilt into previously uncharted frontiers of madness.

We are introduced to Mrs. Van Houten (Laura Albert) a gorgeous housewife who gets topless a lot. A nymphomaniac with extremely unconventional erotic dreams (involving baby-doll masks straight razors weeping sores and a gigantic mouth growing out of a wall of pulsating flesh) the little lady’s sexual appetite is becoming too much for her sexually repressed husband (Gene Zerna) to cope with. One phone call later she’s whisked away to the Caligari Insane Asylum where the cruel-eyed Dr. Caligari (Madeleine Reynal) is giving her patients some decidedly unconventional treatment.

We also meet Gus Pratt (John Durbin) a likable cannibal who’s a little too eager to receive electroshock therapy. (“All that volt and electrode stuff! You wanna buzz me more? When I get a little I always want a lot!”). Gus’s rapid-fire monologues about the joys of murder and stew preparation are spellbinding and Durbin gives a gleefully unhinged performance that’s as unforgettable as Hannibal Lector’s speech about liver and fava beans. Laura Albert and John Durbin get to swap performances Face/Off -style halfway through the film when their characters trade personalities thanks to an experimental procedure involving brain juice and hypodermic needles. Pratt gets to act like a pretty pretty princess while Mrs. Van Houten gets to speed-mutter about her favourite stew recipe.

This film goes out of its way to avoid looking “real.” Most of the sets are crudely painted cardboard or just bits of furniture plunked down Monty Python-style in the middle of a clump of weeds against a flat black backdrop. Many lines are delivered in a deliberate monotone directed straight into the camera by unblinking actors wearing their “serious face.” Some of the characters speak in ridiculous free verse. Some examples: “It’s not fair! I’m a juice dog! I’m a twitching skee ball! And you won’t let me shiverrrrrrr!”; “I see that face and I’m a love slut. Uh huh.”; and out of nowhere and apropos of nothing “My husband had an erection once. Silly really.”

If all this sounds like pretentious bullshit to you then stay far far away. Dr. Caligari looks like every parody of avant-garde theatre you’ve ever seen. Picture the surreal “find the fish” segment from Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life (1983) stretched out to 80 minutes of nonsense only with mental trauma and tits.

Still if the film’s hypercolour-hued Dadaism doesn’t put you off immediately there’s an odd beauty to Dr. Caligari . The actors really seem to be relishing the opportunity to savour their outrageous dialogue the design out-weirds David Lynch in every category and the film achieves a strange balance between nightmarish bleakness and gleeful silliness. Eccentric director Stephen Sayadian also gave us the surreal art-pornos Café Flesh (1982) and Nightdreams (1981) the latter also featuring a character named Mrs. Van Houten.