Color, 1990, 78 mins. 54 secs.
Directed by Stephen Sayadian
Starring Laura Albert, Madeleine Reynal, Fox Harris, Jennifer Balgobin, John Durbin, Gene Zerna, David Parry
Mondo Macabro (Blu-ray) (US R0 HD) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)
A bid at cult movie success that didn't really catch on until it hit home video, Dr. Caligari was the one shot at non-pornographic filmmaking from the team of director Stephen Sayadian (a.k.a. Rinse Dream) and writer Jerry Stahl, who had scored unlikely hits on the midnight movie scene with their XXX avant-garde masterpieces Café Flesh and Nightdreams. The combination of deliberately stilted, witty, theatrical-style dialogue and visually striking, colorful sets is back here in full force, here tailored to a bizarre, humorous sequel to the silent German Expressionist classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari with a lot of absurdist humor, eroticism, and grotesque body horror thrown into the mix. There's really nothing else out there quite like it, and after a very long period of unavailability, the film is finally back out in circulation on 4K UHD and Blu-ray from Mondo Macabro.
At the Caligari Insane Asylum (C.I.A.), the sexually charged Mrs. Van Houten (Blood Games' Albert) is the combative pet patient of Dr. Caligari (Reynal), granddaughter of the original film's sinister physician. Caligari's current experiment involves glandular fluid swaps between patients to harness their personalities, and now she's tampering with Mrs. Van Houten and a chatterbox serial killer, Mr. Pratt (Durbin), which provokes a string of hallucinatory encounters and persona alterations. Meanwhile the Lodgers (Balgobin and Parry), a married couple of medical practitioners, are suspicious of Caligari's methods and ask her father, Dr. Avol (Repo Man's Harris), to do some investigating -- only for Avol to become another of Caligari's extreme test cases. Can anything stop the escalating medical madness?
Shot entirely on dark sound stages for a meager budget of just over $100,000, this is a visually stunning film from start to finish with a snappy script containing some truly hilarious one-liners. It definitely won't be for all tastes, but if you just roll with the insanity and take it as a visually dynamic, utterly cracked comedy, there's plenty of fun to be had. The film became something of a late night college viewing favorite in the early '90s, and while it may not hit a comparable crowd today, there will definitely be some new converts just based on its eye-popping practical effects alone -- such as that unforgettable flesh door with a giant tongue and wounds that spill out viscous candy.
Financed by veterans of adult film distributor Excalibur Films, Dr. Caligari got minimal theatrical play and quickly hit VHS from Shapiro-Glickenhaus and laserdisc from Image Entertainment in 1990. The transfer looked quite good for its time, though the Mondo Macabro release is on a different level entirely with the UHD in particular offering a stunning presentation of the film with excellent detail that brings out all the weird little details in the sets. Colors are vibrant and downright blazing at some points, and the deep black levels give the film a rich feeling far beyond its tiny budget. The DTS-HD 2.0 English mono audio is very strong and sounds extremely crisp, with Mitchell Froom's electronic score often blending into the active soundscape of wind and other ambient noise. You also get an isolated music and effects track to further appreciate the work that went into that mix, which is really nonstop throughout the film. Optional English SDH subtitles are also provided. The UHD also includes an option to watch the film open matte (1.33:1) to replicate the '90s home video viewing experience, though quality-wise it's just as excellent if you prefer it with all that extra headroom. Sayadian turns up here for an audio commentary and a video interview, "Beyond the Door" (30m27s), in which he covers the years of aesthetic developments that led to this film via his gigs with Hustler (as its artistic director), music videos, and various photo shoot gigs, as well as the casting process and the origins of this process once Stahl pointed out that the original German film was public domain. A video interview with Reynal, "Meet the Doctor" (18m18s) is quite charming and revealing as she talks about her great working relationship with Sayadian, who saw her inner Caligari despite the fact that she was blonde and didn't immediately seem to fit the casting description. She also chats about having to get back into character later on for reshoots and the more memorable scenes she shot. A video conference interview with Albert, "The Scandalous Mrs. Von Houten" (20m16s), cover her response to the stylized dialogue, how she nailed down how to approach her character, and the calm, generous nature of the production. Finally in "Bongo His Glug-Glugs" (9m43s), Stahl covers the film's approach as a "softer" version of Nightdreams, his writing tactics for coming up with that "go for broke" style, his personal vindication at seeing the film years later with a crowd, and his working relationship with Sayadian in harmony with the visuals. The trailer is also included and reminds you how impossible this film must have been to sell to an unsuspecting audience.
Reviewed on November 26, 2023