Color, 1981, 94 mins. 51 secs. / 101 mins. 7 secs.
Directed by Bruno Mattei, Antonio Passalia and Jean-Jacques Renon
Starring Vladimir Brajovic, Betty Roland, Françoise Blanchard, Raul Cabrera, Piotr Stanislas, Antonio Passalia
Severin Films (Blu-ray and DVD) (US R0 HD/NTSC), Éditions René Chateau (DVD) (France R2 PAL), Laser Paradise (DVD) (Germany R0 PAL), Another World (DVD) (Denmark R0 PAL), Amuse Pictures (DVD) (Japan R1 NTSC) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9)

The influx of imitations Caligula and Messalinaof Penthouse's Caligula and Messalinanotorious and turbulent all-star orgy of excess, Caligula, was inevitable in Italy since filmmakers had plenty of time to prepare given the three-year period from initial shooting to release. The best and wildest of these had to be Joe D'Amato's Caligula: The Untold Story, but Bruno Mattei and his cohorts were ready first with a pair of quickie Roman sex epics featuring much of the same cast and crew: Caligula & Messalina and Nero and Poppea - An Orgy of Power, both of which were credited in many territories to "Anthony Pass," a pseudonym for actor and co-director Antonio Passalia. Released in a baffling number of edits over the years, Caligula & Messalina got minor theatrical play around the world well into the mid-'80s by which point it must have looked positively baffling with its rampant pilfering of footage from films shot many years earlier.

We open with a pair of soldiers musing about the reputation of Caligula (Brajovic), the ruthless Emperor of Rome, who's reputed to have slept with his sister, murdered a high-ranking officer for taking cough medicine, and made his beloved horse a senator. Then we see all of that in action as Caligula cavorts in the boudoir with his scheming sister Caligula and MessalinaAgrippina (The Living Dead Girl's Blanchard), has people slaughtered for his own amusement, and becomes infatuated with gladiator and supposed virgin Messalina (Roland). Eager for the opportunity to seize the reins of power, Messalina is more Caligula and Messalinathan willing to reciprocate and practices the art of love with the Sapphic priestesses of the temple of Isis. Meanwhile Agrippina is annoyed by the wrench thrown into her plans to have the throne assumed by her son, which leads to lots of sex, shots pilfered from The Colossus of Rhodes and Pontius Pilate, and backstabbing galore.

Given the subject matter, it's surprising how subdued the violence in this film is; shot in Techniscope and art directed to look as lavish as the very low budget will allow, it has a quaint peplum feel throughout that sets it apart from the more surreal, stylized approach of the Malcolm McDowell spectacular and its other imitators. It's also oddly structured with a sudden plot turn at the one-hour mark that will probably catch some viewers off guard, and anyone expecting to learn any genuine Roman history here will be mostly out to sea after the opening act. Where this one does go completely berserk is the sex angle, which varies depending on which Caligula and Messalinaversion you saw from any number of countries. Apart from a ridiculous segue in the temple involving donkeys mating on camera to produce better milk(!) and that graphic horse-breeding footage from Walerian Borowczyk's The Beast also used in Mattei's The Story of the Nuns of Monza, this is strictly softcore no matter how see it. That said, it's incredibly scuzzy softcore Caligula and Messalinacomplete with bisexual antics of both sexes, incest, and a completely insane scene involving The Beast in Heat's unforgettable Salvatore Baccaro in an uncredited sex scene that has to be seen to be believed. Though she didn't have much of a career, Rowland is actually the most compelling element of the film and makes for a convincing Machiavellian protagonist who bounces through a large number of bedmates (including a tumble with porn vet Piotr Stanislas). The tradition score by Giacomo Dell'Orso gives the whole thing a semi-classy veneer, with the always welcome Edda Dell'Orso give it plenty of romantic vocalizing throughout.

In keeping with its confusing theatrical history, this film has turned up on VHS and DVD numerous times around the world with some editions preserving its strong edit with all the horsey stuff intact. In 2022, Severin Films released it on Blu-ray and DVD (including a Caligula Bundle), with the former containing but an unrated 94-minute version and an extended 101-minute X-Rated Italian cut, the latter with all the horse and donkey footage as well as several saucy extensions to the sex scenes. (The DVD Caligula and Messalinajust features the full extended cut; for what it's worth, another alternate cut exists running 108m55s that cuts the more graphic donkey bits but pads the film out with even more stock footage.) The image quality is tough to evaluate since it looks very soft throughout except for the stock footage (which is much more crisp); that may be by design or some filtering used to tone Caligula and Messalinadown film grain. If anyone saw this theatrically and can attest, feel free to shed more light on this one. The film uses a lot of optical effects in some spots as well which complicates things further, but colors look nice and it's best this film has looked to date on home video. The film wasn't shot with live sound (per usual Mattei standards) so the DTS-HD MA English 2.0 mono track is perfectly fine for what it is, with optional English SDH subtitles provided. Extras include the theatrical trailer and "Caligula: The Life Behind the Legend" (37m24s), a Zoom discussion with Caligula: The Corruption of Power author Anthony Barrett offering a thorough account of the known facts about the period including the significant surviving texts, the political intrigue surrounding the power dynamics at the time, the biases against Caligula, and the difficulty of being an historian putting it all together.

Reviewed on April 10, 2022.