Wednesday, October 1, 2014

31 Days of Horror: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a masterpiece of set design and shadow.

Welcome to October, when the nights get longer, the temperature drops, and the ubiquity of autumn coloring rears its head once again. The annual harvest is upon us, as well as the harvest festival to end all harvest festivals: Halloween.

For horror film aficionados, there is no better time of year. It is a much-maligned genre done no favors by the sheer volume of material produced under its banner, but now is when fans can let their fright flags fly with pride. In that spirit, I will say that I love horror films. I often am asked what my favorite genre is, and since saying “good movies” is vague and unhelpful at best, I say horror.

Some of my earliest childhood memories are marked by fright-fests such as Jaws, Child’s Play, Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, and the Tales from the Crypt television show. They terrified me, and when I was not scared to death, I was loving every minute of it.

Too afraid to watch but just as fearful I would miss the best part, I spent hours staring at the television through the spaces between my fingers or crouched behind the couch, popping my head up on the chance I might see the very thing from which I was hiding. Was I too young to watch some of what I was seeing? Probably, and there are moments and images that are burned into my brain. But I would not trade a second of it.

Horror does not work for many people. Some find it too frightening, while others on the opposite end of the spectrum feel it strains credulity even at its best. I am not here to argue with either camp; rather, I am here to guide and recommend.

What this means for us here at Last Cinema Standing is a little shift in format this month. The site will continue to bring you reviews of the latest fall films and updates on the Oscar season as it progresses, but we will be throwing into the mix a compendium of horror as we work our way to Halloween.

This is not a “best of” list. Think of it more as a primer, meant to inspire you to try something new or to pop an old favorite into the VCR – still the best way to watch horror films outside of the cinema, though DVD, BluRay, and streaming will work in a pinch. I will try to cover as many different types of horror as possible, spanning decades and directors, suspense and suspension of disbelief. The hope is by the end we will have changed a few minds – or at least given a couple people a good scare.

Day 1: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

Let’s start at the beginning, shall we? There had been movies dedicated to the macabre with dark themes and elements of the supernatural before 1920. However, none had put all that together before Robert Weine delivered this terrifying and disorienting masterpiece of German expressionism. Told in flashbacks and set in a claustrophobic hell-scape of a German village – designed to reflect the broken psyche of the storyteller – The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari packs a blockbuster’s worth of heart-pounding suspense and hair-raising fear into 67 minutes of abject terror.

Francis and his fiancée, Jane, attend the town carnival, where Dr. Caligari awakens a somnambulist who predicts a man will die before dawn. When the man is murdered, Francis is convinced Dr. Caligari and the somnambulist are to blame. As Francis tries to prove his suspicions, the town realizes it is in danger from an enemy it cannot fully comprehend.

The plot twists and turns around this basic premise like vines wrapping around a trellis, and the higher you climb, the less you feel the ground beneath your feet. But the real joy is the sensation of allowing the film’s imagery and imagination to wash over you. The sets, built from paper and painted shadows, are all sharp angles and treacherous turns. Filtered through the mind of a man recalling past traumas, the danger takes on mythic proportions as we walk alongside him down these impossible corridors.

Weine and screenwriters Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer had no template for what they were trying to accomplish. No one had ever attempted anything like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, so they forged their own path. Their fellow German filmmaker F.W. Murnau followed two years later with the much more widely seen and highly regarded Nosferatu, but this film laid the groundwork for everything the horror genre would become. And for that reason, it kicks off our month of the macabre and Last Cinema Standing’s 31 Days of Horror.

Tomorrow, we dive deeper into the terror of the demented and deranged with a consideration of one of the all-time great cinema villains.

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