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The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (2005)

Dada Issues

This is an unfair review. Comprised mostly of backstory and miscellany, my assessment of David Lee Fisher's remake of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligary promises to be one of the hardest I've written and the easiest to dismiss. Here we go.

Prelude 1: As I tweeted a few days ago, Netflix suggested that I'd love this movie based on my high ratings for Manhattan and Blade Runner. I now understand that the company's algorithms use the same logic as commenters on Rotten Tomatoes ("I like this movie 'cause it's in black-and-white"; "I like this movie 'cause it looks weird."). You shouldn't be surprised to learn that Cabinet has as much to do with Manhattan and Blade Runner as Manhattan and Blade Runner have to do with each other.

Prelude 2: Cabinet is part of my research for next month's Doug Jones interview.

Prelude 3: I've not seen the 1920 version of Cabinet. But, for reasons I'll explain in a moment, I plan to watch and review it later this week.

Fisher wasted a lot of time, money, and talent making this movie. That's not to say it's bad. In fact, there's a lot to recommend here--if you have no intention of watching Robert Weine's silent film. About thirty minutes into the picture, I got the sneaking suspicion that the moody music, bizarre set decorations, and story weren't new interpretations of existing material, but rather re-creations of them.

Because both versions are currently streaming, I paused and pulled up the original. Scrubbing through the scenes leading up to where I'd left off, I was amazed to find that Fisher had created a nearly shot-for-shot remake, with tweaks to a bit of Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer's dialogue.

This really puzzled me. And as I went back to finish the remake, I became more and more confused. The only quantitative difference between incarnations is that the one from 2005 is a "talky" shot almost completely against green-screen backdrops; there are also annoying, Pleasantville-style color flourishes incorporated into the black-and-white aesthetic that range from distracting in their lack of subtlety to eye-rollingly pretentious.

That's not the confusing part. I'm fine with young filmmakers re-creating whole movies in order to better understand not only the process but also the history of their craft (Hunter S. Thompson famously typed out the entirety of The Great Gatsby in an attempt to nail F. Scott Fitzgerald's rhythms). But this movie is a doodle, an experiment that somehow found distribution and raised enough money to attach known actors for supporting roles.

"Doodle" is a harsh word to describe a moderately expensive passion project, but it's the best word for Cabinet 2.0. Even on my computer monitor, the CGI backgrounds absorbed the outlines of the foreground characters; when not standing absolutely still, everyone looked as if they were shifting behind paper cutouts of a small 1920s German village (as imagined by Tim Burton and rendered by Tim Burton's toddler niece). Some of the wide shots see characters all but enveloped by their environments in a fuzzy blanket of non-reality. I'm sure some film-school freak would argue that this was intentional on Fisher's part, an aid to the surreality of his nightmare vision (actually, Weine's nightmare vision). But it just looks cheap, and I can't imagine seeing this projected on a big screen.

I should talk a bit about the story. A traveling hypnotist named Dr. Caligari (Daamen J. Krall) visits a village and attracts the attention of two young friends, Francis (Judson Pearce Morgan) and Alan (Neil Hopkins). Caligari's gimmick is that his main "patient", Cesare (Jones), can tell peoples' futures when summoned out of his persistent sleep state. On awakening, he predicts that Alan will be dead by morning.

Guess what happens?

The rest of the film can best be described as a cross between the original Fright Night and Something Wicked This Way Comes. I see how those films were inspired by the original Cabinet, and I'll delve more into the story when I review it later this week. The only feature of note--besides the terrible computer-generated scenery--is the bizarre performance model that Fisher set for his cast.

With the exception of Krall, the principals all go "big", relying on the kind of acting found in the non-singing parts of most musicals. There's a somber theatricality, a brooding soap-opera quality that makes Fisher's interpretation seem almost like a parody of the film that inspired it. Worse yet, the performances aren't even bad in a consistent fashion. In the opening scene, we meet Francis; as played by Morgan, he's a Billy Joe Armstrong look-alike with way too much guy-liner whose delivery is like a PETA activist reading telethon cue cards. A few scenes later, when the Alan character invites him to the travelling carnival, the actors' banter is positively modern--loose in both tone and manner of speech. In the next scene, we're back to serious and stilted again.

Most of the other cast fall into this same trap. They seem to think that ham-fisted acting is a prerequisite for starring in a black-and-white movie. It doesn't help that the actual tone of Cabinet keeps shifting from black-and-white to sepia to B&W with the aforementioned splashes of color. In the scene between Francis and Alan, both actors' lips are tinted the subtlest pink; I can only speculate about the gay subtext of this artistic decision, which bothers me only in its pointlessness. Honestly, I'm more offended by this being a German period piece in which all of the performers speak like headliners in a California dinner theatre company.

Like I said, this new version is not all bad. The lighting is sufficiently Gothic, and I really like Eban Schletter's score. Krall and Jones bring a sophistication to their roles that suggests they thought they were starring in a better movie. Or maybe that's Fisher's genius: perhaps the whole point of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is that the homicidal hypnotist and his narcoleptic puppet travel from town to town murdering bad actors.


Now I have to reconsider this whole review.

Wait. No, I don't.

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