German Expressionism, a highly stylistic way of visual filmmaking that emerged in the black and white onscreen world of the late 'teens and early 1920s, has survived to this day in the films of Tim Burton and Guy Maddin, not to mention rock videos like White Zombie's Living Dead Girl and The Smashing Pumpkins' Disarm.
Perhaps the most famed flick from the heyday of Berlin's monochromatic crooked starkness is the silent 1919 classic, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. The seminal suspenser has remained pretty much untouched, till now. Rather than doing something really different with it, director David Lee Fisher, donned kid gloves — and the same sets digitized, and dropping talking actors in — but it's probably best to play it safe in this case. After all, messing with the classics is always met with some resistance from the cinefantatic purists.
Me? I like the original Cabinet and I can certainly appreciate it, but I don't hold it sacred and I was curious to see what might be done on the theme with fresh filmmaker minds and new, verbose actors. The story's only slightly changed, and the players are mostly admirable in their fluffed up roles. Veterans like Doug Jones (as the eerie, marionette-like somnambulist Cesare) and Daamen J. Krall (as the manipulative, sinister Dr. Caligari) fare far better than the young, quite stilted trio of pretty but ultimately empty leads.
Said lead characters are earnest Francis (Judson Pearce Morgan), who competes with his best friend, carefree Alan (Neil Hopkins), for the love of dark-haired beauty Jane (Lauren Birkell). When Alan winds up dead and his lady-love later becomes semi-catatonic, he enters the dangerous dream landscape which he believes could lead to the center of Cesare's lethal psyche. (And speaking of Dreams, there's one scene showing Hopkins, Birkell, and Time Winters where I swear to god they are dead ringers for Fleetwood Mac's Lindsay Buckingham, Stevie Nicks and Mick Fleetwood! Then the next scene immediately cuts to a woman who looks like Christine McVie… I'd say it's a veritable Fleetwood fastigium, but then John McVie doesn't seem to be in the doppelganger jumble. Ah, well… can't have everything.)
The use of the original film's backdrop, with the modern actors dropped in, works mostly marvelously, and the story moves along nicely. The DVD has some very informative behind the scenes featurettes, and it's always a pleasure to see interviews with Doug Jones. (Speaking of dialogues with the jake Jones, please click here for more on Caligari, plus a tidbit on Hellboy II.)
= = =Reviewed by Staci Layne Wilson