THE CABINET OF DR CALIGARI, 2005
English-language sound remake of Cabinet des Dr. Caligari from 1920.
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Remaking a classic is a tricky business, and as for remaking what is arguably the first horror film of all time…well, some might just consider that as a little blasphemous. But don’t bust out those torches and pitchforks just yet. David Lee Fisher’s 2005 re-imagining of “The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari” is actually an intriguing, marvellously creepy update of Robert Wiene’s1920 classic.
Two friends, Alan and Francis, are in love with the same woman. Determined not to let this ruin their friendship, the young men go to forget their troubles at a carnival. There, they encounter the sinister Dr. Caligari and his prize exhibit: Cesare, a sleepwalker who awakens to give premonitions about any audience member brave enough to address him. Alan cannot resist asking how long he will live, and is shocked to learn that he will die at dawn. He and Francis try to laugh off the prediction, but the following morning, Alan is found stabbed to death in his bed. Francis is determined to find the culprit, and he’s certain that the murder has something to do with Caligari and his captive sleepwalker…
Fisher’s technique is an unusual but interesting one. Using the original film, the filmmakers strip out the old cast and replace them with his own actors, superimposing them over the 1920 film’s backgrounds. The effect works almost seamlessly, and thanks to spot-on makeup and costuming, the new actors blend in perfectly with the expressionist sets. The black and white photography is gorgeous, making use of inky shadows to convey the moody atmosphere. When a little wildflower makes a couple of fleeting appearances, a speck of purple in a colourless world, the effect is unearthly and beautiful.
The acting is very stylized, which works perfectly for this project. Judson Pearce Morgan plays Francis as a man struggling to comprehend mysteries of which nobody else is even aware. What seems obvious to him – that Caligari is evil – just doesn’t seem to occur to anybody else. Neil Hopkins (of TV’s “Lost”) is highly sympathetic as Alan. Looking shaken and consumptive, he’s the perfect victim for a manipulator like Caligari. As the doctor himself, Daamen Krall is more of a charmer than Werner Krauss was in the original. But there’s no mistaking the cruelty that lurks behind that folksy smile. As Jane, Lauren Birkell looks like a beautiful porcelain doll come to life, and her performance is a wonderful homage to the wide-eyed heroines of Gothic horror. Finally, Doug Jones turns in a truly haunting performance as Cesare, the sleepwalker. Speaking only one line in the entire course of the movie, Jones relies on his eyes and body language to convey his character’s torment. When Cesare falls for Birkell’s character, his sudden vulnerability is heartbreaking.
So many things about this movie contribute to its surreal atmosphere. The music is particularly creepy, sounding as slinky and unhinged as its characters. Small touches, like the skeletal trees and slanted walls, all add up to create a disorienting netherworld. As for that one bit with the wind-up monkey, if that doesn’t unnerve you at all…it might be time to seek help.
Fisher uses shadow to his advantage, and does justice to some iconic moments from the original film. Especially memorable is the murder scene, performed in chilling silhouette. Fisher also replicates the famous image of Cesare emerging from the shadows to slide eerily along a wall.
Some would argue a classic film shouldn’t be remade at all, and there is some truth to the saying, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” But when a filmmaker pays respect to the original work, while taking the old material in a new direction, there can be rewarding results. David Lee Fisher’s 2005 adaptation of “The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari” is one of those remakes: a thoughtful spin on the original that stands on its own as an enjoyably strange viewing experience.