One of the most famous silent films of all time is the 1920 German expressionist film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. It is considered by many to be one of the films that first defined what we know as the horror film. Forty two years later, though, there was another film that had an almost identical title to the silent classic, but the similarities pretty much end there…with the exception of a similar twist ending. It’s 1962’s The Cabinet of Caligari.
The film concerns a woman named Jane (Glynis Johns) who is driving across the countryside when her car has a blowout. She then makes her way to a large estate owned by a man named Caligari (Dan O’Herlihy). He’s a bit strange but he does allow her to stay the night. The next morning, though, Jane learns that she is not allowed to leave.
Jane soon finds that there are other guests trapped inside the house, as well. This includes a man named Paul and an old woman named Ruth (Estelle Winwood). Exactly why Caligari keeps them all at the house is unclear, but he seems to take great pleasure in creeping out poor Jane. He peers at her through a distorted window as she bathes and likes showing her dirty pictures. He also has strange Q & A sessions with her that seem to just cause her to grow more and more disturbed.
After Jane sees Ruth being tortured one night she decides she needs to get out. She decides to try seducing Caligari, but ends up with a surprise when Caligari reveals that he and Paul are the same person. After this, Jane ends up running through distorted and nightmarish hallways. Stop reading now if you don’t want the spoiler….In the end we learn that Jane is a patient in a mental hospital and everything we’ve just seen is in her mind.
The Cabinet of Caligari has a lot of style and I do admire it for that. Even before we get into the wild imagery of Jane’s breakdown, which does flirt a bit with the German expressionist style, the film has a great deal of visual creativity. Good thing too, considering that the story itself is confusing and, quite frankly, made my brain hurt. I did stay interested, however. I was just sure there was going to be something really good right around the corner. What I got was a twist ending that is decent, but not quite satisfying.
Though the story didn’t quite pan out in the way I’d hoped, I did admire the performances. Glynis Johns is excellent. She is required to cover a wide range of different emotions and tones…jumping from timid to sexy to disturbed. When she turns up the steam it’s strange to remember that she was the mom in Mary Poppins. O’Herlihy is also quite creepy as Caligari. The scenes that O”Herlihy and Johns have together are among the film’s most bizarre…but again, the less-than-stellar twist almost takes away from their impact when all is said and done.
Though I enjoyed the performances and the look of this film, it just didn’t come together well. Ultimately, The Cabinet of Caligari is one of those films that seems to be very impressed with itself. However, though the twist may be somewhat clever, it lacks punch. The film ends up suffering as a result.