Monday, August 4, 2008

Dr. Caligari (Stephen Sayadian, 1989)

The cinematic equivalent of discovering first-rate cunnilingus at the world's worst hot dog stand, Dr. Caligari is yet another film perfectly captures what the atmospheric conditions must be like inside my desultory mind. Oozing iridescent sludge at every turn, Stephen Sayadian (a.k.a. Rinse Dream and Ladi von Jansky) has made a film so intoxicating, so deranged and illuminating, that I find it hard to believe it took me this long to see it. I mean, the eye-catching colours, the surreal art direction, the Mitchell Froom score, and the exaggerated dialogue all seemed to join forces for the sole purpose of making my damp places even damper. Seriously, the film is bursting with creativity. It was like watching a puddle of late night subway vomit come to life and suddenly engage you in a sword fight without swords. Taking place in a dark, steam-encrusted netherworld, the film follows the domestic disquietude of a couple in crisis. You see, Les Van Houten (a wonderfully nebbish Gene Zerna) is worried that his wife's rampant nymphomania is starting take its toll on her sexual psyche. Desperate, he employs the help of the world's most celebrated psychotherapist, the shapely Dr. Caligari, the kind of woman that can induce a second-rate orgasm by simply snapping her fingers (which, by the way, are covered in capricious veneer of yellow nail polish). She suggests a two week stay at her nightmarish sanitarium, the Caligari Insane Asylum (C.I.A.), and he reluctantly agrees.

He nixed her first idea, which included him sporting an erection and periodically feeding it to Mrs. Van Houten.

The real star of Dr. Caligari was definitely Stephen Sayadian, as his inventive, brain-melting dialogueco-written with the help of Alf-scribe Jerry Stahl, imaginative approach to production design, and Belinda Williams-Sayadian's unique costume design (every character wears either all pink or all yellow) were all an absolute treat to wallow in.

The cast should be commended as well for managing to recite each demented line with a sane brand of aplomb. The leggy Laura Albert (Angel III: The Final Chapter) sets the stage early on as Mrs. Van Houten. Her jerky head movements and overall lustful nature was a beautiful sight to behold, especially when she was masturbating to the fuzzy image of a confident doppelgänger flickering on an old television set. Actually, even more so when she was being bathed by a huge tongue that was protruding from a pulsating patch of unhealthy flesh. (This particular patch also leaked pink pus and an assortment of wrapped and unwrapped candy.)

Renowned Chevy Malibu driver and all-around cool person, Fox Harris, is tremendous as the sheep-trotter-loving doctor who is totally unwise to the sinister goings on at the asylum. His transformation from extreme fuddy-duddy to Mamie Van Doran-esque sexpot was brilliant. And the way he aggressively devoured Dr. Caligari's crotch area was replete with subtly and tenderness. In truth, it was like watching a malnourished raccoon struggle to get at the contents of a discarded bucket of discount chicken. But that's neither here nor over in that sparsely furnished corner. Which reminds me, would it kill you to buy a sectional?

The irascible Magie Song (The Fibonaccis) has a great scene where she's in straitjacket ranting about different types of beans. Her line about making potato salad for one of Heinrich Himmler's picnics made me laugh so hard, I spit out the contents of a drink I hadn't even started drinking yet.

Cult movie cult icon/sexy babe Jennifer Balgobin (Weird Science) and David Parry (Beverly Hills Cop III) have terrific chemistry together as the rivals of the titular doctor; John Durbin (Cyborg 2) is ultra-creepy as Gus Pratt, an electrocution-obsessed mental patient ("soft American girl patty... slice it thick, Ma"); a frightfully blonde Jennifer Miro (The Video Dead) says "Chinchilla" three times in quick succession; and the always alluring Debra Deliso (The Slumber Party Massacre) may have no dialogue as Grace Butler, but she holds an issue of The Watchtower in the presence of a garrulous cannibal like nobody's business.

And last but not least, there's Madeleine Reynal as the titillating Dr. Caligari. Deadpan to the point of pleasurable madness and exuding a raw, untapped sexual energy, Madeleine, in her only film role to date, repeatedly blew me away with her many blank looks of scorn and devilish approach to comedic timing.

It was like love at first sight the moment she appeared on-screen as the unscrupulous doctor with the keen fashion sense (the metallic breast covering was a nice touch). She's the kind of character that would feel right at home in Liquid Sky, and believe me, that's a good thing.



  1. All I have to say is Thank you for posting this one. I adore this film. My favorite was Gus. He likes to nibble.

  2. This will forever be my n°1 fave movie of all time. Never seen anything like it. There is so much goodness in this, it's like a buffet of cinematic madness : the scarecrow, the shiver junkie, the rapist baby,... Yum-yum, indeed.

  3. Laura Albert is a professional stunt driver now. I tried to get an interview with her and she nixed it.

  4. Hey how're ya going?
    I was wondering if anyone has an email contact for Stephen Sayadian, as I am currently working on a news print magazine focusing on a style of heightned punk design and music and would love to pick his brains about DR. CALAGARI and some of his other fine moments.

  5. Oh yes, my email is,

  6. Ok, I finally saw this. There is so much going on here. I loved ever second of it.

    The original Robert Wiene "Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari" from 1919 has been probably my favorite film of all time. Ever since I first saw it when I was only 15. I've seen it countless times. Even though this film is a "sequel" in spirit only, the bar was very high. It did not disappoint.

    I'll probably need to watch this again before commenting further. But my favorite part was John Durbin's monologue after his personality has been switched/altered with Laura Albert's. The whole sequence that went "I know what I am, but I know I am not what I am." The breakneck, jarring nature of the the pacing thus far, and Durbin's hyper psycho-brutal character to that point perfectly set up this brooding and reflective moment of contemplation. Skillfully acted and executed by Sayadian.

    Madeleine Reynal was amazing. Why or dear lord why has she never appeared in anything else?

  7. Awesome. I'm glad you liked it.

    Even though I saw "Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari" a long time ago, I'm thinking about giving it another whirl.

    I seem to appreciate John Durbin's monologue more and more every time I see it. One of the lesbians in the background during that particular scene is played by Marjean Holden from Stripped to Kill 2.

  8. Dang! I've been looking for this movie for years! We had a copy of this on ye ol' VHS back in the day when I worked at a Tower Records and Video and Dr. Caligari (and Rubin and Ed) were watched to DEATH by a small core of us. Thanks for posting it, the memories come flooding back. Cheers!

  9. Dang! This entry almost five years old! ;)

    I'm glad to hear there are other fans of this movie floating around out there.

  10. It's good to see others with a similarly perverse taste in film! I saw Caligari in 1998 and it has been one of my favorites ever since. The Liquid Sky (another fave) comment was apt as well; I remember thinking the same thing while I was viewing this celluloid masterpiece. The MAD doctor is in...

  11. so the new episode of the Projection Booth podcast covered this film... check it out

    1. Thanks for the heads up... I just started listening to it.

  12. I keep coming back to this review of one of my favourite films. I may have named myself after Ms Reynal...

  13. Can anyone suggest something like this film, conceptually or aesthetically? It is just very difficult to forget...