Note: This is a series of 31 iconic horror film reviews I plan on doing throughout October. See the introduction post for more information and the list of films.
According to Roger Ebert, “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” is the “first true horror film.” How can you not start a series about the history of horror films with what one of the biggest cinephiles of all-time considers to be the first horror film? “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” is a 1920 silent horror film from Germany which is one of the most influential films of the German Expressionist movement. It is also one of the earliest films to include a “twist” ending. Most of the film is revealed via flashback with the protagonist Francis sharing his story with a stranger. He tells a story about himself and his friend Alan, who both love the same woman, visiting a carnival where they see Dr. Caligari and his “somnambulist” Cesare who has been asleep for a very long time and can apparently answer questions about the future. Alan asks him how long he will live and the somnambulist responds that he will die at dawn (insert startling and extremely creepy music). I’ll leave the story at that to avoid spoiling too much but I’ll admit to actually being surprised by the twist ending (I probably shouldn’t have been due to almost everything having a twist ending nowadays but it definitely would have surprised its audience at the time).
I think calling “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” a horror film is a bit of a stretch. For it’s time, I’m sure it was relatively scary and even shocking for it’s audience to see but that’s clearly not the case now. Obviously no blood is shown but there are some on-screen deaths (that might not seem like much but even 11 years later in “Dracula” they seemed to avoid showing deaths as much as they could). Nothing in particular is scary unless you count Dr. Caligari (played by Werner Krauss), who is a very creepy looking character. The scariest part of the film is actually the score. The sound quality on the DVD isn’t so great but the score is still creepy beyond belief, especially during the second act. After the somnambulist predicts Alan’s death, the sound is very startling and almost made me jump. If anything’s scary in “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” it’s the brilliant score.
The film is a silent film which means you have to wait to read what the characters are saying a few seconds later and have to wait what seems like forever to get back to the action. Probably almost half the 75-minute run time is spent reading the text (the film gives you way too much time to read each part). This is usually pretty annoying but it does add a little shock to the revelation that Alan will die with you having to read it instead of it being told to you. The movie also has a strange style that is really odd to watch. The sets are really abstract with a lot of jagged edges. For lack of a better way to explain it, it almost looks like the story is taking place within a painting. The actors also tend to use jerky movements that are very odd for a human being to use. It’s definitely an original style but not exactly a good one in my opinion.
I’m sure “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” was a great film for it’s time but I was kind of disappointed with this critically acclaimed movie. A lot of critics consider it to be one of the best films ever made and it holds a 100% on Rotten Tomatoes at the time of this post. It might be worth half-watching while you’re doing other things just because of its status as a historic horror film but other than the score, there just isn’t anything scary in it. It would be a good film for riffing on with your buddies (there are a lot of scenes that would have been scary back in the ’20s but are laughable now) but it feels kind of dirty to make fun of such a renowned film which gave so much to the horror genre. I’m glad I watched what Roger Ebert considers the first horror film for historical reasons but I definitely don’t see the need to ever watch it again. If you would like to see “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” yourself, it is in the public domain so you can see it for free on web sites like the Internet Archive.