Column: The Vault of Secrets: The Cabinet of Caligari (1962)

By Orrin Grey

The Cabinet of Caligari (1962). Directed by: Roger Kay. Starring: Glynis Johns, Dan O’Herlihy.

Welcome back to the Vault of Secrets, where we’ll be unearthing another classic (or not-so-classic) vintage horror film for your delectation. Tonight’s film is one that I was familiar with way before I ever knew what movie it actually was. In the Nine Inch Nails cover of Queen’s song “Get Down, Make Love,” there is an extended sample of the titular Caligari from this film, interrogating the film’s leading lady about her sexual history. “How old were you when you first let a man make love to you?” and so on. Rapid-fire, ultimately getting more excited as he goes on, until he culminates with, “That’s what I want to know. Now. Tell me. Now. Now. All of it. Now. Tell me. YES!” The sample in the song is relatively unforgettable, but I never knew what movie it was from until a few years ago, when I heard about tonight’s film, The Cabinet of Caligari.

The odd interrogation is indicative of the film’s strongest element, a screenplay by Robert Bloch that is full of great lines, many of them belonging to Caligari, though our leading lady also gets a few good ones at his expense: “I loathe, despise, abominate you. I’m revolted by you, sickened.”

From the first moments of the film, we are well and truly in Psycho territory. There’s a slight and almost indefinable offness about the early scenes that is somehow more unsettling than had they been genuinely ominous. Unfortunately, it doesn’t take long for the movie to descend into a series of people-walking-around-a-house sequences. In spite of posters promising that no one will be “permitted out or in during the last 13 nerve-shattering minutes,” the twist ending is the first one you’d expect.

Fortunately, the photography looks good and the version I watched had nice crisp, clear blacks, and it’s full of good lines from Bloch’s screenplay that are all better than the movie they’re in. Sadly, if you, like me, are excited to see a psychosexual 1960s remake of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), which remains one of the most visually striking films of all time, you’re pretty much out of luck. Not much lingers from the 1920 film to grant this one the title of remake, except a few visual nods that ultimately crop up in the final reel.

It’s directed by Roger Kay, whose other credits are pretty much all TV episodes and who supposedly tried to steal the screenwriting credit from Bloch, but much of how it looks is probably owed to cinematographer John L. Russell, who also worked on Psycho. Though it never gets anywhere near as visually interesting as its namesake, there are some nice design touches, including a highly stylized “C” made of interlocking snakes and things on the gates and doors of the house that reminded me a little of the broken ouroboros from Laird Barron’s Black Guide.

That’s it for tonight, but be sure to join us next time when we take a look at a house … of the damned!