I missed the official 100th anniversary of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari by a couple of days – it was apparently February 26 – but it seemed wrong to let the occasion pass by completely without at least marking it in some way.
Caligari was a film that I became obsessed with years before I ever saw it. Two decades ago, when Mezco Toys was still called Aztech, they released a line of figures based on classic silent horror films, including one of Cesare from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, looking a bit like Robert Smith of The Cure.
Cesare was the only one of the so-called Silent Screamers toys I ever bought – a decision I regret to this day, when I would love to get my hands on a Graf Orlok or a Golem. But I also still have the Cesare figure by my desk.
The long, sharp shadows of German expressionism and early silent films have long had a major influence on my own aesthetic, even before I had ever actually seen most of them. Caligari, which I first saw in college, not long after buying that toy, remains a movie that I’ve watched only a few times, and yet one that sticks with me in everything I do.
In part, this is because Caligari is a film that can be enjoyed in still frames almost as much as it can be as a movie. I’ve said before that most entire films aren’t as gorgeous or potent as any given frame of Caligari, and I stand by that.
A few years ago, I was asked to contribute a story to The Madness of Dr. Caligari, a deluxe anthology of stories inspired by the silent classic, edited by Joe Pulver. The story I turned in, “Blackstone: A Hollywood Gothic,” concerns an ill-fated Poverty Row production of a 1946 movie called The Corpse Walks, which features some familiar figures.
But it’s far from the only story I ever wrote that had Caligari‘s long shadow over it. “Night’s Foul Bird” in Painted Monsters may be more concerned with Nosferatu and Faust and London After Midnight, but there’s no denying that Cesare is in there somewhere, or that the plot of Caligari (and its successors) runs like a dark vein through “Stygian Chambers,” the story I wrote for Pluto in Furs which, when I first started writing it, was going to be named for a line from the Robert Bloch-penned 1962 remake Cabinet of Caligari.
Even early stories like “The Mysterious Flame,” which anchors my first collection, are filled with the shadows of German expressionist cinema in general, with Caligari as maybe its most striking exemplar.
Nor am I likely to extricate myself from those painted-on shadows anytime soon. A hundred years gone by, and they’ve still never made another movie quite like Caligari – and it may be that they never will.