Wednesday, March 05, 2014

"The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari": Was this silent film the first horror feature ever?

We sometimes forget that some early silent films could show a lot of creative plotting.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” (1920, Germany, directed by Robert Wiene, based on a story by Carl Mayer and Hans Janowitz), sets up a magician-doctor Caligari (Werner Krauss) with his sleepwalker or somnambulist. When a young man Francis brings his friend Alan and fiancée Jane to the show, Alan is told by the sleepwalker that his fortune is set: death.  Of course, he is found dead, and other bodies follow.  The plot twists at the end require some real skills like those of David Blaine.
The black and white film constant changes pastel hues from one scene to the next.  In one scene, there is an effect with shadows that recalls a 1940’s horror series on “Movies for Kids” called “The Clutching Hand” and those films really were for adults even then.
The film was restored in 1996 with string quartet music score by Timothy Brock, but the score seems to quote the string quartets of Bela Bartok a lot, as well as the Oceanides tone poem of Jan Sibelius (and even a passage from the Symphony #7). 
Somehow the exhibit reminds me of the “freak” show at a county fair that I visited in Vernon, Texas in 1984.  The deformed person would make the visitor feel defensive for wanting to gawk.
This film is said to be the first horror feature ever.  The full DVD runs 71 minutes, but the original was 51 minutes.

The DVD is distributed by Image, and adds a short by Wiene, “Genuine: A Tale of a Vampire”. 

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