Saturday, October 31, 2015

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (2005)

In the village of Holstenwall, a carnival has begun, and the sinister Dr. Caligari has set up a fortune telling show with his somnambulist patient Cesare. Good friends Francis and Alan go to visit, but when the latter asks how long he has to live, Cesare responds with 'Until tomorrow's dawn'. The prediction comes true, and Alan becomes the second victim of a mysterious series of killings that have rocked the village. Francis is convinced that Caligari is the murderer, and tries to discover who and what he really is...

You might expect this 2005 iteration of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari to be a legitimate movie in its own right, but it really isn't. You see, it's a remake in the sense that it's got new actors, but they're projected onto the existing movie via green screen, with the old performers having been photoshopped out. The result is a shot-for-shot remake, with the new actors miming the actions of the previous ones. While this is a rather creative experiment, I also feel it's somewhat lazy. Perhaps this is tied into the movie being a remake. If this was simply an original tale with the actors pasted onto a series of locations drawn for the film, that would be an interesting path to go down, but it feels pointless when the first movie already exists, and it already had the actors on these sets for real. If you're not going to do anything differently with a remake, that's already a bad sign, but if it's literally the same movie but with new people, why not just stick to the superior version?

There's more wrong with this movie, and that's down to the sound. You see, this isn't a silent movie. Everyone talks. While I'll try not to hold the fact that everyone's American against them, I will judge their heinously poor acting. Whether it was genuine lack of talent, or a creative decision to emulate the broader emotions of silent actors, it's still bad, with terrible performances all round, resulting in an unsatisfying experience. Then comes the dialogue. Expanding the dialogue of the original Caligari doesn't seem too bad of an idea on paper, as we do have to deal with the transition between silent to sound, which if left untouched could leave us with very little for the actors to say. The problem here is that the film makes unnecessary additions, which are really unsubtle, don't fit at all with how the story's meant to be told, and make the twist ending way more telegraphed than it was in the original movie, where it was completely unexpected.

For example, there are constant reminders and assertions that Francis might be a little short on his tether, with lines like "How did it happen? Did it all really happen?", "It's either him or I've completely lost my mind.", and "He exists purely in a world within himself." (said of Caligari moments before the twist) which is frustrating. I get that they're trying to foreshadow the character's mental condition, but by constantly bringing attention to it, they're jeopardising the surprise of the twist at the end. The only touches I appreciated were Francis's vague recognition of Caligari, as if he's 'seen him before, in the back of my mind, in a dream or a nightmare', and his reaction upon realising the doctor has entered an asylum.

There's also a greater expansion to events to make them tie together that much more, as if that makes the writing automatically better. To give an example, we're told that Alan just so happened to be frightened of fortune tellers when he was a child, and he also has mental health issues stemming from a fear of his mortality. While I feel this could be an interesting way to expand this character, it kinda robs the moment of a bit of its tension, ironically by trying to create more. In the original movie, it's just a casual fairground game, where Alan is a random dude who asks a silly question for fun, and doesn't expect such a confronting answer. The horror of an innocuous carnival game so quickly turning into a portent of doom is what makes it scarier, as does an assured and jovial man becoming terrified. Here though he's already a nervous wreck one poor decision away from a breakdown. Also, one weird is how characters keep pooh-poohing Francis's suspicions of Caligari being the murderer by saying 'Well, Alan was mentally ill, you know'. What the hell are you talking about, guys? Just because you think Caligari and Cesare aren't involved, there was still foul play. The man was stabbed to death!

For all its adding of extra plot points, characters, and 'depth', the movie misses out several key moments from the original, creating plot holes or unexplained moments in the process, like why the titular madman crazily yelling "I am Caligari!" over and over again is important. Alan's presence at the end also misses a subtle but important and very interesting detail about the old version's final scene. If X is really X, and everyone is there, why isn't Alan?

The aesthetic of Caligari '05 is good in the sense that it looked great in the old Caligari, and in some spots here it looks fine, but in others it's really bad, with poor composition making it apparent these actors don't belong, with the worst scene being Cesare's rooftop walk, and him walking with his arm against a wall. Alternatively, there are a few other scenes seemingly shot on a real set, which is strange. If you're going to the trouble of not remaking the movie visually but instead adhering to all the existing film, why bother with a real set if it's just for a 1 minute scene in a non-descript police office?

Another nuisance is the presence of new digital shadows as well as the brighter lighting in all of the scenes, as if the director thought the film simply being in black and white would be enough to sort out all of the thematic lighting. These moments make Caligari '05 far too bright, and ignore the fact that the black markings you see on walls everywhere are actually meant to be shadows themselves. Finally, there's one scene near the end where the quality of the original film takes a sudden downturn, which clashes with both the rest of the film, and the actors onscreen at that moment.

The visual direction is basically copying the 1920 film, but there are a few nicely framed new shots added in here and there.

Between his hilarious 'anger', fake sniffles, and weak desk thumps, Judson Pearce Morgan really does a poor job as the lead character, although I have to wonder how much of it is his fault, since practically no-one is good here! Doug Jones visually disappoints as Cesare, looking more wimpy and goofy than freaky and intimidating. In fact, he looks like Michael Cera raided a goth's make-up bag! He also looks less like a pallid corpse when resting in his cabinet and more like someone genuinely sleeping, which is more realistic I guess, but looks sillier. Daamen J Krall as Dr. Caligari is mixed. He's ok in some places, but not so much in others, and his constant cackling makes him a bit one-note. Lauren Birkell is one of the better actors, but her big reactions feel very overdone and amateurish. Neil Hopkins as Alan is likewise better than most, even if not perfect. One last issue with everyone's performances is that they talk and act in a very modern fashion, feeling at odds with the old German expressionistic look to everything. I will however give props to the actors for almost pronouncing Cesare correctly (with Morgan hitting it dead-on). It's a little thing, sure, but something I take notice of. It's one of the many reasons I appreciate Madeline Reynal from Dr. Caligari 1989 so much.

The music here is ok, but not great, and it kinda lacks subtlety, like it's trying too hard to constantly remind you that this is a scary movie.

One last note is this film's seeming disrespect towards the old Caligari. The first sign is the end credits only crediting the crew of the remake, and no-one behind the scenes of the original. Second is a story I heard that I don't know if is true. If it isn't, then no matter and this can be safely disregarded, but if it is (and it could very well be), jeez! Apparently in a Q&A session during Caligari 2005's screening run, 'director' and 'writer' David Lee Fisher actually admitted to never having seen the original Cabinet of Dr. Caligari in full, always having fastforwarded through it as he found it too slow moving, and also admitted to not understanding its plot and themes. Doth mayhaps thou thinkest you shouldn't have fucking remade it then, my good sir?

For the last 10+ years, David Lee Fisher has been trying to get another 'remake' of this sort of Nosferatu off the ground, with Doug Jones as Count Orlok. On one hand this really does show Doug Jones as a stand-up guy, and not an arrogant Hollywood prima donna who finds certain roles and projects 'beneath him', but on the other hand, is it really worth going to so much time and trouble for something that's not even a real remake? I don't think so. One could get literally the same experience by simply watching the original Nosferatu. If you're gonna do a remake, actually have it be a remake! Don't be ridiculous. Whether or not this project ever formulates I'm not sure, but I AM certain that it could be nothing but disappointing, and that is exactly what this 'remake' of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is...

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