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Dr. Caligari 1989: Better Living Thru Chemistry

There's a long standing tradition on this website of me writing about films that largely appeal to a niche audience one, which in many ways has led to a great deal of self doubt inactivity and general laziness on my part. It's not that I don't enjoy what I do or think it isn't worth while, it's just to say that for me the desire of wanting more is, has and always will be a plague on me that leads to aforementioned cycle. But if there is one thing that without fail leads me to feeling some level of push towards positive motivation it is the bliss of discovery, so whilst today's feature is once again appealing to that audience of one it is through and only through this audience that I can find like minded people as opposed to people who are like minded. It would be an easy solution to review to review whatever CGI nightmare is currently in theaters or the latest installment of the latest hit show to hit streaming but if there is one sentiment I share with the subject of today's review it is that the easy solution is dirty, vile and largely ignorant of any understanding or cause, it is easy, and easy while simple, stinks. I don't blame others for taking or enjoying that route but when I find filmmakers like Stephen Sayadian, the director of Dr. Caligari 1989, it is for lack of a better analogy like "finding a kindred spirit", I just never thought in a million years I'd be writing a phrase like that about someone whose career was largely in the pornographic sector. But if there is any reason to have admiration for such a person it is the sincerity in their efforts to always do their honest best with the subject matter they were given, in the interviews I've seen with Mr. Sayadian I get the sense that while he never wanted to make pornographic features after leaving the infamous publication Hustler, he isn't ashamed of the fact that he did. He could easily lie and say that the pseudonym he wrote and directed his porn features under, Rinse Dream, was someone else within the agency he ran or one that multiple people shared, he could deny it all outright, but that would would be easy. The hard thing is to take ownership. It would be easy for me to exclude Mr. Sayadian's pornographic altogether in this review and say it has no merit to the subject of Dr.Caligari but the truth is one does not exist without the other and the former is very much apart of the latter, both of which exist very as a form of positive rejection and it is that form of rejection that I take in earnest and say that while I can not defend a guy who had an actress deliver a monologue while masturbating and fantasizing about an evil clown going down on her whilst his elongated nose sticks into her orifice. I can say that for better or worse I'll never forget seeing that and that in a strange way it puts into context not only what Mr. Sayadian was trying to accomplish but where so many of the other strange auteurs I follow were coming from in their respective genres. Cafe Flesh rules though.

On the subject of rejection, Caligari is not necessarily the film that Stephen Sayadian set out to make when conceiving his first "mainstream" feature, if you could call any of his works "mainstream". That is to say what initially began life as an original feature was quickly turned into a remake of the classic 1920 film once the producer found out it was in the public domain and he could easily secure a hundred thousand dollars in funding for the project, if they pursued that road. Where many directors would outright balk at such an idea and Mr. Sayadian did after being initially pitched the idea, citing the original as "such a classic", he quickly took it as challenge to bring a new take on the subject to life. Was he successful, in the opinion of this reviewer (if you couldn't guess I'm Luke) yes. But I'll let you the brave reader who didn't run off upon my somewhat vivid description of the clown scene in Nightdreams to decide for yourself. But what exactly is a successful reimagining? Is it a film that embraces the spirit of the original whilst adding in sequences that were only made possible by the advancement of technology? If so Caligari 89 passes that test. Does it acts as a quasi sequel that modernizes much of the subject matter present in the miasma of the original's lore? If so Caligari 89 once again passes that test. You might suggest that any reimagining or remake should reject, even destroy what the original was and betray the original's audience by creating something totally new! Well once again this film passes that test. But it can't be all of those things! I hear you shrieking from a distant pass, THAT'S A CONTRADICTION! Well yes and there lies genius in Mr. Sayadian's work, Dr.Caligari 89 is in fact a walking talking breathing contradiction that if one were to visualize it'd probably look a lot like this.

The beauty of this film is not in it's complexity but in the way that it is able to turn the simplicity into complexity. If one were to describe the bare bones sets of Dr. Caligari 1989 they'd probably use a five dollar word such as baroque or call it off putting and disturbingly angular! Which if I had to venture a guess as to what the pretentious critic types of the original film's day might of said of that movie, would more likely than be somewhere in the same neighborhood. Though I doubt anyone would confuse either film's set for the other. As for the film's plot gone is the tale of an evil hypnotist traveling to a German village with his somnambulist minion, instead we have the granddaughter of the good doctor treating a grand cast of certified wack-a-loons including a nymphomaniac house wife, a cannibalistic serial killer with a pension for shock therapy and perhaps sickest of all a suburban square husband. All of them trapped together in an asylum which looks about as inviting as the abandoned spark plug factory by my dad's house. The theme of psychology and identity remains a through line from the original but it takes that concept shoots it up with a fatal overdose 80's neon junk, revives it and kills it again with even more. You'll notice I haven't really mentioned the film's form yet, well there really isn't one. At times Dr. Caligari feels like a stage play from a bad alternative theatre troupe, others a music video from a group deemed to weird for MTV rather than offensive, before nose diving into what feels like a softcore excerpt from one of Stephen Sayadian's porn flicks, sometimes all within the same scene. While coming in at a brisk 78 minutes Caligari is a constant expression of controlled chaos, actors are quite literally dragged in and out of scenes, rotated on giant lazy susans while the camera shifts focus or doing some other sort of choreography while delivering lines that sound like a mix between John Waters and a 50's B movie you'd see airing on a Saturday at midnight. Watching Dr. Caligari you'll find that the line between arthouse and grindhouse is not only thin but often nonexistent, it lives only in the minds snobby weirdos like yours truly. Caligari rejects the formality and artificial nature of film by doubling down on it. Another form of positive rejection if you will.

The term baroque gets tossed around a lot in art circles and in truth I think it's one of the hardest things to physically define as no one really knows what it means beyond being a catch all for high art, the same way Coke is used as a catch all for cola. Sure you can define baroque as a specific period of art, the same way Coca Cola is a style of cola, you can even find specific examples of it online. But try to describe it in plain simple English and you're gonna sound like the village fool. Like the taste of Coke, you only know it if you experience it first hand. This of course is not to say that Dr. Caligari is baroque art but it is to say that it's partially indescribable. I haven't known of or owned this movie for a long time and when it comes to the work Stephen Sayadian I am but a novice. Yet I have already watched it numerous times, shown it to friends and have gone out of my way to see his other works even though they're pornographic in nature. In burning through the special features on my blu-ray two things are very apparent Mr. Sayadian is beloved by those who worked with him and that he is very proud of this film and his work in general. For however many auteurs there are out there, there is something to be said for someone who is able to push the boundaries exploitation without also doing so behind the camera. In creating Caligari, Stephen Sayadian looked to create the next big midnight movie and some 30 years later with a 4k restoration and release on blu-ray it looks like at long last that dream is starting to be realized. If you're able to purchase a copy, I highly recommend you do. Mondo Macabre is planning a standard edition sometime in the future. And here's to hoping that perhaps Stephen Sayadian has one last work to present us connoisseurs of strange, if not he left us quite a unique bevy of work to enjoy. All praise Rinse Dream.

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