Visionary and still highly influential after 90 years, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari remains one of the most frightening horror films ever made.
It is the quintessential example of German Expressionist filmmaking. The sets a nightmarish architecture designed as more than mere backdrop for the action, it is a character unto itself: a horrible, malevolent presence as menacing as the titular mad doctor.
The story revolves around the arrival of the fair into town, and along with it, the mysterious Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss), and his strange fortune-telling act. In the cramped tent, Caligari commands his catatonic servant, Cesare, to reveal the grim futures of the patrons. But at night, after the show, Cesare slips into town, committing murders for his master.
And when young Francis (Friedrich Feher) vows to solve the crimes, it puts him and his fiancée in mortal danger. Especially as Francis’ sleuthing leads him to the local sanitarium, and a sinister connection between Caligari and the hospital director is discovered. Can Francis save himself, his fiancée or even Cesare (Conrad Veidt), before it’s too late? Or will Caligari’s sinister plot win out?
There is even a twist ending that, despite having been ripped off countless times, still manages to seem fresh here, and a might unsettling to boot.
The set design, the performances, the makeup, are all amazing. Most modern horror films wish they could be half as unsettling as this. Caligari has atmosphere to spare, but isn’t overwhelmed by it, thanks to both a great story and great actors.
Directed by Robert Wiene • Unrated • 1920 • 72 minutes