Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, The (2006)

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 07/13/07 02:45:12

"Yet another in a long, sad line of Most Unnecessary Movie Evers."
2 stars (Pretty Crappy)

First things first: Robert Wiene’s 1920 silent classic “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” is not a great film. But it is an interesting one, its visually striking compositions making it an early example of style over substance. Everyone remembers its look. Nobody remembers the little things like story or character.

Which brings us to the 21st century, and filmmaker David Lee Fisher. Fisher is a “Caligari” fanatic, so much so that he’s carefully reenacted the entire movie, pretty much scene for scene, shot for shot. It’s a talkie this time around, but that doesn’t matter. The real highlight is Fisher’s intricate effects work. You see, he used freeze-framed shots of the original film to serve as his digital background; by filming his cast in front of a green screen, he then inserts them directly into the older movie itself. Only a few props are new. The rest, even the very couches on which these new characters sit, are frozen in time from eight decades earlier.

The question, of course, is: why? Such detailed recreations never work; just ask Gun Van Sant. This new “Caligari” - the director calls it a “remix,” not a remake - offers absolutely nothing new, and exists merely as a novelty. By writing all new dialogue to fill the scenes, Fisher had the chance to try something new with the story, to give his updated version a reason for existence. Instead, it merely sits there, a drab recreation on par with a mediocre high school drama production of a famous play, or an art student’s careful yet not-quite-the-same copy of an important painting.

It helps nothing that Fisher demands his cast overact to ludicrous degrees, in vain hope of recapturing that larger than life “silent movie acting” feel. But the cast can’t balance the forced melodrama with enjoyable storytelling (not even Doug Jones, best known from “Hellboy” and “Rise of the Silver Surfer”), and so the characters never rise beyond pawns in a cinematic gimmick - we’re never not aware we’re watching lame mimicry.

On top of this, the visual effects never satisfy. The too-crisp video footage of the new cast never matches with the fuzzier, grainier classic images. The composite shots are cheap and obvious. Fisher is too busy making sure his actors are standing in the right spot that he never bothers asking if they’re doing anything of interest while they’re standing there. As such, we can never forgive the clumsy homemade look of the piece. We’re never given a chance to wow to a finely crafted story - we never even marvel at the film on a technical level - so we keep staring at the crummy effects, grumbling all the way.

While in this mindset, every flaw, every flop, every bungle of the original story is magnified to unbearable proportions. We realize that the original film worked entirely because of Wiene’s insane vision. The gimmicky status of this “remix” takes us out of any possible dream state and makes us pay too much attention to a sloppy story that’s poorly played out.

It’s all the movie equivalent of bad fan fiction, really. I admire Fisher’s efforts, but can’t understand why he’d go to all this trouble. Why not instead make a new movie in the style of the old one, where you could stop worrying about matching every shot to one filmed decades ago, and start wondering how to tell a fantastic new tale?

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