The consistently outrageous and imaginative “Dr. Caligari,” the Nuart’s new Friday midnight show, would have us believe that the evil director of the insane asylum in the classic “Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” has a granddaughter who wants to take up where he left off 70 years ago.
It’s an instance of not having broken the mold--i.e., granddaughter like grandfather--but times have changed. The current Dr. Caligari (Madeleine Reynal) presides over her asylum (by a toxic waste dump) like a mad dominatrix, and her victims/patients are all caught up in extravagant, crazed indulgences in sex and drugs.
This Dr. Caligari is of course not interested in curing anyone, but in replicating her grandfather’s experiments with the hypothalamus, that part of the brain that controls the primal urges. Her goal is to “interface” her own hypothalamus with that of her grandfather, whose brain she has preserved, apparently hoping to emerge as some sort of indomitable super-woman.
Director-designer Stephen Sayadian and his co-writer, Jerry Stahl, whose last midnight-circuit hit was “Cafe Flesh,” have created a darkly hilarious satire of contemporary aberrations and the gobbledygook we use to describe them. As a spoof, “Dr. Caligari” is remarkably well-sustained, and laced with amusing lines and observations. Says Dr. Caligari, in a reflective mood: “Funny thing about desire. If it’s not crude it’s not pure.”
What really counts the most is the film’s terrific stylized look, which is bargain-basement surreal created by a striking use of miniature and minimalist settings (generally constructed against a black backdrop). The film’s nightmare fantasy mood is heightened by Mitchell Froom’s ominous humming, thrumming score.
As deliberately outre a cult movie for those with far-out tastes as “Dr. Caligari” (Times-rated Mature) is, it is also the work of true visionaries with too much of a sense of humor to be pretentious.
A Steiner Films presentation of a Joseph F. Robertson production. Executive producer Gerald M. Steiner. Director Stephen Sayadian. Screenplay Jerry Stahl, Sayadian. Camera Ladi von Jansky. Music Mitchell Froom. Production designer Sayadian. Costumes Belinda Williams-Sayadian. Special makeup effects Ken Diaz. Film editor G. Martin Steiner. With Madeleine Reynal, Fox Harris, Laura Albert, Jennifer Balgobin. John Durbin, Gene Zerna, David Parry, Barry Phillips.
Running time: 1 hour, 18 minutes.