‘Dr. Caligari’ Is Out of Cabinet and on Its Way : Low-budget, limited-release film made in a Fullerton warehouse is establishing a loyal following along the cult-movie circuit

In the world of big-budget Hollywood movies, success or failure usually is defined in millions of dollars, and pronounced within days of release.

“The Hunt for Red October,” the Cold War submarine thriller, filled seats in more than 1,600 theaters and did upwards of $37 million in business during its first two weeks. Conversely, the cop flick “The Last of the Finest” sold less than $600,000 in tickets its first weekend, and quickly was branded a bomb.

Cult movies reside at the opposite end of the film spectrum. Usually made for less than it costs to advertise an average Hollywood release, these films depend on word of mouth, limited art-house release and, in the best scenario, extended runs as midnight movies. Success depends on attracting a loyal core of fans, and builds slowly.


It is at this level of the film biz that the Fullerton-based makers of “Dr. Caligari” believe they have found their niche. Having garnered some glowing reviews at festivals and in a limited release in Orange County theaters (The Times’ Kevin Thomas called it “the work of true visionaries”), the movie has started open-ended runs as a midnight movie in Los Angeles, Sacramento, Phoenix and now Corona del Mar, as it gradually makes its way to art houses across the country.

“Word of mouth is great. I would say it’s reached the stage of being a cult film already,” says the movie’s producer, Joseph Robertson, maker of such ‘60s B-movie camp classics as “The Slime People” and “The Crawling Hand.”

“Dr. Caligari,” completed last year, is a kinky updating of the silent German classic “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.” It stars Madeleine Reynal, a top Argentine model in her American film debut, as the granddaughter of the asylum owner in the 1919 original. The new Dr. Caligari runs the asylum now and conducts bizarre hormonal experiments on her patients, who range from a nymphomaniac housewife to a mass murderer who gets a sexual charge out of electroshock therapy.

The movie is the brainchild of Gerald Steiner, an Anaheim Hills resident who owns a Fullerton video duplication business. Deciding to make a movie of his own, he financed the project out of his own pocket to the tune of $750,000, and converted an empty warehouse at his business, next to the Fullerton Airport, into a sound stage where the entire movie was filmed.

“I’m a horror buff,” Steiner explains. “I’ve always loved the old films.” One of those old films was “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” and Steiner says he got to wondering: “What if they made it today, with color?”

After connecting with Robertson, he approached Stephen Sayadian with an offer to write and direct. Sayadian made his mark in cult-movie circles with “Cafe Flesh,” which mixed scenes of hard-core pornography with an offbeat premise about a post-nuclear society where most of the survivors cannot enjoy intimacy without becoming violently ill. So instead, they gather at the Cafe Flesh to watch staged sex acts by the few remaining “sex-positives.”

Made in 1982 for $90,000, the film foreshadowed the then-nascent AIDS epidemic and was a big hit on the midnight-movie circuit, playing at the Nuart in Los Angeles for three years. Sayadian, a Los Angeles resident, admits some surprise at the Orange County connections in the evolution of his new film: “When I think of Orange County,” he says, “I think of the Meese Commission.”

Sayadian says he was particularly taken aback by Steiner’s decision to test market the movie in Orange County malls . “To me, that was like handing out vintage Motown records at a Klan rally,” the director says with a laugh. “When this movie doesn’t work for an audience, it’s painful to watch.” He recalls some screenings for studio executives that were met with stony silence: “It was so quiet you could hear a career drop.”

Steiner explains that he figured malls would help bolster the word-of-mouth campaign--and he claims that the movie didn’t do badly. But its natural home, he admits, is elsewhere: “It is a specialty film. It has to go to art houses. It’s not really a mall film.”

Indeed, while the mall crowd has been conditioned by the splatter-flick likes of the “Fridaythe 13th” and “Halloween” series, “Dr. Caligari” is a different beast altogether. Its minimal sets, highly stylized dialogue and acting, eccentric sexual fixations and overall outre approach probably would put off hormone-driven teens in search of a good old-fashioned bloodletting. And the older “Driving Miss Daisy” crowd would likely be totally baffled if not offended.

When Sayadian got the “Dr. Caligari” assignment, he brought along Jerry Stahl, his writing partner from “Cafe Flesh” and the stage play “Jackie Charge!,” a tale of voyeurism. Sayadian “does the pictures and I put the words to them,” Stahl says. “It’s like working with Salvador Dali.”

Stahl’s often obtuse dialogue helps give the film a clipped, angular rhythm that matches its minimalist visual style. “When you have all interior (shots), the only place you can go outside is in the dialogue,” Stahl says.

Working on such projects as “Cafe Flesh” and “Dr. Caligari” gives Stahl an opportunity to break with his “day job"--television work on such shows as “Moonlighting” (where he was a staff writer),"thirtysomething” and “ALF.”

“It’s a real chance to be schizophrenic, if you’re writing ‘Moonlighting’ with one hand and ‘Dr. Caligari’ with the other,” says Stahl. “As far as I’m concerned, writing ‘Moonlighting’ is surreal. Writing ‘Caligari’ is normal.”

The “Caligari” script required intricate and fast-paced staging, triggered by verbal cues. Rather than smooth, naturalistic acting, it called for an exaggerated style--and Sayadian came up with a series of distinct, rigid poses. To save money (Sayadian had $300,000 of the total budget to actually make the movie) the writer and director drew up detailed storyboards of each scene before going into production.

Meanwhile, Sayadian says, Steiner and Robertson were kept largely in the dark. “I don’t know if they knew exactly what they were getting until they got to the set,” he says. But Steiner “never stopped writing the checks, so I figured we were still in business.”

“We gave them carte blanche to do what they wanted to do,” Steiner agrees.

While Sayadian selected his crew largely from past projects--Mitchell Froom, who did the music for “Cafe Flesh,” repeated his role for “Dr. Caligari"--the casting was done through open auditions. Then there was a month of intense rehearsal before the cameras started to roll. The film was shot in another month--August, 1988--entirely within Steiner’s warehouse-turned-sound stage.

After eight months of editing and other post-production tasks, the film was ready for release but, Steiner admits, he wasn’t sure how to go about that. One studio expressed interest in the film, he says, but finally he decided to distribute it himself.

While a wide release may have gained more money in a shorter time, opening the film slowly in specialty houses has its advantages. Advertising costs are minimized, and a limited number of prints is needed--only a dozen copies of “Dr. Caligari” exist.

The movie--which landed a 13-page spread in the underground magazine Film Threat--already has been shown in a number of western cities and is set for openings soon in San Francisco, Providence, R.I., Minneapolis, Chicago and Washington. Scheduling a New York run is next on Steiner’s list of priorities.

Steiner says he is close to completing a video distribution deal, with release scheduled for Halloween. He says the film’s limited theater release will help recoup the film’s costs; the video sale will account for any profits.

Meanwhile, the film makers are moving on to new, separate projects.

“I think ‘Caligari’ is just scratching the surface,” Sayadian says of what he and Stahl want to do. They already have written their next movie and are working to arrange the financing. The script is based loosely on their play, “Jackie Charge!” Sayadian is hoping for a bigger budget this time around. “It was fun doing this picture,” he said of “Dr. Caligari,” “but films of this low budget, I don’t think I have the stamina to do this anymore.”

Steiner, who quotes even the few bad reviews of “Dr. Caligari” with glee, has enjoyed his first taste of film making and is ready for his next one. He and Robertson, too, have written a new film together and are nearing a deal to finance it, with Robertson directing.

The project, to be done on Steiner’s sound stage and on location in Anaheim, is called “Auntie Lee’s Meat Pies.” Its dark humor is more than suggested by the title. “I could never be part of a film that’s lukewarm,” says Steiner, whose office is hung with props from his first film foray. “It has to be striking.

“Dr. Caligari” is shown Saturdays at midnight at the Port Theater, 2905 E. Coast Highway, Corona del Mar. Information: (714) 673-6260.