Movie Review : 'Dr. Caligari' Offers a Dose of Nuttiness


One of the kinkiest artifacts ever to come out of Orange County has to be the movie "Dr. Caligari."


Made in Fullerton in 1989, the low-budget feature is part goofball sex-trip, part personalized art film, all with an eye toward midnight-movie status. That's just what "Dr. Caligari" quickly attained, playing late night at the Port Theatre in Corona del Mar and the Nuart in West Los Angeles at the turn-of-the-decade before disappearing from view.

Now it's back, at least for one evening. This persistently outrageous, often funny and sometimes inventive movie screens Friday as the latest offering in Huntington Beach Art Center's "Summer Camp: Death Takes a Holiday" film series.

The center advises that "Dr. Caligari" is an "adults only" experience. That's because the movie loves to show a little skin and, in a cheeky way, satirize our obsession with sex.

It's the least you'd expect from fringe filmmaker Stephen Sayadian, who created "Cafe Flesh" in 1982, which has become something of a cult favorite for those who like their eroticism served with outlandish, peephole stylings.

Sayadian joined with Gerald Steiner, an Anaheim Hills resident with a Fullerton video-duplication business, to create "Dr. Caligari." Steiner put $750,000 of his own money into the project and staged the picture in an empty warehouse near his business next to the Fullerton Airport.

Inspired by the 1919 silent horror classic, "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari," this comedy updates the tale by introducing us to the new Dr. Caligari (Madeleine Reynal), the granddaughter of the original. It's 70 years later, but like grandpa, she runs an insane asylum and performs experiments on the inmates.

This Dr. Caligari, dressed up in streetwalker-meets-Star Trek duds, is interested in the hypothalamus, that section of the brain supposedly controlling our primal urges. She wants to merge her hypothalamus with her long-dead grandfather's, becoming an IQ-heavy super-chick. Or something like that.

Anyway, Reynal (a successful Argentine model at the time this was shot) slithers about uttering cool things like "Funny thing about desire. If it's not crude, it's not pure" and basically getting everybody, including her patients, very excited.

Not much actually goes on in "Dr. Caligari," but its dedication to startling images and peculiar art design keeps the open-minded interested. Sayadian gives all the claustrophobia (the flick never leaves that tiny warehouse) a cheaply garish look by moving to the opposite end of the spectrum from the original black-and-white film--everything, from the costumes to the props, is in shades of phosphorescent pinks, bawdy blues and ribald reds.

Like the colors, the acting is bold and rudimentary, with Reynal and everybody else mugging without restraint. It's all part of the "either you're for us or against us" humor that asks the audience to play along with the silly sensationalism. That's really the best way to enjoy "Dr. Caligari," but it's not hard slinking into the party.

* Stephen Sayadian's "Dr. Caligari" (1989) will be shown Friday at the Huntington Beach Art Center, 538 Main St., Huntington Beach. 8 p.m. $4 general admission, $2 for center members. (714) 374-1650.

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