The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, and six more movies



Dec. 29, 2022

Today at the movies — a beatnik/feline murder mystery, a modern western done right, Mickey Spillane done wrong, a creepy clairvoyant, trolls and fairies in Michael Moriarty's apartment complex, boarding school unpleasantness, and a sub-par apocalyptic sci-fi.

• The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920)
• Countdown: The Sky's on Fire (1999)
• The Falling (2014)
• The Fat Black Pussycat (1963)
• I, the Jury (1982)
• Silverado (1985)
• Troll (1985)

Highly recommended: The Cabinet of Dr Caligari.

Also enjoyable: Silverado and Troll.

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The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920)

We're accustomed to hearing the dialogue, not reading it, so a century later silent movies can be difficult. It's almost a different art form, but if you make the effort a good silent can be terrific. This one sure is.

It's a horror movie — the first, some say — with only images and music and slow-scrolling text in German to scare you, and acting we'd now call campy. To be honest, I had to watch it twice to fully appreciate it, and for the second viewing I waited until well after dark, with the lights out, the cat asleep across the room, and hands off the pause button.

The sets are astounding — the characters look like they're walking through Dali paintings, where everything is tilted and askew. It's extremely effective, visually equal to Tim Burton or David Lynch's weirdest looks, and it turbo-amplifies the chills in a chilly story.

A hypnotist calling himself Dr Caligari applies for a permit to put on a creep show, and the bureaucrat mocks him before issuing the permit. When the show goes on, a man in the crowd asks Cesare, an eerie clairvoyant, how long he'll live — he, meaning the guy asking the question. The answer is, "Until the break of dawn."

The city clerk who'd razzed Caligari gets murdered, and at the break of dawn, so does the man who asked the wrong question.

The title character is frightening, but not the kind of fright you'll remember after the movie. Cesare the clairvoyant, though, is as instantly iconic as Norman Bates or Freddy Krueger.

He's a somnambulist, the movie says, a word which wasn't in my vocabulary. It means sleepwalker, and he's scarier than that word implies.

Conrad Veidt, who later played the monstrous Major Strasser in Casablanca, plays the role, and between the makeup on his face and Veidt's face itself, he's the stuff of nightmares. 

Verdict: BIG YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Countdown: The Sky's on Fire (1999)

As you can probably guess from the title, this is hand-wringing disaster nonsense. Whales beach themselves by the dozen, and a pilot is blinded in flight. Bees go crazy and attack, and bugs take over the kitchen. 

Super-scientist John Corbett (I think he's supposed to be a meteorologist?) detects sudden holes in the ozone, which could, he says, have triggered all this, and might cause all humans and animals to lose their minds. Despite the whales and blindings, bees and bugs, the bureaucrats in DC don't agree.

John Billingsley (The Man from Earth) hangs around being very concerned, and reporter Bradley Whitford (The West Wing) wants to break the story and maybe boink a lovely female meteorologist.

Everyone takes everything very seriously, but a viewer can't. The movie is so full of itself that it ends with a scare screen full of info about the dangers of ozone holes, which yeah, is a problem, but this is not about that.

Verdict: NO.

♦ ♦ ♦  

The Falling (2014)

This is British, and a bit slow and unpleasant at first, but if you're patient and stick with it, it gets far more unpleasant.

It's about a girl at an unpleasant private school who becomes pregnant, then becomes dead. After that, the students have an epidemic of fainting spells, and unpleasantness is revealed about another student.

Let's avoid revealing more of the plot except to say that it's unpleasant, that this particular unpleasantness needn't be shown quite so graphically, and worst of all, that the persistent unpleasantness is interrupted too often by unpleasant folk songs.

Maisie Williams stars, and she's unpleasant, which was presumably exactly what was wanted.

Verdict: BIG NO.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

The Fat Black Pussycat (1963)

This opens with snappy jazz and a woman's naked butt, but I didn't come for the music or the butts. I came for Wavy Gravy, playing "Assistant Detective" in his motion picture debut says IMDB, and billed under his birth name, Hugh Romney. 

A woman's been killed near New York's Fat Black Pussycat nightclub, and Detective Kinda Boring goes to the club to investigate.

It's 1963 in NYC's Greenwich Village, so the club is full of beatniks, and those scenes are a delight — kinda funny, cool and noir. I'm too young to remember how real beats talked and acted, but the beatniks here act like beats I've seen in some good beatnik movies, maybe more so.

Remember how Jack Webb sneered at 'hippies' on Dragnet? The cops here have that same sneer for beatniks, which is unintentionally funny.

Sadly, the movie goes all wrong once it leaves the nightclub. The murders continue, and the only witness — to all the murders, apparently — is a black cat wearing one of those tinkly bells. This means that you know someone's life is in danger when you hear the cat's bell tinkling, and you'll hear it a lot in this flick.

The story around the cat and killings is ludicrous, too. Some kind of psycho mystical sex-change explains everything, except why anyone thought any of it made sense. Nothing explains the cat.

As for Wavy, IMDB is mistaken; it's not him. Born in 1936, he would've been 23 when this was made, and the guy on screen is in his 50s. Mr Gravy was Hugh Romney Jr, so the actor is probably his father, Hugh Romney Sr. There is a resemblance. Or maybe it's someone else with the same name. It certainly isn't Wavy Gravy.

The nightclub scenes were filmed at the titular Fat Black Pussycat, which is still open for business, but can't possibly still be as cool as it is in the movie.

Verdict: NO.

♦ ♦ ♦  

I, the Jury (1982)

A friend of private eye Mike Hammer has been killed, and Hammer takes it personally, and starts collecting clues despite being warned by his cop buddy not to. That's the barest bones of Mickey Spillane's first and maybe best Hammer novel, I, the Jury, but everything else from the book is gone from this adaptation.

Armand Assante stars, with a screenplay by the often marvelous Larry Cohen, who's not marvelous this time. 

Almost every change Cohen's made to 'update' the novel is ill-advised — a psychiatrist becomes a sex therapist, a party becomes an orgy, and somehow the CIA is involved, along with some Star Trek-style mind control. With so many changes, it's not really what it claims to be — I, the Jury.

Assante is adequate in the role, but it's written wrong. Hammer is supposed to be a hammer looking for nails, but this Hammer doesn't throw enough punches. Not brutish enough. He's also, for my recollection of reading the novel, too smart, and Hammer has always been an alcoholic, but here's he's in recovery. "Would you care to have a drink?" a lady asks. Nope, he guzzles honey instead.

So I don't like what they've done to the book, but does the movie have merit on its own terms? Maybe. Pretend it's Mike Smith instead of Mike Hammer, and this is an adequate way to waste an hour and a half, but it's nothing special or memorable. 

"Orgasm, my ass."

Verdict: MAYBE.

♦ ♦ ♦  

Silverado (1985)

Hollywood has made several attempts to bring back the western genre, but probably none better than Silverado. And yet it flopped, and westerns remain a thing of the past, literally. 

A dude named Paden (Kevin Kline) gets bushwhacked and left to die in the desert heat, and another dude named Emmett (Scott Glenn) finds him, shares some water from his canteen, and they're instantly best buddies for life.

In town they meed Cobb (Brian Dennehy), an ominous lawman of dubious character. The bad guys stole Paden's beloved horse and a hat after his head spent three years training it to fit, so Paden wants justice. And his horse and his hat back. But eventually, it's Paden vs Cobb.

Along the way, we meet up with Rosanna Arquette, John Cleese, baby-faced Kevin Costner, Jeff Fahey, Danny Glover, Jeff Goldblum, Earl Hindman, Linda Hunt, Brion James, Richard Jenkins, and Sheb Wooley. 

"Now, I don't wanna kill you, and you don't wanna be dead."

The story is rousing, and looks like it was filmed via time travel to 1875, with horses and guns and gunshots, cattle and covered wagons, saloons and stoicism, violence and vengeance, wisecracks and tumbleweeds, and a showdown on the dusty streets of Silverado. It's got everything but a sarsaparilla, and all the bad guys have bad aim and the good guys shoot real straight.

"Some people think because they're stronger, or meaner, that they can push you around. I've seen a lot of that. But it's only true if you let it be. The world is what you make of it."

What Silverado lacks is anything to push it over the brink and make it a great western. So it ain't up to Stagecoach, but very few movies are.

Rousing music by Bruce Broughton. Written by the brothers Kasdan, Lawrence and Mark, and directed by the former.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦  

Troll (1985)

I'd heard that Troll is not very good, and of course its sequel is legendarily awful, but the truth is that this original Troll is honest-to-gosh better than beer and Skittles. 

Michael Moriarty plays Harry Potter, but not that Harry Potter. This Potter is the father of two kids, and his young daughter Wendy Anne (Jenny Beck from the 1980s V) is possessed by the spirit of one of the many trolls that lives in the apartment building. Noah Hathaway (Atreyu from The NeverEnding Story) plays Harry Potter Jr, and he's the only one who knows that something's not right with his sister. 

"Weird kid. Probably reads a lot."

Little Harry befriends Eunice the Queen of the Witches (played by June Lockhart from Lassie and Lost in Space, and also by her daughter Anne). Eunice patiently explains that the trolls are taking over all the people in the apartment building, and taking over their apartments too, turning the whole place into a unified woodsy fairy kingdom.

So it's nuts, and it's a Charles Band production, so the budget is slight and the effects won't make you say "Wow!" They won't make you wince, though. The trolls are pleasantly lumpy hairy things, seemingly smeared with mucus. They briefly sing and dance, and one of them's a mushroom because ordinary rules are for ordinary movies.

I thought Moriarty would be the star, but really it's Hathaway, the kid. Moriarty is basically baffled through the whole movie, except for an extended dance and lip-sync scene. 

Neighbors in the building include Sonny Bono as a swingin' bachelor, Gary Sandy (WKRP) as a perpetual jogger, Brad Hall as a befuddled nice guy, Julia Louis-Dreyfus as a sprite dancing around in leaves, and Phil Fondacaro as Malcolm the dying dwarf. In a jarringly real scene, Malcolm tells Wendy Anne about the day his parents told him, "Malcolm, you're just not going to grow any more."

Don't take any of the above or below to mean that that Troll is a masterpiece; it's not. It's just a good time, but you'd have to be a grumpy troll yourself to not enjoy it. Cannabis optional, and Sonny Bono does not sing.

On an instant re-watch, I noticed that the creatures are credited to John Carl Buechler, and the movie's directed by the same guy. That's a combination I hadn't seen before. Buechler is a lifetime special effects whiz, here given his first directing gig, and you know what I said about breaking rules? Buechler stages Moriarty's dance in the living room of the family's apartment, but it's filmed from two floors above, for added surreality.

Other things I missed on my first watch but noticed on the second and third: Atreyu Harry Jr's bedroom is decorated with posters for some of Band's other movies. And there's a scene where the kid is thrown against a wall about eight feet up, and slides to the floor, and it's Noah Hathaway all the way, not the typical stunt and-then cut-to-the-star.

Band's brother Richard wrote the music, and IMDB says he's scored fifty movies, mostly horror, and also the Star Trek pinball game.

"I know what death looks like. It looks something like — this!"

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦  

Coming attractions:

Everybody Wants Some!! (2016)
First Reformed (2018)
I Start Counting (1969)
The Outfit (1974)
Safety Not Guaranteed (2012)
Team America: World Police (2014)
Us (2019) 


There are so many good movies out there — old movies, odd or artsy, foreign or forgotten movies, or do-it-yourself movies made just for the joy of making them — that if you only watch whatever's on Netflix or playing at the twentyplex, you're missing out.

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Top illustration by Jeff Meyer. No talking once the lights dim. Real butter, not that fake crap, on the popcorn. I try to make these reviews spoiler-free, but sometimes screw up, sorry. Piracy is not a victimless crime. Click any image to enlarge. Comments & conversations invited.   


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