Aptly described by its creator as “more of a remix… than a remake,” David Lee Fisher’s “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” exerts fascination mostly as a digitized gimmick. The award-winning vidgame designer scanned a restored print of Robert Wiene’s 1920 original, then used it as the backdrop for actors shot on blue-screen. Result: An undeniably clever commingling of a new cast (and spoken dialogue) with a silent classic. But pic fails to engage consistently on its own terms, and begins to coast on novelty value around the midway point. After attracting curiosity-seekers through a smattering of theatrical bookings, pic could become a staple on what’s left of the midnight movie circuit.
Admirers of Wiene’s masterwork may be amused to see how closely Fisher adheres to the original scenario by Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer (with contributions from an uncredited Fritz Lang).
Once again, the plot appears to focus on the heroic efforts by an increasingly agitated young man (Judson Pearce Morgan) to protect his radiantly pale sweetie (Lauren Birkell) from Dr. Caligari (Daamen Krall), a sideshow charlatan, and Cesare (Doug Jones), a homicidal somnambulist. “Appears,” that is, because, as in the original, the “surprise ending” reveals the nominal hero really is a patient in an insane asylum, and his narrative nothing more than a paranoid fantasy.
The new “Caligari” is best appreciated as a visually intriguing mix of images influenced by German Expressionism, shadow-streaked film noir and, occasionally, David Lynch’s “Eraserhead.” (As a police inspector, Randy Mulkey looks like he could be the younger brother of the latter pic’s title character.) Seamless editing and crisp B&W HD-video lensing greatly enhance the illusion that contemporary actors have somehow inserted themselves into a classic pic.
Fisher’s “Caligari” is most striking when it showcases razor-sharp restorations of backdrops and production designs from Wiene’s original. Characters appear adrift in a phantasmagorical fantasyland of distorted perspectives, asymmetrical doorways, crooked windows, sloping chimneys — and streaks of light and shadow painted across tilted walls. It’s a mondo-bizarro world where officious bureaucrats sit atop enormously high stools, frowning down upon fawning supplicants, and sleepwalkers stagger across impossibly slanting rooftops, then race through forebodingly twisted forests.
Although Fisher makes an admirable effort to avoid campy excess, the actors are all over the map. As Francis, the delusional protagonist, Morgan pitches his performance at a level somewhere between stylization and self-parody. Birkell conveys a hint of ripe sensuality as Jane, Francis’ fiancee, but she never gets a firm grip on her character. Krall fares best with shrewdly muted B-movie theatrics.
It’s worth noting that the presence of Doug Jones in the cast could ensure brisk DVD sales to fantasy and sci-fi geeks, since the actor has been signed to play The Silver Surfer in the upcoming “Fantastic Four” sequel, and plays Pan in Guillermo del Toro’s “Pan’s Labyrinth.”