Old Ass Horror: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

By  · Published on October 3rd, 2010

Every Sunday in October, Old Ass Movies will be teaming with 31 Days of Horror in order to deliver a horror film that was made before you were born and tell you why you should like this.

This week, Old Ass Horror presents one of the first zombie films ever committed to moving pictures – a horrifying man, a troubled hero, and the constant threat of death at the hands of a living dead puppet.

Come along as we open up The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

Synopsis: Told in flashbacks by our faithful narrator Francis, the movie focuses on Dr. Caligari and his cabinet. Inside that cabinet is a trusty somnambulist named Cesare that kills on command. When the zombie predicts death for Francis’s friend Alan at a carnival, and then makes it come true, Francis investigates the good doctor. Unfortunately, that only results in getting his fiancee kidnapped. Well played, Francis.

In a race to save her, Francis will stumble upon the terrifying truth of Dr. Caligari, the cabinet, and what’s really inside.

Killer Scene: The film is shot in the expressionist style where all of the sets are made to look surreal. Everything looks gorgeous, which makes it even more unnerving to see the kind of cruel subject matter playing out against such idyllic scenery. That look comes into play specifically for what the secret of the film is.

That, of course, is the scene that stands out amongst the rest. The entire movie is a exercise in tension, and when Francis realizes what’s truly going on (and who Dr. Caligari really is) it’s a shocking moment that is delivered perfectly, releasing that tension and creating a new kind of despair.


Violence: Cesare kills, abducts, and there’s a good amount of fight scenes, but everything is pretty stage-y considering the time period the movie was made.

Sex: Apparently no one in Germany ever has sex while a zombie is mindlessly coming to kill them. Unrealistic? Probably. Nothing gets the blood going south like a pupil-less meat sack strangling you.

Scares: The great thing about the film is the atmosphere. It relies solely on the quality of the feeling that it delivers, so even with few jump scares, the entire damned movie feels frightening. That elongated period of unease counts as one giant, well-constructed scare that lasts for over an hour.

Final Thoughts: This movie introduced the twist ending to the world of film. It plays on several fears including the loss of loved ones, loss of control, and the ultimate fear – not knowing what’s happening in the world around you.

Its being a silent film may deter some viewers, but they are sadly missing out on one of the best horror films ever made. Both Werner Krauss (as Caligari) and Conrad Veidt (as Cesare the Somnambulist) are grotesque in their appearance and demeanor, and there are experimental sections of the movie that work a sort of magic that never allows the viewer to understand what is real and what’s a nightmare.

Over all, the combination of beauty and terror turns out to be a match made in stylized hell.

Related Topics:

Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector Podcast@brokenprojector | Writing short stories at Adventitious.