251. The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari (Germany 1920)

Director: Robert Wiene

Starring: Werner Krauss, Conrad Veidt, Lil Dagover

Cinematography: Willy Hameister

Screenplay: Hans Janowitz, Carl Mayer

In one line: A series of grisly murders besets a German village when a mysterious carnival arrives.

Francis and his friend Alan visit the travelling carnival which has arrived in Holstenwall. Caligari claims that his somnambulist assistant Cesare can answer any question put to him. When Alan asks him the date of his own death, Cesare reveals that he will be dead by the morning.

Alan is murdered that night. Francis and his fiancée Jane investigate Caesar and Cesare (a bit like a prototype Scooby Doo). Cesare kidnaps Jane and is ordered to kill her by Caligari. Cesare is enchanted by Jane's beauty and refuses. Caligari and Cesare are chased through the village (a bit like a prototype Benny Hill Show) by its residents and Cesare falls to his death. Caligari reveals (again like Scooby Doo) that he is in charge of the local asylum and that he is obsessed with the original Italian Caligari who performed similar murders in the eighteenth century.

The entire story turns out to be Francis's fantasy - he, Jane and Cesare are inmates at Caligari's asylum. Caligari suggests that he will now be able to cure him

I saw this the other day in a darkening room on a big screen. Someone on YouTube had posted a version with a scary electronic score. It's a tremendous film. Caligari's Expressionist style and sets create a fabulous nightmare atmosphere which is more important than its minimalist story.

Wiene's film has been a huge influence on horror films, thrillers and advertising - the films of Tim Burton, the entire Film Noir canon and 'The Judder Man' are obvious examples, but the best horror films try to replicate Caligari's sense of dread.

Mayer and Janowitz's script reflected their various brushes with actual murder and the worst elements of psychoanalysis. Their story was later ripped off by Asylum (see 237) and there's a rubbish 'adaptation' from 1991 called The Cabinet of Doctor Ramirez with Mikhail Baryshnikov. Don't hold your breath.

And that's Conrad Veidt as Cesare on the back of Bauhaus's 'Bela Lugosi's Dead' single.