Alice in Nightmareland
By Sara Century
The following contains a major spoiler.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is considered to be one of the most important surviving silent films and an essential foundation on which the world of cinematic horror was built. Themes of pacifism, anti-war resistance, and state control, all seen through a surrealist lens, remain effective elements that echo through the genre today. Though the vast majority of silent films are considered lost, and it’s impossible to judge what other hidden treasures the era might have held, there is no denying the singular influence of this film. To watch it is to be thrown into a world of hope and possibility that at first very nearly seems to make sense, only to realize that reality itself is subject to question.
The similarly titled The Cabinet of Caligari is, to put it politely, much less well-regarded. Initially intended as a remake by studio head Robert Lippert only to transform into little more than a loose homage to the original film under the direction of Roger Kay, this is a very hidden gem that very nearly requires a search party to hunt down. Because it is unlikely that most audiences have seen the film, it’s an off-brand choice for critical observation, yet it is in the spirit of encouraging horror fans to take the time to find it that we meet here today. This is a movie that more people should see, which packs a surprising political punch in 2022, sixty years after its release.
Jane (Glynis Johns) is on vacation, driving along on a bright, sunny day, when she experiences a blowout and is forced to seek solace at an isolated estate. Having walked for miles and experiencing exhaustion, she concedes to staying in a guest room only to find herself unable to leave the next day. After meeting with the house owner Caligari, he insists that she won’t be going anywhere and even drugs her coffee. After this, Jane does everything she can to free herself, attempting to negotiate with other guests and house staff.
One night, a strange dinner party is held, at which Caligari never appears. She meets two men, one named Paul, who seems reasonable and willing to help, and Mark, a handsome younger man who speaks to her with patience, familiarity, and love. Despite meeting these apparent allies, she watches the brutal beating of a woman while much of the rest of the cast stands idly by. She is constantly thwarted in her attempts to flee and ultimately discovers that nothing is quite as it appears to be. In the last moments of the film, we see that she’s an elderly woman in a mental institution only just coming out of a mental fog that has dominated her life, and Mark, her love interest in the film, is actually her long-suffering son.
The behind-the-scenes team for this take features surprising star power for a mostly forgotten entry in 60s horror, with none other than Robert Bloch on the script. Bloch is best known as the writer of Psycho alongside a number of other short stories, novels, and screenplays. Director Roger Kay came to prominence through his work via the Grand Guignol in Paris and would work on a number of TV shows, including the “Ninety Years Without Slumbering” episode of the original Twilight Zone. From all evidence, this was a troubled production, with Bloch stating in his autobiography that his script was hijacked and that he was nearly robbed of writing credits, and director Kay disowning the film after feeling cuts presented a much more perverse story than intended and also yelling at actor Glynis Johns to the point that she left the set. The overall feeling is that most people who were involved were happy to let this film go silently into the night, though it has a minor claim to fame after being sampled in a Nine Inch Nails cover of Queen’s “Get Down Make Love” in 1989.
Yet, there is still something compelling about this strange artifact, and it is perhaps all due to a combination of Johns’ performance, the disturbed, spacey dialogue Bloch has written for her, the generally twisted subject matter, and some ingenuitive camerawork from Psycho cinematographer John L. Russell. The choice of Jane’s name reflects the coveted woman in the original film, who has little to no agency or personality. She is the object of desire for two competing friends, then kidnapped by Cesare the Sleepwalker, and, finally, a fellow patient in the institution where we ultimately discover our protagonist resides. Her most memorable moment is an acknowledgment of her doomed lack of autonomy when our protagonist pledges his undying affection for her, only for her to detachedly reply, “We queens…are not permitted to follow the dictates of our hearts.”
1962’s Jane has no more agency than the one we met in 1920, but she gets to speak for herself, and what she has to say is complicated, angry, and tragic. Caligari’s sexual fascination with her is aggressive and strange; he spies on her in the bathtub and later demands she tell him all the lurid details of her sex life. She assures him there’s nothing to tell, and he calls her a liar. This is later revealed to be run-of-the-mill psychoanalysis, distorted through Jane’s perception, but there’s something in that explanation that doesn’t quite wash. Even if she’s misremembering Caligari, the implication of complex sexual trauma surrounds Jane.
Then perhaps because of the dubious nature of their relationship, her associations with Mark remain fascinating. When she meets him, he gifts her with a music box, and its haunting melody reappears throughout the rest of the narrative. The song is pivotal to whatever unspoken memories ail her and plays as she reflects on herself as a child trapped in a metaphorical cage, a strong undercurrent of sexual abuse hanging over the scene. With what we later realize is the love and admiration of a particularly devoted son, Mark promises Jane that he’ll take her away someday. Jane denies him this and makes the telling remark, “You don’t need a girl; you need a mother,” which causes him to leave dejected. The sexual undercurrent between them is clear, and Jane’s understanding that their love could never be is genuinely tragic alongside its disturbing qualities, making Mark and Jane’s relationship reminiscent of Bloch’s most famous tale, Psycho.
Even as a viewer several decades removed, the film seems to be missing key footage, and its shocking but ultimately happy ending doesn’t even remotely suit the incestuous, tortured tone of the film. Yet, once you’ve seen it, it’s not an easy one to forget. The camera’s insistence on long shots grants an isolating, disorienting effect, and Johns’ distinctive voice (think a blonde Jennifer Tilly) and penchant for white dresses make for a striking protagonist. Rife with references to era-specific psychology and littered with surrealist imagery, the film ultimately loses sight of where it’s going, but that doesn’t make it any less intriguing. Yet, when all is said and done, this is Jane’s story, and Jane is what gives Caligari all its power. As she is held captive and berated by a distant, seemingly emotionless male authority figure, many women and queer people of today will find her plight surreally relatable.
The lack of autonomy of Cesare the Sleepwalker in the original Cabinet has been commented on often, but the lost potential of the film’s female protagonist is barely mentioned in most critical reviews. Jane is no less a sleepwalker, but her inability to wake is taken for granted. A love interest who is reduced to being an object at every turn, the film both hinges on her and disregards her. Here, decades later, we find a surprising counterargument made on Jane’s behalf that might ultimately fall flat but remains a vital response to the original film. Jane refers to herself as “Alice in Nightmareland,” and it feels like a commentary on many female side characters of horror who are quickly forgotten by the plot, their stories permanently left untold. 🩸
Sara Century is a featured writer for Manor Vellum. Sara is a horror writer, a critic, a reporter, a filmmaker, and an artist that has written for many publications and platforms. She is the co-host of the Bitches on Comics podcast as well as the co-founder and editor of the Decoded Pride anthology which focuses on works of queer speculative fiction.
Visit MANOR’s official website: MANORHQ.com.
© 2022 Manor Entertainment LLC