A young man named Francis (Friedrich Feher) sits on a garden bench with an older gentleman who remains silent while he talks. He is describing a conspiracy, which he breaks off from when a young woman in white walks by - Francis says she is his wife - but soon he returns to his favourite subject. The tale he spins is so vivid he can see it with exquisite detail in his mind, and the village he calls home that it takes place in. Before long Francis is lost in his reminiscences, yet this is no rose tinted nostalgia, but catalogue of madness and murder that began when a carnival came to town. Francis' friend Alan (Hans Heinrich von Twardowski) was keen to attend and dragged him along too, but they both would soon come to regret doing so when they had an encounter with the mysterious Dr Caligari (Werner Krauss)...
Sergei Eisenstein might not have liked it, but plenty of other people did. Das Cabinet des Dr Caligari was not only the first true horror film, but probably the first true cult movie as well, so yes, this is where it all started. Scripted by Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer, who were reputedly not happy when director Robert Weine added a new introduction and ending to their work, you can see where countless films, television and books which arrived subsequently adapted their ideas, from James Whale's Frankenstein through to Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes to a host of Tim Burton movies.
With twist endings, fear of madness as a theme and of course that outlandish design, Weine and his cohorts had tapped into a welter of creativity, with an end result that appropriately had the texture of a fevered dream. When Francis and Alan (played by an actor who bears a striking resemblance to Crispin Glover) visit the carnival, there have already been two murders in the town, and the police are at a loss to explain them, having no leads to follow. Caligari, the easy to spot villian who scurries around in a black cape and top hat like a bulbous, overfed spider, has applied for an application to perform his act in the area (I don't know why we had to see him doing that, perhaps it was to draw parallels between him and the controlling authorities?).
Dr Caligari's act consists of his "Somnambulist" (Conrad Veidt, now better known for being the baddies in the 1940 Thief of Bagdad remake and Casablanca), a tall, thin, pasty faced zombie who has been asleep for "twenty three years!" according to the doctor. For the performance the sleeper wakes, but presumably as an audience watching a man simply wake up would probably have them demanding their money back, there's a little more to it than that, as Francis and Alan discover to their cost. For this man, who looks like death warmed up, has a knack for telling the future and Alan foolishly asks for a prediction of his own death.
And when Alan gets the reply that his demise will come before the next dawn, let's just say that that wasn't exactly the answer he was wanting to hear. And so it is that later that night, once he's gone to bed, he is visited by a figure we only see as a shadow, and murdered. Now Francis turns detective, but as it's obvious who the killer is, despite a red herring thrown into the mix, the tension arises in other ways, for example in the kidnapping of Francis' fiancée Jane (Lil Dagover) in an archetypal scene, with the somnambulist carrying her under one arm through grotesquely distorted sets, all to conjure up the imagery of the mind of a madman. With other classic sequences as the revelation of the identity of the local insane asylum director guaranteed to raise the hairs on the back of your neck, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari is one of those revered films that is still entertaining to watch today, with its age, positively prehistoric nowadays, merely enhancing its eerie quality of dread.