In all honesty, CALIGULA has never been one of my favorite movies. As a young cinephile with a penchant for horror and other cult offerings, CALIGULA was one of those “holy grail” films: a movie so disgusting and perverted it demanded to be seen. Even with the inclusion of such distinguished London stage luminaries as Helen Mirren (THE QUEEN) and Sir John Gielgud (ARTHUR), as well as British cinema stalwarts Peter O’Toole (LAWRENCE OF ARABIA) and Malcolm McDowell (A CLOCKWORK ORANGE), my young mind envisioned a madhouse of ultra-violent sexual depravity. But with the passage of time and the advent of the VCR giving me easier access to more vile and sadistic works, by the time I’d caught up with CALIGULA, I considered the film an enormous letdown.
Purportedly based on actual events that transpired in Pagan Rome from 37 to 41 A.D., the film encapsulates the rise and eventual assassination of Gaius Julius Caeser Augustus Germanicus, more commonly know by his childhood nickname Caligula (Latin for “little boots”). Starting with his carefree days as a prince, the story follows Caligula (McDowell) as his thirst for power grows, culminating in the assassination of his syphilitic grandfather, Emperor Tiberius Claudius Nero (O’Toole) at the hands of Praetorian Guard prefect Macro (Guido Mannari, Pasolini’s DECAMERON), which allowed Little Boots to assume the throne. Caligula starts out as a beloved emperor, but following his recovery from an illness, he becomes increasingly unstable and more depraved than usual, engaging in such debauchery as rape and bestiality, as well as wanton murder. In the finale of the film, Caligula meets the same fate as his grandfather and is assassinated for the general good of Rome.
Being the invention of overly pretentious writer/historian Gore Vidal (MYRA BRECKENRIDGE), legendary porn mogul Bob Guccione (founder of Penthouse Magazine) and directed by Italian art trash specialist Tinto Brass (SALON KITTY), CALIGULA focuses primarily on the sexual sadism reported by Rome’s philosophers. Being that this is a Penthouse International Film, I surely didn’t expect a history lesson, but as a sidebar, Caligula did try to accomplish things in his life such as Western expansion and major construction. Since short shrift is given to few actual accomplishments within the film, one may leave the movie thinking Caligula was just an immoral pervert from the word go, whose days consisted of figuring out who to castrate and deciding whether he’d rather forcefully fist the groom at a wedding or make love to his own sister (Teresa Ann Savoy, also of SALON KITTY).
The film itself has always been a lightning rod for controversy. From the staggering budget for what is basically a porno film, the insistence of the name actors that they had no prior knowledge of the hardcore scenes, and the irreconcilable differences between Vidal, Guccione and Brass, the end result foisted onto the public was, and still is, a hell of a mess. Aside from Academy Award-winning art director Danilo Donati’s fascinating production design and the powerful and haunting score by Italian genre conductor and orchestrator Bruno Nicolai (credited on the film as Paul Clemente), CALIGULA is inconsistent in its technical tone, occasionally suffering from poor lighting, sub-par direction, obvious overacting and even a fair share of underacting. Oddly enough, the hardcore scenes Guccione shot after the original production wrapped are well done.
After it’s original video and laserdisc offerings in the 1980s and the 20th Anniversary edition released on DVD in 1999, Image brings to the public what will have to be the definitive release of CALIGULA with its IMPERIAL EDITION. Folks, this three-disc set is jam-packed with more CALIGULA than some could ever want! Disc One contains a high-definition, anamorphic widescreen 1.85:1 transfer of the 1980 Uncut, Unrated Theatrical Version and without a doubt this is the best the movie has ever looked. What struck me upon this viewing was how clear and colorful the film can be at times, giving credence to the brilliance of Donati’s designs. And while there is no major change in my opinion of the film, I admit there is more artistry going on here than I initially gave it credit for, which is due solely to the restoration of the film. That said, it’s still incredibly grainy in parts, much more so due to the latest upgrade. The film is presented in Dolby Digital, sporting a choice of 5.0 or mono. Three trailers, one for the Theatrical Cut, one for the R-rated cut and a teaser trailer are included.
Disc Two is being billed as a 152-minute alternate pre-release cut from 1979 containing footage not seen in the Theatrical Cut. It’s an incredible misfire, resulting in a just-walked-in-what-the-hell-is-going-on sensation throughout its entire running time. I find this version rather amusing in that respect, since according to the information at caligulathemovie.com, this is the closest version to director Brass’ original vision. While the Uncut Edition on the first disc at least has some continuous narrative, it’s largely absent from this pre-release cut. The key selling points of THE IMPERIAL EDITION for both ardent fans of the film and those with even a passing interest in the train-wreck that is CALIGULA are the inclusion of three separate audio commentary tracks, most notably with Malcolm McDowell and Helen Mirren.
On the first feature-length commentary, film historian Nick Redman moderates an incredibly droll and humorous feature-length commentary with McDowell, who still carries with him a wealth of knowledge on the making of the film. Great detail is given on his relationships with the principal talent and behind-the-scenes shenanigans with Vidal, Guccione and Brass and relates he has no regrets in making what may ultimately be his signature role. The second feature-length commentary is with Helen Mirren being moderated by film journalist Alan Jones. The two are joined by James Chaffin, author of the upcoming book 200 DEGREES OF FAILURE: THE UNMAKING OF ‘CALIGULA’. It’s as illuminating and informational as McDowell’s and equally as enjoyable. The third commentary, running almost 95 minutes, is with Ernest Volkman, on-set reporter for Penthouse and moderated by Nathaniel Thompson. Thompson was recorded in studio while Volkman literally phones in his contribution, making for (in my opinion) a rather irritating listen. Volkman does bring an alternate view of the film by providing information from the perspective of Guccione in a detailed, journalistic manner.
Disc Two’s extras commence with almost 50 minutes of deleted and alternate scenes, some in black and white but with most in color; quality does vary. While I found no need to sit through all of them, one doesn’t have to be a CALIGULA devotee to recognize the importance of their release in preserving the history of the picture and the history of film given the cast. Disc Three is strictly extras. A lot of extras. There’s almost 75 minutes more behind the scenes and alternate footage I skimmed through as well. Between all these scenes and the ones on Disc 2, you’ll be spending a lot of time sifting through all these never before seen treasures.
Ported over from the 20th Anniversary edition is the unintentionally funny THE MAKING OF CALIGULA, an hour-long documentary made while the film was in production. This vanity piece visually illustrates the lofty pretensions of its three principal creators: Gore Vidal is the quintessential annoying academic, Guccione the misunderstood smut peddler searching for artistic validation and Brass…well, he’s just plain frigging nuts. His claim of contacting the spirit of Caligula who tells him Brass’s representation of him is 65% factually correct is a gut-buster, along with Guccione protesting to no one in general that CALIGULA “isn’t pornography, it’s paganography”. Vidal speaks mostly about his screenplay and Roman history, pausing only to lament upon what was done to his script. I don’t think I could stay in a room with the man for more than five minutes much less try and create a collaborative piece of art with him. Also included is a truncated 10-minute version of THE MAKING… which only goes to show even a documentary on CALIGULA suffers the same fate of its subject.
Digital Roadshow Productions turns in two newly created featurettes. The first is the 24-minute long MY ROMAN HOLIDAY WITH JOHN STEINER. British-born Steiner, who plays the role of Loginus in CALIGULA, takes a look back at his long career in the Italian exploitation industry with many amusing anecdotes. The second is CALIGULA’S PET: A CONVERSATION WITH LORI WAGNER, which clocks in at 28 minutes. Both featurettes are welcome editions to the film’s history.
wait, there’s more! Another new featurette, the highly interesting 34
minute TINTO BRASS: ORGY OF POWER is included. There’s a multitude of
stills broken down by category: Color, B/W, Promotional and Behind-The-Scenes.
Included in the DVD-ROM supplements are Vidal’s 1975 first draft screenplay,
the 1976 version of it, press kit materials, William Howard’s novelization
and pictorials from the special Penthouse CALIGULA issue. You also
receive a reprint of the collector’s edition magazine Girls Of Caligula
featuring Wagner and Anneka Di Lorenzo as well as a Bob Guccione interview.
There’s so much to say about CALIGULA and its production that I couldn’t possibly accomplish it here. Websites such as caligulathemovie.com and its entry on the IMDB (with an incredibly detailed listing of alternate cuts) are excellent primers for new viewers and a quick refresher course for anyone looking to re-acquaint themselves with the film. I can’t help but feel that THE IMPERIAL EDITION is historic in a sense, much like it’s subject matter (especially with the inclusion of all this related material). CALIGULA will always have a place in cinematic history as being one of the most controversial films ever made. As it stands, this exhaustive release is a testament to the film’s creators and its own twisted legacy, making it a must for any serious film conisseur, whether they’ve enjoyed it or not. (Eric Matthew Harvey)
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