Bearing only the faintest connection to Robert Wiene’s magnum opus, Dr. Caligari shifts gender and mode of transgression to a more seductive milieu, treating the bones of the original as framing for a contemporary burlesque. The design favors the sharp angles and exaggerated scenery of its expressionistic forefather, but employs manipulated sound to enhance its sparse imagery, manifesting a dreamlike, entrancing aura, awash in moist, pastel paint and carnal, Californian excess. The style is self-referential, but the rendition is provocative and surreal, repurposing the trite slang of a dead counterculture and performance art pretense into inflammatory, pornographic pop art.
The artificial nature of Stephen Sayadian’s production, borne of painted stage flats and intentionally stilted performances, enhances the contrast between the revolting and the risible, forcing the audience to reconcile their manic emotional swings. By pairing elements of explicit erotica with delirious visions of human experimentation, Sayadian insinuates menace while eliciting laughter and arousal, exhibiting the uncomfortable relationship between power and sexuality. His methods may be manipulative, but the results are profoundly unsettling, evoking bewilderment and biliousness from a fleshy mass of mouths and orifices, refashioning blue movie fellatio into an act of abhorrent, alien intrusion.
Crude metaphor also lurks in the stupefacient prattle of Sayadian’s characters, each evocative turn of phrase and hollow cliché acting as acerbic comment on the commodification of medicine and culture. Read in a opiated haze and peppered with loquacious psychological terminology, his nympholeptic leads repurpose shock therapy and pharmacology into consumeristic poetry, quivering with delight as they pervert Gray’s Anatomy and dime-store fascism into soft-core kitsch. With each orgasm and histrionic utterance, this stream of comic drivel aligns the hallowed doctor-patient relationship to the vulgarity of prostitution, punctuating the bellows of tortured paranoiacs with the suggestive, guttural foley work of smut cinema.
Despite the ironic distance struck between the director and the subtextual implications hidden within his material, Dr. Caligari finds a way to insinuate the toxicity of capitalist culture through weeping sarcoma and frenzied withdrawal, likening the scandal and secrecy that obscure human sexual desire to the sorrow of addiction and terminal illness. By standing in contrast to society and cinema’s puritanical restraints, Stephen Sayadian found solace and symbol in the mechanization of fornication, beholding the open secret of adult entertainment as a reflection of the true sexual self, beyond the mores of preference, gender and public perception. Under the guise of morbid curiosity, Sayadian mutated the safety of science-fiction into a prurient prayer, condemning civilization as both sinister joke and libidinal prison.
Dr. Caligari (Steiner Films, 1989)
Directed and Photographed by Stephen Sayadian
Written by Stephen Sayadian and Jerry Stahl