Concise Review: Oy.
Semi-concise Review from Someone Who Was There: "An irresistible mix of art and genitals."--Helen Mirren
Do You Really Want to Know? Full Fledged Review:
Where does one even begin to attempt to describe the audacity and outright absurdity of Caligula? In one of the many extras populating this "Imperial Edition" Blu-ray, kind-of director Tinto Brass actually tears up for a moment as he describes the film careening out of his control due to "ego-trips." None of which, I'm sure, were by Mr. Brass himself. This gargantuan production, funded by those lovers of high culture at Penthouse Magazine, was a scandal in its day, though one with one of the most ridiculously brilliant pedigrees ever for a film. Gore Vidal was the original screenwriter, Malcom McDowell came to the title role hot off his worldwide success in A Clockwork Orange, and the supporting cast was a veritable who's who of British stage and screen superstars, including Peter O'Toole, John Gielgud and a young and winsome Helen Mirren. Well, folks, I'm here to tell you that it's pretty much all for naught. Caligula is simply a mess, and, no, I'm not talking about the blood and/or vomit that spills into several scenes (or even the jiggling and bouncing male and female genitals which spill into--and out of--just about every scene).
Caligula may have, at one point at least, become a minimally decent motion picture. There's scale, that's for sure, especially in the impressive art direction and costuming by multiple Academy Award winner Danilo Donati. There are even glimmers of a literate soul, courtesy of Vidal, beneath the writhing masses of orgiastic Penthouse Pets (there is virtually nonstop hardcore sex of every variety throughout the film). Vidal sued to have his name removed from the film (in fact that was just one of several lawsuits, including another by Brass, whose credit was adjusted in a similar way to Vidal's to settle the suit). But Vidal's mordent wit underlies a lot of the dialogue in the film, especially in Caligula's sarcastically sincere ravings (his scene with a dying Gielgud is probably the best example). There are also a spate of fine, if hyperbolic, performances, notably McDowell as Caligula and Peter O'Toole as the syphilitic Tiberius. They don't just chew the scenery, they devour it, digest it, and divest themselves of it as only something consumed can be (I'm trying to be tactful here, something this film could have tried--at least once). Of course McDowell, in suitably trenchant form, states that the horse he appoints to the Senate in the film gives the best performance. He may, after all, be right.
And yet the pedigree ultimately doesn't matter. This is simply the most amazingly inept film you're apt to see, full of the most hideously lit, appallingly badly filmed, and ridiculously unerotic scenes ever, intercut with supposedly awe-inspiring set pieces that will probably cause you to snigger more than gasp. You would think (hope?) that a film with this much gratuitous nudity (in fact, it might be more correct to state it has gratuitous costuming, as there's more skin than fabric in this film) that there might be a spark of sexual energy somewhere. But it's all so absurdly horrid that not even those who thrive on prurience are going to find anything here of interest. Penthouse Publisher Bob Guccione famously shot a lot of added porno material for the final film, and my advice, some 30 years late (sorry), is: keep your day job.
Of course Guccione averred at the time (something archivally preserved in all his leisure-suited glory on some of the extras) that what Caligula was doing was nothing less than portraying that vile, degraded Pagan Rome as it really was. Even Mirren, who seems to have resigned herself to being associated with the "film," takes that sort of tack in her fitfully amusing commentary track. And it may well be true--Rome, under Caligula, was a teeming mass of depravity. But do we really need to see it reenacted, with no attempt at anything approaching context or motivation or, dare I say it, redeeming qualities? (Vidal and Guccione in some of the archival featurettes make some noise about providing some, but all I can surmise is they were left on the cutting room floor). This is like an acid trip through hell, one that, at over two and a half hours, seems like it will never end.
Some people hold up Ed Wood as the paragon of the "bad movie" auteur. I have to tell you, I just the other night rewatched Plan 9 From Outer Space, as it has recently become a strange source of fascination for one of my sons (I'm trying not to think about what that may mean for his future). I can only tell you that, compared to Caligula, Plan 9 is a Citizen Kane-sized triumph of directorial vision. And, most impressively, neither Bela Lugosi nor Bradley Manlove appear nude.
Disc Two, an SD DVD, offers several nice featurettes and interviews, including with actors John Stiner and Lori Wagner, as well as fired director Tinto Brass. Two archival featurettes, both utilizing a lot of the same footage, document Caligula's production. There's also a stuffed-to-the-brim gallery available. The most interesting extra to me was the original Vidal screenplay, available via DVD-ROM. Other ROM content includes Penthouse articles, a Guccione interview, press kit, and cast bios. An illustrated booklet is also included as the insert.