Features and Columns · Movies

Kino Classics Resurrects and Restores Two Horror Icons from the Past

By  · Published on November 17th, 2014

Kino Lorber has been in the specialty DVD/Blu-ray business for years now, but while some labels make their home in niches based on genre (Scream Factory, Synapse Films) or “ important” films (Criterion Collection) Kino’s focus has been on quality world cinema both contemporary and classic. Their various imprints release films as diverse as The Long Goodbye, Elmer Gantry and Burt Reynolds’ Gator. They don’t dabble in horror a lot, but they don’t exactly shy away from the genre either as evident by titles like To All a Goodnight, Jennifer and Nosferatu.

Their two latest horror releases ‐ The Bubble and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari ‐ fall heavy on the classic side as they’re 48 and 94 years old, respectively. The Bubble is the lesser known of the two and features a plot device that will feel familiar to fans of Under the Dome or The Simpsons Movie, while The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is still regarded as a highly influential film nearly a full century after its release.

The Bubble (1966)

“Welcome to the world’s first feature motion picture in Space Vision!”

Mark (Michael Cole) and his eight months pregnant wife Cathy (Deborah Walley) have hitched a ride on a single-prop plane piloted by an excitable man named Tony (Johnny Desmond), but their emergency flight to the nearest hospital is forced into an unexpected detour when they get caught in a freak storm. Tony sets the plane down on a desolate stretch of highway mistaking the street lamps for runway lights, and they’re immediately greeted by a cab and its very odd driver. The cabbie is unable or uninterested in engaging the trio in conversation and instead simply repeats a single phrase offering his services. They make it to a small town where Cathy gives birth, but they quickly discover that everyone in town is similarly afflicted ‐ they act oblivious to interaction and instead appear to acting like automatons capable only of the simplest actions and repetitive words.

The newcomers decide to leave town, but they’re stopped in their tracks by a clear, plastic bubble surrounding the entire area. Worse, an attempt to ram it with a truck not only leads to an immediate explosion but is also followed by the flaming wreckage floating up into the sky. So yeah, it’s a weird little town.

Writer/director Arch Oboler’s film feels very much like an episode of The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits, but while it has a suitably mysterious premise it’s not quite enough to justify its feature length. There’s a lot of downtime where Mark and Cathy are hiding out or driving around, and we’re given multiple, repeated examples of the townspeople’s odd behavior without adding anything new to the mystery. Oboler’s script also falters with its characters a bit in that the trio’s reactions to what is clearly a very messed up situation never ring remotely true. They comment on it but otherwise go about their business ignoring the people. Well, Tony finds a “friend” in a saloon dancer, even going so far as to imply that he’s had sex with her ‐ a uniquely disturbing idea seeing as she’s basically immobile when he’s not dragging her around.

Those missteps are unfortunate as the script has some otherwise fun exchanges and ideas early on ‐ “What’s child birth? Just a sexy belly ache.” ‐ and the mystery itself is intriguing until it becomes clear that Oboler has little interest in actually solving it. Instead the film takes on something of a counterculture, anti-establishment theme that doesn’t wholly satisfy.

Narrative issues aside, the film is memorable for its place in 3-D history as one of the first to utilize the “Space-Vision” style of stacking the left and right images onto a single strip of film. Kino’s Blu-ray includes both 3-D and 2-D versions of the film, and while I only watched the latter it’s very clear where the illusions were meant to be. From the opening plane wing to a floating tray (complete with visible strings) the gags are numerous. Whichever format you watch it in, the film remains something of a curiosity.

Kino Classics’ new Blu-ray features a picture restored from the 35mm negatives, but it’s unclear how much of an improvement it is over previous versions as I’ve never seen one. There are numerous artifacts ‐ not unexpected in a mostly forgotten film from half a century ago ‐ but they’re minor enough as to not distract from the film. Both the 3-D and 2-D versions are included along with a restoration demonstration, trailers and a still gallery.

The Bubble hits shelves on 11/18 and is available from Amazon.

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The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

Two men sit on a bench discussing the horrors of life. The older one says the spirits of the dead have ruined his life and livlihood, and not to be outdone the younger man points to a nearby woman who appears to be in something of a trance and shares a story about a nightmare he and his fiance endured back in their home town. The annual summer fair was in town, and one of the newest features was a man named Caligari and his “friend” Cesare the Somnambulist. It seems Cesare has been asleep for 23 years, but Caligari is able to wake him into alertness during which the mysterious man can answer any question about the future or the past.

The night of their first performance also sees the the town clerk murdered, but it isn’t until the following evening that people start to grow suspicious. Francis’ friend asks Cesare how long of a life he should expect to live, and the answer given is that he’ll be dead by the break of dawn. The next morning the friend is found dead, and Francis suspects that Caligari had a hand in the murder. He sets out to prove his theory, but events continue to spiral leading to a meeting between Cesare and Francis’ fiance that leaves her a changed woman.

Director Robert Wiene’s film is largely credited with beginning Germany’s expressionist film movement, and it’s easy to see why. It’s a silent film, but the imagery on display is enough to create a dream-like (and/or nightmarish) atmosphere where everything feels more than a little off. The sets are strangely-angled with doors and windows that refuse to align themselves with commonly accepted shapes and sizes. Odd patterns adorn the walls and floors, and the use of shadow becomes as important as it would become two years later in Nosferatu.

The atmosphere and feel of the film overcome the narrative, but it’s not a negative as the movie is seemingly designed as more of a dream than a traditional story. That’s not to say it lacks a definitive ending though as it actually delivers a turn of events that will be familiar to genre fans and explains the preceding visuals and imagery in a highly satisfying manner.

Silent films can be something of a mixed for modern audiences as the incessant score and lack of dialogue can make it difficult to hold the attention, but The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, much like Nosferatu, avoids that problem through its tone, atmosphere and at times mesmerizing visuals. It’s very much a dream that we’re made privy too, one that engages our senses and on a couple occasions maybe even raises the hairs on our necks, and while we’ll never replicate the effect that audiences must have felt back in 1920 it remains a memorable experience.

Kino Classics did a 4K restoration on the film from the preserved camera negative at the German Federal Film Archive (Bundesarchiv-Filmarchiv), but the first reel and several missing frames required they complete the process using other prints. A booklet is included featuring an essay by Kristin Thompson, and the disc includes a restoration demonstration, an image gallery and an additional music score by Paul D. Miller (aka DJ Spooky). This may be sacrilege, but I actually prefer the alternative score ‐ it’s more modern, obviously, but it’s also mysterious and other-worldly in ways that fit the story and expressionist visuals.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari hits shelves on 11/18 and is available from Amazon.

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Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.