Caligula is a horror movie. It’s a lot of things, but good is not one of them. It’s pornography and by that I mean, it’s the textbook definition. I’m not talking about all the scenes of nudity or unsimulated sexual scenes are meant to be arousing. It’s the definition of pornography as having no artistic value whatsoever. But how did a movie starring Malcolm McDowell, Helen Mirren, Peter O’Toole and John Gielgud fail so awesomely down the rabbit hole?
Basically, I think Caligula was a doomed movie from the start. But if you’re going to make a biopic of the “Mad Emperor” of Rome, why make it a straight forward biopic. There are so many of those that have been made by February of 1980, when Caligula finally reached American audiences. We had already seen enough of those and by last year’s Weird Al Yankovic parody biopic, nothing has changed as it’s only gotten more formulaic the movie’s write themselves.
Well, Caligula didn’t write itself. It was written by Gore Vidal, who intended it to be a political satire. But for differing reasons, Vidal took his name off it but the movie is still credited “Adapted on an original screenplay by Gore Vidal.” What?! Tinto Brass, who helped rewrite the script, was the original director but walked off and had his name taken off the credits as director but still credit as having done the principal photography. Let’s face it, the movie’s production is in itself is no different than Caligula’s life and short reign.
Where as Francis Ford Coppola saw Apocalypse Now as a metaphor for the Vietnam War itself as they were ill-prepared for what would happen filming in southeast Asia, the same can be said for Caligula which began production in 1976. Post production lasted so long that rumors began to circulate that the movie would never be released.
Bob Guccione, the publisher of Penthouse, produced the movie on a budget of $17.5 million, filming in Rome. (He also directed scenes and also rewrote the script.) Most of the movie’s sets looks unreal and almost like they belong on a play’s stage. They’re elaborate but you really get no sense of them belonging to any type of building or structure that would exist in the real world. Most of the characters are often walking in and out of them with no sense of purpose.
And just about every scene has people touching and caressing each other as if the movie is just one big orgy. There’s scenes of guys ejaculating into a dish. At one point, Caligula urinates on some curtains. The enslaved men of Rome are nude while forced to do labor. Ennia (Adriana Asti) who is the object of Caligula’s lust is seen mostly semi-nude with Caligular constantly clutching her breasts like a 17-year-old who made it to second base finally. Drusilla (Teresa Ann Savoy), the sister of Caligula, wears clothes so skimpy her breasts and ass are exposed in every scene. When Caligula’s wife, Caesonia (Mirren), gives birth, we actually see the birth. Guccione actually filmed a woman giving birth.
I don’t know if Ryan Murphy has seen this movie, but it feels like the type of American Horror Story he would produce. Violent scenes happen just for the hell of it. A man has his genitalia tied up so he can be forced to drink gallons of wine and then stabbed so it all spills out. Another man is killed, then his penis is cut off and fed to nearby dogs. And the scenes of unsimulated sex lack any sense of arousal. Worse, you can tell by the film stock, they were shot at a later date.
During the huge scene where Tiberius (O’Toole) talks with Caligula, there is a huge orgy going on around them as freaks with two heads and four hands engage with what looks like a centaur and other gruesome beings. A horse appears and it’s also implied that Caligula had sex with his horse, as he’s actually seen in bed with it. You feel bad for O’Toole and Gielgud, as Nerva, because their roles seem like shameless glorified cameos. They’re barely in the movie enough just to be killed off, so we the audience endure two more hours of an incoherent plot.
Yet, at the same time, this incoherency is fitting with the life of Caligula who ascended the throne on the death of Tiberius, whose face is infected with a veneral disease. And soon, Caligula is turning against those who supporting him like Macro (Guido Mannari whose voice was dubbed by Patrick Allen). Macro, who is shown killing Tiberius at the behest of Caligula, dies in an outrageous fashion as he along with others are buried up to their necks as a huge structure with rotating blades at the bottom cuts off their heads as Caligula, Caesonia and his assistant, Longinus (John Steiner), and others throw rotten fruits at their heads.
You can see the parallels with what happened behind the scenes as Brass fought with O’Toole and Guccione fought with McDowell and then in post-production Brass and Guccione fought with each other. Incidentally, principal photography ended on Christmas Eve, Dec. 24, 1976. Brass wasn’t allowed to finish editing the movie and Guccione brought in numerous editors to recut and reassemble what he had already edited. The movie was shot without sound as it was meant to be dubbed for international audiences. O’Toole initially refused to redub his lines and tried to remain away from producers who had to track him down in Canada where he was reportedly dragged before a microphone to complete the lines.
McDowell would later publicly detest the movie and go on talk shows equating the final cut to being raped. It’s an fascinating choice of words considering that there is a very long and unneccasry scene where Caligula rapes a young bride, Livilla (Mirella D’Angelo), on her wedding day because she’s a virgin and we see her bleed. He also fists her groom, Proculus (Donato Placido), in the anus. Proculus is the aforementioned person who is later killed and has his genitalia cut off.
I think McDowell was trying to shed his bad boy vibe that has sprung up following A Clockwork Orange. And when it appeared Caligula wouldn’t be received as well as that controversial movie, he backtracked a little. He had played the gentle and friendly H.G. Wells in a total role reversal in Time After Time, released in late summer 1979, where he met his second wife, Mary Steenburgen. Actors are often backtracking on roles and movies they thought were going to better. There’s some reports that McDowell worked on the script so he must’ve known something wasn’t right while filming the movie.
In many ways, you can see McDowell seems to be having fun in the role which may have worked if it was filmed more as a satire. For all we know, it was, which would explains the over the top performances by McDowell and O’Toole. Mirren seems to sleepwalk through her role as she’s used more as eye-candy. The love triangle between Caligula, Drusilla and Caesonia is never really explored as much as it should’ve been.
And that’s the problem, the movie still feels undone. At a painful two-and-a-half hours, it seems to go on and on. I’ve seen both versions. The shorter one has about 50 minutes removed, which is most of the controversial sex scenes and graphic violence, but it feels like it was cut really fast with no smooth transition. Neither version is really good, but if you’re going to watch it, I recommended the longer version.
Despite what has been rumored, there are only two versions which are the one I mentioned. To avoid an X rating, Guccione labeled it “For Mature Audiences.” He worked out deals with theaters and moviehouses that usually showed arthouse movies to have the movie shown. In some markets, the price of one ticket in February 1980 was $7.50. That’s over $29 in today’s market. Guccione had to fight with obscenity laws as the authorities kept trying to seize the movie and keep it from being shown. The movie remained in release for a reported two years moving around from cities and markets that would allow it to be shown.
Now, considered to be a cult classic, it was hit with negative reviews on its release. Roger Ebert admitted to walking out after sitting through two hours and even saying in his review he wanted to tell the people waiting in line to see the next showing not to bother. Then, again, he did co-write Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. But at least that movie had a plot among its shock value. But Philip Martin with the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette gave it a positive review with three out of five stars.
It made $23.4 million at the box office and is reportedly one of the highest grossing pornographic movie. Even though Deep Throat made more, it’s been longed rumored the Italian Mafia may have inflated numbers as money-laundering schemes. And Behind the Green Door was being bootlegged by the Mafia that the filmmakers Artie and Jim Mitchell had to call on the same federal agents who had arrested them for obscenities to help them.
It was on the home video market boom where Caligula made more money as Penthouse ran ads in their magazines for years for its sale. If anything else, it’s a reminder of the rebellious decade of the 1970s in which filmmakers and studios took risks they had never before done and will never do again. Movies like Caligula, Mandingo and the aforementioned Beyond the Valley of the Dolls took subject matter no one would touch and tried to make it work. Yet, they failed spectacularly.
What do you think? Please comment.