April 2000

Caligula: Complete, Unedited and Unrated Version
Reviewed by Doug Schneider
DVD Format

Overall Enjoyment: *1/2
Picture Quality: **1/2
Sound Quality: **
Packaged Extras: **

Starring Malcom McDowell, Helen Mirren, Teresa Ann Savoy, Peter O’Toole

Directed by Tinto Brass and Bob Guccione

Theatrical Release: 1979
DVD Release: 1999
Dolby Digital 5.1

Everyone knows that old saying about sex, that even when it’s bad it’s still pretty good. Well, if that’s true, then when it’s bad, and it’s still bad, then it must be really awful. That’s the way it is with Caligula, a film with the dubious distinction of being the most expensive hardcore porno film ever made. How does a movie like this even get made in Hollywood? It doesn’t, really. Instead it gets produced by Penthouse magazine publisher Bob Guccione and it gets filmed in Italy. Caligula was the first of its kind, and also the last. On its twentieth anniversary Caligula is available in both the edited (R rated) and unedited versions (no rating). The unedited version is the focus of this review.

When Caligula first made its rounds in about 1980 few people saw the unedited version that is available today on DVD. With accusations of being too sexual, too violent, and too degrading, it was chopped and slashed to a fraction of what’s seen here. I was too young to see it in the theaters (not that I didn’t try to see it, they just didn’t let me in), but I did see that same edited version a few years later on videotape. Surprisingly, it was not at all what I expected. In fact, I watched it among a group of friends and I was the only one who remained awake until the end! When the censors told us that it was too naughty to see, they forgot to tell us something much more important -- it’s incredibly boring. I’m sure that if they slapped that warning on it when it made the theater circuit, far less people would have gone to see it. Instead, all the notoriety and controversy surrounding Caligula made it all the more popular.

The short and sweet synopsis of this film is that Caligula tells the tale of the rise and fall of emperor Caligula, a role played by noted actor Malcolm McDowell. I could tell you more, but why bother. The real point of this extravaganza is not to enlighten us or give us a history lesson on the Roman Emperor. There are many good books, and much better movies, that will do that. Instead it is a backdrop, or an excuse really, to make a movie about sex and violence. And it does that with reckless abandonment.

The biggest difference between the edited and nonedited release of this film is the amount of sex and violence one gets. Unlike some films like American Pie that fool us with their rated and unrated versions (there is hardly any difference in the two), Caligula actually delivers the goods. We’re not talking about a snip here and an edit there. In terms of running time the two differ by some 54 minutes! Mind you, the story really makes no more sense in the unedited release, but there is plenty more hardcore sex, violence, degrading acts to humanity and inexplicable situations that don’t really warrant much more discussion. It will be shocking to most, disturbing to many, and still incredibly boring to almost all. If there is anything positive to say about this colossal mess, it is that the filmmakers did manage to work almost every conceivable sexual fetish into the film’s two-hour plus running time. But that certainly doesn’t make it any better. The big-name stars don’t take part in acts of sex themselves. Instead, the sex is mostly left to the extras and the wannabe porn stars.

The problem with Caligula is that it fails on all counts. Despite the relatively large budget, the production value is awful. Even though they have many big-name actors, the skill they show in the performances is abysmal. And as a sex film one is better off hopping down to an adult video store where most titles will be leaps and bounds better than this one.

Cinematography of the film itself ranges from fine to atrocious. Given that, I wasn’t expecting much. But frankly, I was quite surprised with the low quality of video and audio transfer. I thought that for a twentieth anniversary release they would have at least attempted to provide the best transfer possible by using a pristine film print; they didn’t.

As for the DVD extras, there are just a few things added including a pretentious "making of" feature, as well as some promo material for other Penthouse titles. This may be the only DVD one can buy that doesn’t have a theatrical trailer. The poor selection of extras is unfortunate because there actually are some very interesting stories about the making of the film, far more interesting than the film itself. For example, when Guccione realized that production wasn’t going quite to his plan, he reportedly flew to Europe with his own actresses and secretly shot additional sex footage that would be added later (that’s why he’s co-credited as director and writer). Following that, he reportedly hijacked the film and had it re-edited elsewhere. I also think it would be fascinating to have interviewed the actors today and find out how such big-names at the time could have been duped into making this dud. On the other hand, perhaps they’re all just too embarrassed.

Caligula may have the distinction of being the first hardcore movie to ever make the mainstream rounds, but ironically it probably helped to seal the fate that the sex and the mainstream film industry will likely never mate. Had more people seen a decent porno film like Café Flesh, with a generally high level of production and its intriguing sci-fi plot that used sex as an integral part of the story, then things may have been different. But unlike movies, in real life one cannot go back in time and change the past in order to alter the future. We’re stuck with Caligula. It’s awful, it’s a mess, and there is no real reason one needs to see it. Still, controversy brings intrigue and that’s the likely reason I saw it. If you haven’t and you are not easily offended by the most gratuitous of images you may be tempted to see it too. The only reason one would want to rent it is to see just how bad it is. And the only reason to buy it is to have it around to show all your friends just how bad it is so they don’t have to rent it.

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