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Tinto Brass, Bob Guccione (uncredited)
Malcolm McDowell, Teresa Ann Savoy, Helen Mirren, Peter O'Toole, John Steiner, Guido Mannari, Paolo Bonacelli, Leopoldo Trieste, Giancarlo Badessi
Writing Credits:
Gore Vidal, Bob Guccione (additional scenes, 1984 version), Giancarlo Lui (additional scenes, 1984 version), Franco Rossellini (dialogue, 1984 version)

What would you have done if you had been given absolute power of life and death over everybody else in the whole world?

Caligula may very well be the most controversial film in history. Only one movie dares to show the perversion behind Imperial Rome, and that movie is Caligula, the epic story of Rome's mad emperor. All the details of his cruel, bizarre reign are revealed right here: his unholy sexual passion for his sister, his marriage to Rome's most infamous prostitute, his fiendishly inventive means of disposing of those who would oppose him, and more. The combined talents of cinematic giants Malcolm McDowell, Peter O'Toole, John Gielgud and Shakespearean actress Helen Mirren, along with an acclaimed international cast and a bevy of beautiful Penthouse Pets, make this unique historical drama a masterwork of the screen. Not for the squeamish, not for the prudish, Caligula will shock and arouse you as it reveals the deviance and decadence beneath the surface of the grandeur that once was Rome.

Box Office:
$17.5 million.

Rated X

Widescreen 1.85:1
English Dolby Digital 5.1
Supplements Subtitles:

Runtime: 156 min.
Price: $29.99
Release Date: 11/30/1999

• "Gore Vidal's Caligula" Making-Of Featurette
• Film Credits/Bios


Sony 36" WEGA KV-36FS12 Monitor; Sony DA333ES Processor/Receiver; Panasonic CV-50 DVD Player using component outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Sony SA-WM40 Subwoofer.


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Caligula: Unrated Edition (1980)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (October 23, 2007)

Caligula occasionally played some midnight showings in town when I went to college in the mid-Eighties, and it was a "must see" for all us young perverts. I'm not quite sure why so many of us found it so compelling, but attend it in droves we did.

Unfortunately, I had to go home for the weekend when Caligula initially played, so I couldn't attend it with my friends. I didn't think it was much of a loss until I heard them talk about it. It sounded like the most insanely obscene movie ever made - how could I miss that?!

As such, I rented the movie on videotape, but was sorely disappointed by what I saw. Where was all the smut and violence my friends had related to me? That's when I discovered that they saw the unrated version, whereas I was stuck with the edited cut; the latter contained a whopping minutes less footage. No wonder I thought the movie sucked so bad!

Happily, the uncut version appeared via another screening a few months later, so my friends and I piled into the theater. You know what? Even though Caligula was hilariously perverse and graphic, it still sucked; this was filmmaking at its worst.

So why am I watching it again more than a decade later? I dunno. Pathetic attempt to recapture my youth? Renewed perverse curiosity? The fact that I'm an idiot?

Probably all of these combined. Whatever the reason, man! What a terrible movie! Actually, I should make a more specific comment about this area, since "terrible" covers many different possibilities. A terrible movie could be boring, or it could be inane, or it could be poorly made in any number of ways; the different ways that a movie can be bad are multiple.

Caligula touches upon many of them, but I can't say that it's boring. As asinine as it is, it remains watchable from start to finish, and that's no mean feat for a movie that runs more than two and a half hours.

It's just such an insanely silly movie. The main purpose of the film really seems to be to shock; clearly we're supposed to just be completely flustered by it. That never happened to me. Oh, I suppose that if I were to see this thing out of the blue, I might be more shocked - I knew what I was getting with it - because it really is very graphic. There's massive amounts of very detailed nudity - female and male - plus many different forms of sex, all filmed up close and personal. In regard to the latter, we don't see much of the old in-out (to recall another - much better - Malcolm McDowell film) but we do witness many dick-suckings and a fair amount of pussy-licking. (If these phrases offend you, what the hell are you doing reading a review of Caligula?!)

We also witness quite a lot of rather graphic violence. One legendary scene: a guy's dick is cut off and fed to the dogs. Happy happy, joy joy! To be frank, it's all so completely over the top that it's funny. Can't imagine laughing as a man's dismembered and his most personal attribute is made into a Scooby snack? Watch Caligula and learn.

Also discover how a strong cast can be absolutely wasted. McDowell, Peter O'Toole, John Gielgud, Helen Mirren - all flushed! Not that anyone would ever remotely consider them to be quality actors based on their work here. I haven't seen this much ham since my last trip to the deli! To say that these folks chew the scenery is not accurate - they swallow it whole! O'Toole is especially offensive in this regard, but everyone manages to look terrible.

Not that I can blame them. If had to attempt to act in a piece of tripe like Caligula, I'd probably just camp it up too; might as well have some fun along the way! As it was during my younger years, Caligula remains consummate trash. It's perversely fun just because it's so bad and it's so sick. Since those factors are the only reason anyone remembers the movie - a more tame film would have been forgotten years ago - I guess that means something.

The DVD Grades: Picture D/ Audio C+/ Bonus B-

Caligula appears in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1 on this single-sided, dual-layered DVD; the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 TVs. The quality of the picture heartily lives up - or down - to the quality of the material. This is one dreadful-looking DVD, almost from start to finish. Oh, some scenes look pretty decent, and the last third of the movie actually offers the highest quality image. But that ain't saying much; "pretty decent" is the best this film ever looks, and it usually appears much, much worse.

The picture usually seems relatively sharp, though various incidences of softness and blurriness abound (some of these are intentional, but those aren't the ones to which I refer). Even the sharpness comes with a negative, since a great deal of artificial edge enhancement appears; even when the picture seems sharp, it almost never looks "right."

The quality of the print utilized is horrible. It teems with flaws, from massive amounts of grain, very frequent spots and speckles, scratches and some of the scariest hairs I've ever seen on a video - I think Crystal Gayle must've transferred it! Actually, I can't conclusively state that the image is terrifically grainy; it's often hard to distinguish from digital artifacts, so it's possible that those are the problem. Whatever - it's a very spotty picture that's riddled with flaws.

Colors aren't bad, and the reds even manage to look decent at times. Black levels seem adequate but also unspectacular, and shadow detail is average. Unfortunately, because of the multiple problems in other picture areas, even these minor positives can't shine; whatever quality may exist in these colors are dark areas is badly obscured by the haze and the flaws. Is Caligula the worst-looking DVD I've seen? No, but it's up there.

While not great, the Dolby Digital 5.1 mix of Caligula is infinitely better than the image. When you consider the age of the movie, it's actually quite good. It offers a very nice forward soundstage, with some fine stereo effects and some decent spatialization. The only fault that occurs comes from some poor sound design. Panning between channels is nonexistent, which means that even when something should go from one speaker to the next, it doesn't; it sticks to one and one alone. Normally that means the audio would reside in the center channel, but that's not the case here; if a sound should go from center to right, it'll be stuck in the right and that's that. While this is no more illogical than leaving the audio in the center, it comes across strangely just because we're much more accustomed to sounds that should emanate from the right or left coming from the center; it's somewhat disconcerting for the audio to arrive in the right channel before it should.

Still, I liked the overall separation and usage of the front channels. Surround utilization is much more limited but not bad; we hear some music and occasional effects, such as during a thunderstorm. No split surround usage was noted.

In general, the quality of the audio is decent but flawed. It largely sounds somewhat flat and dull. Dialogue is usually intelligible, but some very poor dubbing - particularly in the O'Toole segments - mars the presentation at times. Crackling and distortion also periodically degrade the audio; once again, these problems occur mainly during the O'Toole scenes. The music sound pretty good, though it lacks much range, and the sound effects seem reasonably authentic and clear. All in all, Caligula presents a flawed but surprisingly good soundtrack.

Caligula offers a grand total of two supplemental features, but only one of these is interesting. That's the 56 minute program formally titled "A Documentary on the Making of Gore Vidal's Caligula". It's a piece from around the time of the film's release in the early Eighties and it offers a rather disjointed look at the creation of the film.

It's not clear where this program was supposed to air and what its point is. For the most part, it seems to be a semi-promotional puff piece. Much of the content tells us in portentous tones about what an epic Caligula is, a nd we see many shots of Vidal and Penthouse bigwig - and Caligula producer - Bob Guccione discussing what a great movie it will be. It provides quite a lot of uncensored material from the set - there's a lot of sexually explicit material in here - in addition to the comments from the cast (mainly McDowell) and others. The quality of the program is quite bad. How bad, you ask? When scenes from the film were inserted, they seemed crystal clear in comparison. Considering how awful the movie looks, that's saying something. The audio is badly muffled and occasionally unintelligible. No subtitles are available, so deciphering the content is often a bit of a chore.

The program touches on some problems with making the film. The issue of how racy and outrageous Caligula is remains the focus, but we also hear a little about the dissension between Guccione and director Tinto Brass. Unfortunately, that issue and others are not covered very well and many questions remain. For one, it's clear that some problem occurred in regard to Vidal; despite what the documentary indicates, the final film is definitely not titled "Gore Vidal's Caligula". The credits don't even list him as screenwriter; they say the film was "adapted from an original screenplay by Gore Vidal." Nowhere are these issues addressed. Also, it'd be nice to hear more about the problems with Brass. Although the documentary clearly describes him as the director, the credits merely state that there was "principal photography by Tinto Brass."

This means we have a film with no screenwriter and no director. Hmm - I guess that's what it's such a crappy movie! Anyway, while the documentary is fairly watchable and rather amusing in the solemn grandeur with which it treats the film, this DVD screams out for a modern program that looks back upon Caligula and its legacy. I searched the Internet and unfortunately was not able to find much information on this area; the official site () provides some interesting details - most of which appear in the interview with Guccione - but lacks depth. As it stands, the included documentary is interesting, but the subject could use much more exploration.

The only other supplement on this DVD is a listing of film credits for four of the actors (O'Toole, McDowell, Gielgud and Mirren). No biographies also appear; we just see credits. These are actually tremendously detailed and offer pretty much any kind of appearance the actors have made; movies, TV, and even video games. If you're interested in the careers of these actors, the filmographies seem very complete.

The initial pressing of Caligula also included an extra DVD called "The Pet Store." This offers a sampling of scenes from twelve different Penthouse videos and runs for a little more than an hour. The video quality varies pretty wildly but is generally decent. The features themselves are what you'd expect from Penthouse: many silicone breasts and silly facial expressions. I've never much cared for Penthouse - it always seemed too sleazy for my liking - and this sampler didn't change my mind. However, it does make for a nice bonus, if you can find it; at least it gives the package a little more value.

As noted in my introduction, a DVD release of the "R"-rated edition of Caligula also is available. Why anyone would want it is a mystery; while the extra hour or so of material doesn't make the movie better, it at least makes it more interesting. The short version is like a porno film with no sex; what's the point? There's not enough value in the rest of the picture to make it stand up without the graphic content. Of course, it still bites even with the extra material, but at least that stuff gives you a reason to watch it.

Ultimately, I can't recommend Caligula. The movie stinks, though it remains perversely watchable - it offers enough campy thrills to make it compelling. The quality of the DVD is so terrible, however, that you should stay away from it. While the sound is surprisingly good, the image looks terrible, and since this is a film whose pleasures (?) are purely visual, that ain't a good tradeoff.

The included documentary isn't bad (though it looks and sounds worse than the film) but it doesn't offer a great deal of interesting information. For those who care, the Penthouse video sampler might make this DVD more appealing, but good luck finding it. It supposedly came with only the first pressing of the DVD, and that means it's a crap shoot to get it. Nothing on the packaging says whether or not your copy will include the sampler. However, as of December 26, 1999, the listing for the DVD on Reel still indicates it provides the sampler; that may just be an oversight on their part, but at least you can chew them out if it isn't there! (Amazon's listing makes no such claim.)

Anyway, although I'll probably keep my DVD of Caligula, since I already have it and it's just sick enough to be provocative from time to time - seems like a good movie to pull out for family occasions - I wouldn't recommend anyone to get it. The film has become a classic, but that's just because it's a classic stinker.

To rate this film, visit the Imperial Edition review of CALIGULA

Review Archive:  # | A-C | D-F | G-I | J-L | M-O | P-R | S-U | V-Z | Viewer Ratings | Main