Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Movie Review: Caligula (1979)

Gore Vidal, Tinto Brass, and Penthouse Magazine present CALIGULA

Written by Gore Vidal
Directed by Tinto Brass & Bob Guccione

Caligula....Malcolm McDowell
Tiberius....Peter O'Toole
Drusilla....Teresa Ann Savoy
Macro....Guido Mannari
Longinus....John Steiner

When is a porno not really a porno? When it is this fantastical epic period piece brought to us by an unlikely union between the fine folks at Penthouse Magazine and Gore Vidal. The setting is Pagan Rome, circa 37 A.D., and the nation is run by the aged Emperor Tiberius, who hasn’t long to live. Caligula, a ladies man who lives his life by logic, is the adopted heir to the throne, and as Tiberius lies on his death bed, Caligula encourages his friend (and Tiberius’s traitorous confidante) Macro to speed up the process. When the deed is done, Caligula takes his place as emperor and we follow him through his violent and depraved rule, right through to the bitter end.

He appoints his dim-witted and effeminate uncle Claudius as his consul, adopts his younger brother as his own son and heir (only to have him arrested on trumped up charges later), has Macro arrested for his part in the death of Tiberius, and chooses a priestess of the goddess Isis to be his wife (he opts for “the most promiscuous woman in all of Rome”, naturally), all under the guidance of his sister/lover Drusilla. Things get even wilder when Drusilla dies from “The Fever,” and Caligula loses his mind a bit. He escapes into town (the only scene that takes place outside of the Emporer’s Castle) and travels incognito, until he’s beaten by a mob and taken to prison, believed to be a drunk.

He returns to court with a new barbarian friend, declares himself a god, and proposes a rather bizarre idea on how to balance the budget: pimp out the Senator’s wives to anybody with five gold pieces. This results in what has to be the largest (real) orgy ever caught on film, all taking place on a fake boat built within the castle walls, looking like a leftover set from Studio 54. As if this wasn’t bad enough, he later arrests and confiscates the estates of every senator he feels has “failed Rome.” The Senators are important (and powerful) men, and the degradation of their character leads directly to Caligula’s downfall in a closing scene that can not be forgotten.

Yes, the rumors are true. There are hardcore sex scenes in this film. However, it escapes the porn stigma for a number of reasons: the high budget, the name stars, and the fact that the camera only actually shows the hardcore scenes for very brief periods of times—a drawn out lesbian scene and the Senator Boat Orgy are the exceptions—among them.

The acting is typically rather good, and the musical scoring is magnificent. The sets—while surely as historically inaccurate as the story itself—are sometimes surreal and always amazing. There may not always be a lot going on story-wise, but that’s okay. The real stars of the show are the titillating and/or shocking elements that crop up every few minutes or so. Keep your eyes open for physical deformities, stilt walking, juggling, plate spinning, sleight of hand magic tricks, genital torture, lots of masturbation, ancient sex machines, man-on-man action, public urination, a circle-jerk into a bowl, fisting, a dwarf receiving a blow job, a cut-off penis, a woman giving birth on stage before a live studio audience, and a decapitation machine that defies words.

With all of this included in the “Unrated Version” (which clocks in at a lengthy 156 minutes), it really makes me wonder what else is shown in the 210 minute “Original Cut” that is supposedly floating around out there somewhere.

Love it or hate it, one thing is for sure. This one has to be seen to be believed.

156 minutes

Hump Day. Not as bad as we make it out to be, not as fun as it sounds.


  1. I think we reached the same conclusions about this one. It's like we're psychically connected except it took me 7 months to pick up your thoughts from the ether and then watch Caligula for myself (and write about it in my dang blog but not as eloquently as you did). Anyway, I'm not afraid of porn, it is just annoying. That's why I can't say I love this movie but I care for it deeply. The decadent and mad world of Caligula has always been a fascinating one and I doubt there will ever be a version quite like this one in terms of insane mood and gorgeous art design. That's why I love/hate Satyricon. It has that same totally bonkers feel to it but has some incredibly boring crap in it because that is what Fellini does best. He gets your attention and then tries to smother you with tedium.

  2. Wow, that last paragraph is great, you mentioned way more depravity then I squeezed into my review! You reminded me of the midget getting the blow job! Aaarrrgghh!


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