A horror film in so many ways, Caligula is a truly bizarre viewing experience; repulsive, ugly, depraved and confused, but with a strangely engaging anti-joie de vivre, as Tinto Brass ambitiously fumbles around with sex, death and the maddest Roman emperor this side of Nero. Just when you think the last tasteless (but curiously apt) exhibition of sinful and sliced flesh has disintegrated, it's topped by further nastiness, punishment and sleaze. Imagine the word 'decadence' graffiti'd in big bold, red letters by a drunken Oliver Reed on the side of a vodka-scented vomit and urine smothered pub wall. Twenty-five years later and respected British thespians must look on in dismay at what for most was their lowest moment. Mirren, now a kind of yardstick of respected middle-age prosperity cringes at her role as 'Main Roman Slut', Gielgud rolls his eyes in Heaven as his cruel 'Transformers: The Movie' jibe aimed at Orson Welles is wittily rebutted, and Malcolm McDowell and Peter O'Toole, well they stay silent but twitch nervously, because they were in Tank Girl and Phantoms you know.
But, if you're going to be truthful and explicit about this notorious era of gaudy human degradation, this is a pretty faithful recreation of the extremes and ridiculousness of that time, place and mentality. Cannily enough, watching Caligula the film is akin to imagining that somewhat mythical sensual drudgery that epitomised the higher classes of the stereotypical Roman government. Actually, to be more precise, watching Caligula is like following the sick soap-opera of Michael Jackson's face, at once aghast and indecently excited by the prospect of a split nose, further angular mutation or violent skin blemish; whilst secretly thinking this is some kind of metaphor for the excess of celebrity. Even if it isn't real, accurate or historical, it is very vivid. It may as well be real because it captures that timeless sensation of those in power possessing a good thing, letting it get to their heads, before mercilessly fucking it till it breaks. This doesn't make for entertaining viewing though, just mildly morbid curiousity. As your brain grimaces and wonders who'll be raped, pillaged, fisted, beheaded, spat upon or throttled next, the sensory side of your body is in overload mode, trying to take in the theatrical dialogue, writhing bodies and claret gushes, whilst actually paying attention to such 'wimpy' material as story, narrative, themes and characters.
I call them 'wimpy' because Brass and his cinematographer seem to find them equally derisory, honing in on naked bodies, inhumanity and archaic architecture like rabid flies descending on an especially vile pile of excrement. For a film named after its eponymous character, Caligula is weak in terms of actual characterisation and insight, preferring the Malcolm McDowell role to be judged by the depravities on (freak) show, which seems to be the whole point. To give Brass some credit there does appear to be some sort of parallel between the fleshy depravities and the savage manner in which Caligula overthrows power (before being overthrown himself) and for that and the impressive grandiose sets and costume, this film avoids being called trash but not exploitation. The latter is quite a good description of what's on offer here, an exploitation-type film about exploitation itself. This is a little misleading though, because the sex isn't arousing and the violence doesn't excite, something almost certainly intentional.
Mirroring the plot of the film, the film Caligula feels like the incestuous offspring of the Burton/Taylor Cleopatra and the high camp hijinks of Russ Meyer, minus most of the po-faced seriousness of the former, and the throwaway exuberance of the latter.
The film is a definite curio though, possessing a number of guilty little pleasures within the none-more guiltier pleasure than the film itself. Watching the likes of O'Toole and Gielgud attempting to turn in an austere performance amidst the glorified gloom is comical, wondering what the Hell the financiers thought they were buying and imagining their increasing state of anxiety at viewing the dailies is torturous fun, and discovering the troubled history of the whole production is interesting stuff, even if you usually give find this element of film following tiresome. For example, Bob Guccione, head of Playboy and general horny man visited the sets by night and filmed hardcore footage that he would later try and slip in (so to speak), and I'm sure somewhere on this wonderful Internet thing of ours, there's a 'Top Ten Hilariously Hyperbolic Attacks on Caligula By Own Cast Members' list.
No doubt about this, the film has balls, Tinto Brass' heroic pair probably weigh his whole body down (its impossible not to admire the man's gusto), but ultimately this film is too genuinely filthy to be entertaining, enlightening or even sadomasochistically engaging. Want your brain to be sixth-inches soiled for the next few days? Meet Caligula, the film which merited three derivations of the word 'depravity' in its review. You'll feel dirty afterwards, ensure a shower, bucket or hose is near.
(Editor's Note - It should be noted that Penthouse Magazine, the co-producers of this feature had filmed extra hardcore sex scenes without Brass' approval. These scenes were puportedly directed by Penthouse editor in chief Bob Guccione himself, which, in defense of Brass, are of truly amateur nature and as erotic as a lobster enema. This in no way redeems the film, but does take a little heat off of the maestro of softcore porno, Tinto Brass.)