CaligulaI’ve long found this ambitious 1980 shocker fascinating, even though it’s a crappy movie.  CALIGULA is of course the legendary Penthouse-financed historical porno epic, a one-of-a-kind debacle with a background as outrageous as the film itself.

This insane project began life as GORE VIDAL’S CALIGULA, from a long-in-the-works script by the widely respected, historically savvy Vidal.  He unwisely put his trust in Penthouse’s sleazeball CEO Bob Guccione, who Vidal reportedly advised his cast to think of as “one of the Warner Brothers.”  That cast would come to include Malcolm McDowell in the title role of ancient Rome’s most notorious ruler, along with distinguished British icons like John Gielgud, Peter O’Toole and Helen Mirren.  The director was Italy’s famed Tinto Brass, a onetime sixties radical (with free-form experimental fare like 1968’s L’URLO/THE CRY) turned soft core maestro (with the popular 1975 Nazi-sploitation fest SALON KITTY).  Unfortunately Brass’ ideas for the film conflicted with Vidal’s; in defiance of the latter’s decree that all scenery be gritty and unshowy, Brass and art director Danilo Donati concocted incredibly lavish, monumental sets packed more often than not with dozens of copulating extras.

Vidal exited the production and had his name removed from the title.  But there were more battles on the horizon.  The budget steadily increased due to Donati’s expensive sets, and Guccione, believing CALIGULA would change movie exhibition forever, locked Brass out of the editing room and recruited his own staff to assemble the film–with specially shot hard core inserts!  The result was a choppy, discordant mess which Brass publicly disavowed (resulting in the never-before-used credit “Principal Photography By Tinto Brass—Editing By The Production”).  A bevy of lawsuits followed and Guccione ended up sinking around $10 million of his own fortune into the film (about $60m in today’s dollars).  Just how much of that money CALIGULA made back during its 1980 theatrical release is still open to debate.  An R-rated 90-minute cut was released alongside the original 156-minute version, but it did nothing to leaven anyone’s feelings toward the film.

Now, over 25 years later, CALIGULA continues to captivate many viewers, this one included.  In late 2007 Image Entertainment released a massive DVD set with tons of unused footage recovered from the Penthouse vaults, along with several newly-shot interviews with various cast and crew members.  But for me the most compelling extras are the audio commentaries by Malcolm McDowell and Helen Mirren, both of whom appear to have tried their best to forget the film ever existed.  McDowell in his commentary heavily criticizes Guccione (“a snake”) over the film’s shortcomings, but the Academy Award winning Shakespearean vet Mirren actually defends CALIGULA and its makers.  Color me astonished.

Gaius Germanicus “Caligula” Caesar is the happy-go-lucky son of Tiberius Caesar, the depraved emperor of Rome.  But Caligula himself harbors dark impulses that make themselves apparent when Tiberius becomes ill.  Fully aware that he’s heir apparent to the throne, Caligula gets his pal Macro to kill Tiberius, thus expediting Caligula’s ascent to emperorship.  But he makes sure his “friend” Macro takes full blame for the crime and executed because of it, thus erasing all evidence of Caligula’s treachery.

As the new emperor of Rome, Caligula is even wilder than his father was, not to mention lax in his duties.  He lets important bills pile up unread and dispenses justice by literally weighing the evidence (i.e. whichever side has a heavier load is the victor).  He also starts up an incestuous relationship with his sister Drusilla and marries Caesonia, Rome’s most notorious whore.  When Caesonia births a daughter, Caligula, wanting a son, makes a point of raising the girl as a boy.

But Drusilla falls sick and dies, which drives Caligula totally insane.  He brands himself a god and increases the barbarity of his reign tenfold: Amongst Caligula’s new atrocities are an imperial brothel staffed entirely by politicians’ wives and daughters, and an entire army mobilized simply to hack loads of sugarcane.  But amidst Caligula’s political foes a plot is brewing.  Caligula suspects as much, but is too deluded to act on his suspicions…to the eternal detriment of himself and his family.

What resonates here is the overall décor, with incredibly lavish sets and what look like hundreds of extras.  Other fun elements include a man’s stomach exploding, another’s severed penis devoured by dogs, Caligula ravishing his dead sister and a wondrous machine with spinning blades that chop the heads off condemned men buried up to their necks in the ground.

Unfortunately just about everything else about CALIGULA sucks.  The timing and camera placement are uniformly off (the result, apparently, of clumsy editing that uses intended cutaways as master shots and vice versa) and the pacing unacceptably lethargic.  The pornographic scenes, for their part, play like exactly what they were: inserts shot by Bob Guccione and his henchman that were inserted into the film without director Tinto Brass’s approval.  And despite the prestigious talent on display, none of the acting, outside some brief bits by McDowell, is very invigorating—a fair amount of it, after all, was done by doubles shot from behind after the actors had left the production!  What it all adds up to is a dull history lesson spiced with pretty scenery and poorly integrated sex and gore.  But still…what a curiosity!

Vital Statistics

Penthouse Films International

Director: Tinto Brass (with “Editing by the Production”)
Producers: Bob Guccione, Franco Rossellini
Screenplay: Gore Vidal (et al)
Cinematography: Silvano Ippoliti
Editing: Nino Baragli
Cast: Malcolm McDowell, Helen Mirren, John Gielgud, Peter O’Toole, Teresa Anne Savoy, John Steiner, Guido Mannari, Paolo Bonacelli, Leopoldo Trieste, Giancarlo Badessi, Mirella D’Angelo, Anneka Di Lorenzo, Lori Wagner, Adriana Asti