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Category:    Home > Reviews > Epic > History > Erotica > Caligula – The Imperial Edition (3-DVD Set/Penthouse/Image)

Caligula – The Imperial Edition (3-DVD Set/Penthouse/Image)


Picture: C+     Sound: C+     Extras: C+     Film: C+



NOTE:  This film has also been issued on Blu-ray and you can read more about it at this link:






There is no epic mess more epic than Caligula, the Penthouse magazine-produced film (costing anywhere from $11 to 25 Million, but which would now cost well over $100 Million) that started out (as many such projects do) with the best of intents, only to become a production fiasco.  Bob Guccione was the magazines publisher and with this project, seemed to have several goals in mind, spoken or not.


For one thing, Playboy and his arch rival Hugh Hefner had co-produced the very critically acclaimed and successful Roman Polanski version of Macbeth in 1971.  Before his scandals (and even after, if you think of it), Polanski was a major director whose work on Chinatown (1974) afterwards sealed his reputation as a groundbreaking filmmaker.  Then there was the hardcore XXX film cycle at the time that kept producing films that set box office records in the theaters they played.  Most were low budget affairs, though their producers would soon start to spend unnecessary dollars to complete and be a gaudy as such films were always considered to be.


Starting with Gore Vidal’s portrait of bi-sexual and insane Caligula historically, Guccione saw and opportunity to expand his empire.  By talking on Salon Kitty director Tinto Brass, the sex-focused Italian director of the moment, Guccione thought he could have his own Polanski, outdo Hefner, mainstream hardcore sex and have a commercial and critical success to boast about.  He even hired name actors like Peter O’Toole, up and coming Helen Mirren, John Gielgud and especially Malcolm McDowell hot off of Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange in the title role.  Never would McDowell sell out this persona more than he did here.


However, some fatal mistakes were made.  Brass though he could be the more heterosexual, more capitalist Pier Paolo Pasolini (a gay Catholic Marxist!) and even hired his costume designer Danilo Donati (who had worked with Pasolini and Federico Fellini, plus later of the 1980 Flash Gordon) and editor Nino Baragli (who had edited many Pasolini films and key Spaghetti Westerns) fresh off of Pasolini’s last and far superior portrait of debauchery and fascist evil Salo, or 120 Days Of Sodom (1975, which many believe led to his political assassination made to look like an accident) leaving Brass thinking he could trump Pasolini.


The next mistake is thinking that by being more sexually graphic, Brass and Guccione thought they could top Kubrick and not just by the McDowell/Clockwork Orange connection, but by imitating the shooting style of Kubrick’s follow-up epic film Barry Lyndon (1975) which had not done as well as Warner and Kubrick had hoped for.  After so many imitators of Kubrick have come and gone, his influence now stronger than ever, they had reason to believe they were ahead of the curve, but they botched that opportunity spectacularly.  Instead, it tries to have the clarity of both Kubrick films, yet still tries to add in the soft diffused light where it can to look like a Penthouse print layout.  Add the botched sound and picture editing in every version after Baragli finished what he thought was the final cut and you can forget any success there.


Finally, there is the damaging tampering by Guccione, who snuck around and shot six minutes of hardcore footage without telling anyone thinking he was better at shooting sex than Pasolini, Brass and Kubrick combined!  After all, who dare tell him what to do, he was the king of the Penthouse Empire and knew sex better than God or Hefner, so he did his cinematic layouts and thought that would be just enough to mainstream graphic sex into Hollywood and make him king of film sex, motion and still.  With all the rape controversies in XXX and mainstream films (i.e., “she’s asking for it and got it” or “she learned to like it after the initial assault” whether a rape/revenge grindhouse film or not) building up, he though he would rise the wave to success.  Instead, everything would slowly implode around him.


The combination of graphic sex and negation of the title character’s homosexuality (repeated more recently in Oliver Stone’s unfortunate Alexander) drove Vidal to have his name removed, the six XXX minutes drove Brass to permanently distance himself from the film and though filming was all but finished in 1976, the film took five years to reach U.S. screens (to the extent it did) just in time for VHS & Beta to kill XXX film featured, see the beginning of The Reagan Era which used the film as an example to go after all sex materials, to see art cinema replaced by Star Wars style blockbusters, to see the earliest signs of the AIDS epidemic, to see Playboy become a larger empire, to see other parts of the sexual revolution (minus hardcore) find its  way into the mainstream (like “jiggle TV”), to see the rise of the Punk movement, rise and fall of Disco (with the troubled, delayed Village People Disco Musical Can’t Stop The Music also bomb) with its backlash aimed at minorities or anyone seen as supporting them like the Penthouse junta, other important films move cinema forward enough to leave Caligula’s pretensions behind and see several of its stars publicly denounce it to boot.   That the epic in this classical-looking form slowly returned in everything from Martin Scorsese’s Last Temptation Of Christ to Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, adding further age to Caligula, as well as showing what a mess the film is.


So is the film any good?  Was it ever any good?  Could any cut of the film save it from being more than a sexual and star-driven curio?  Now that Guccione has lost control of his empire, this 3-disc set arrives as if it were a Criterion set, complete wit a ton of extras and a booklet that intelligently attempts to argue that Brass might have made a good film if he had been left to his vision and had final cut.  Having seen several versions of the film now, all the new outtakes and footage here, plus the pre-release cut for the very first time, then reading about footage missing altogether, even the most coherent, Brass-authentic cut would not add up to any kind of masterwork when you are working second generation after masters like Kubrick or Pasolini.  Even if they stuck to Vidal’s screenplay (though I would like to read the supposedly exceptional final draft not included here) it would have still be playing second-fiddle to those cinema masters.


Yes, a more coherent version is possible with proper editing, shot selection and proper sound editing and restoration.  It will still look like a dated relic, no matter the ambitions.  If the footage legally trapped in foreign versions could be obtained, we could see what was intended as a kind of dark comedy, but there is no sing in any way, shape or form that Brass had/has the talent to put that kind of wit on the big screen.  This leaves McDowell’s performance at its best looking over the top, even when he is giving the producers their money’s worth.


Oh, and what is the film about, you say?  Well, it is a study that feels like an epic version of Trivial Pursuit, which stretches out an evening into months or years.  We can only judge from the two cuts here, because the speculation of the various versions can never be resolved because the sum of the missing clips and misfires and bad edited and misdubbings shows that this epic film had no one in any real control and no one had a clear vision of what this should have been except maybe Vidal, whose only version only exists on paper with far too much material unshot.  For film and media persons, a study of the film may prevent future bad filmmaking. 


For those looking for sex and sexual titillation, there is more torture, mutilation and murder here than actual sex, while there is more nudity (with the cameras zooming in on boobs, bums, reproductive organs and simulated (plus non-simulated) acts) than anything else and it becomes tired and silly, as well as remarkably unerotic, even boring and most unintentionally making everyone look like moving corpses only distinguished from Romero zombies by blood and non-rotting flesh.  With the current “torture porn” cycle in the mainstream and al the sexual torture and stupidity easily found on the Internet all too easily, the almost endless flaws of the film are more obvious than ever, making it a relic more quickly than any o0f its greatest detractors could have imagined.


Gielgud and O’Toole supposedly fled the country to avoid post-production and save their careers, both of which saw new success after surviving this fiasco, while McDowell continued to find work and sometimes in good projects like John Badham’s Blue Thunder (1983 and not the title of a porn film) annoying Roy Scheider as one of the villains.  Helen Mirren became one of the greatest actresses of her generation, further relegating the film to secondary status.  Pasolini was gone, but Kubrick and others continued to innovate, while Playboy was far more successful entering the home video market than Penthouse ever was.  And to think Nicolas Roeg originally was set to direct before Penthouse became involved.


That leaves Caligula one of the great curios that people still talk about, yet cannot explain or explain why.  Outside of a few scenes that might shock in up to 156 minutes that seem more dated than not, the one thing the film does have going for it is that nothing is a digitally generated graphic.  All the costumes and sets had to be built and they are as massive (and clunky) as D.W. Griffith’s early silent works or that of the Italian Superspectacles that followed.  Brass was smart enough to put male bodybuilders in the film (back in 1976) before the fitness craze and permanent bodybuilding culture for men in particular, saving this from seeming too 1970s.  Also, none of the women in any version has breast implants, which does not make its problems as a period piece worse.


With all that, it is a bad film everyone should see once, if they are not annoyed, bored or sickened in the process.  Here, you can try two versions and see if you can get through one of them.  Otherwise, it is the ultimate mess of a film and for being a one of a kind disaster, the curiosity will continue to see the film reissued on video, with HD up next.  The film did very well in the movie houses it played and might have made more money at the box office has the film arrived a few years before so it did not have to compete with blockbuster space, especially since Guccione charged Roadshow prices (over twice the usual ticket seat price).  Home Video and the then power and wealth of Penthouse kept the film going until it made its money back and became profitable.


It was never an influential film, it can only be described as the title character going mad and expressing the madness in sexual violence and yet, it is very shallow in all this as there is not even the beginning of an attempt of a character study.  Sure, other recent epics (like Stone’s Alexander, now available in straight-safe and gay versions, to be blunt) shows that Hollywood and filmmaking still has major problems with epic biopics in general, especially where the lead is gay.  Even 300, with the all-male Spartans, had to ignore any homosexuality to be a hit including female love interests.  Had Caligula succeeded on any artistic level, it could have changed that back by the late 1970s.  Instead, it ultimately made a mockery of erotic cinema, epic cinema and with no guiding vision, becomes a portrait of how bad all the major big budget blockbusters that bomb go wrong.  And there were no toy tie-ins to swell, no home videos at the time of production, no t-shirts or other marketing.  It was all powered by ego and money.  Caligula is the last pre-Star Wars epic disaster, especially independently-produced and for good reason.  Now you can see why clearer than ever, unintended laughs and all.



The anamorphically enhanced 2 X 1 image (strange ratio) is supposed to be from a new High Definition transfer, but the print needs some work and the newly recovered pre-release version may have redder fleshtones, but looks more naturalistic overall despite have as many flaws as the longer version.  That the film had several cinematographers including the director is no surprise when you look.  Then you have the sound here in Dolby Digital 5.0 and 2.0 versions.  The 5.0 comes from the 1999 digital sound reissue of the film and not from any 70mm blow-up, including some bad looping, loopy uses of Classical Music and even dialogue when you can see mouths are clearly not moving.  Needless to say the audio shows its age, especially since it was mostly recorded (and looped) in 1976 - 7.


Extras are extensive, starting with a small, but text-loaded booklet inside the DigiPak foldout.  DVD 1 adds a set of theatrical trailers to the longer version that would not get an NC-17 or be issued as unrated.  DVD 2 has a never-before-seen pre-release version, extensive deleted/alternate scenes (often also never before seen) including silent footage (with loud music) taken form a 16mm workprint for which some scenes only survive in that form, Nick Redman interviewing McDowell on one audio commentary, Nathaniel Thompson interviews Ernest Volkman (who wrote for Penthouse at the time) on another and third/final piece with Helen Mirren interviewed by James Ellis Chaffin and Alan Jones.  Volkman’s ends before the film finishes, but has plenty of dirt dug up on the film.  McDowell and Mirren seem happier withy the film now than then, though Mirren surprisingly seems to have never had a major problem with it in the first place.  DVD 3 stills, 62-minute and 10-minute making of pieces, My Roman Holiday with John Steiner (24 minutes) featurette, Caligula’s Pet: A Conversation with Lori Wagner (28 minutes) featurette, Tinto Brass: The Orgy of Power (35 minutes) featurette and a DVD-ROM section loaded with goodies including several text bios at length, two versions of the screenplay, novelization of the film and several classic (now vintage) pieces from the magazine itself on the film.


Guccione had success in movies before co-producing the original Burt Reynolds/Robert Aldrich The Longest Yard, but this was the furthest thing from a football game, though they could both be seen as prison films we guess.  The film is a disaster, but a one-of-a-kind disaster and though we doubt taking out of its 1970s context is going to “cleanse” it of the counterculture connotation, it is a fascinating mess that ambition alone with the money and names on the screen (aside from anything that is or is not shocking sex or violence from a time that was far less common) are the real reasons to not right it off as a total wreck.  Now, with all the unearthed footage here for the first time, you can see for yourself what happened.  If you must see the film, only settle for this set.



-   Nicholas Sheffo


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