Having the dubious distinction of being the most elaborate and expensive porn film ever made, “Caligula” has come down to us as something of a hoot. Penthouse Productions put up the money, some $15,000,000, Gore Vidal wrote the screenplay, Tinto Brass directed, and people like Peter O’Toole, Sir John Gielgud, Helen Mirren, and Malcolm McDowell star. I doubt that any of them had any idea where the film was going or what the result would be. When it was over, Vidal and the director demanded their names be removed from the final product. Anything this bad couldn’t be this bad, right? Well, yes, it could.
“Caligula” is a colossal mess, an example of wretched bad taste based on wretched material resulting in wretched excess. The film recounts the real life of the Roman emperor Gaius Caesar, better known as Caligula (McDowell), who ruled from 37-41 A.D. This was the fellow who is believed by historians to have gone mad shortly after assuming office. Among other things, he wasted his resources on public shows; exiled or murdered most of his family; enjoyed watching people tortured and killed while he ate dinner; made his pet race horse a consul; proclaimed himself a god; and had temples built in his honor. And these were his minor offenses! The film shows him taking his prerogative as the first to have sexual relations with a new bride; having a man’s penis cut off and thrown to the dogs; conducting an incestuous affair with his sister; mowing the heads off people in the arena; and forcing the wives of his senators to sell themselves in prostitution. This was also the guy who was murdered by his own guard. Good riddance.
There are some historical figures and events it is best not to examine too closely, especially not in popular entertainment. “Caligula” plays like one of those gladiatorial fights the old Romans used to throw for the bloodthirsty masses. Times haven’t changed much after all.
The film is presented in a 1.66:1 aspect ratio conveying most of its original 1.85:1 theatrical dimensions. The film quality is slightly dull and sometimes quite grainy. Worse, it never conveys a really sharp, clear picture. There are also a few age flecks and the occasional dancing pixel to contend with. Perhaps it’s not being an anamorphic transfer accounts for some of the problem.
The audio choices are Dolby Surround Stereo and Dolby Digital 5.1. In the latter mode, one can hear a good deal more rear-channel ambient reflections in musical passages, not that you’d want to.
In addition to the movie, the disc contains a fifty-five minute documentary, “The Making of Caligula,” which takes itself so seriously, it’s almost funny. An animated scene selections menu and a few filmographies are the other bonus items.
“Caligula” reminds me in a perverse way of that hilarious disaster in Mel Brooks’s “The Producers,” where Zero Mostel decides the only way to make a buck on Broadway is to mount the worst show possible, collect a bundle of money up front, and then split when the play closes the first night. The subject he chooses is a musical based on the life of der Fuhrer called “Springtime for Hitler” that turns out so bad that people love it. Penthouse Video probably think “Caligula” is so bad that audiences will love to see it on DVD. It isn’t much of a gamble; grossness sells.
Certainly, the film is without any redeeming social value. It’s bad history, bad filmmaking, and bad pornography, too. It’s the “Plan Nine From Outer Space” of big-budget bombs. You know, if I took it seriously, I’d probably hate it. Anyway, there are two versions available on separate DVDs, the complete, unedited, unrated version that I watched and an abridged, R-rated version; these come with and without gratuitous pornographic material. I’m sure nothing helps.