The Cabinet of Dr Caligari is one of the earliest horror films, a 1919 product of German expressionism. You can pause at almost any point of the film, and each shot will look like a work of art, with distorted angles and a twisted visual style providing a backdrop for stories about madness and betrayal.
It doesn't go in for cheap scares or gore, instead relying on a pervasive sense of dread that leaves audiences feeling unsettled throughout the entire film. That's a huge part of what makes the movie still effective to this day -- scary can easily become dated, but creepy and atmospheric lasts forever.
But to really get German expressionism, you have to understand post WWI Europe.
This was a war that started with sabers and cavalry charges and ended with tanks and poison gas and machine guns. And once it was over, people were shaken to their core, regardless of which side they were on. The Cabinet of Dr Caligari and films like it depict the world as one that is insane and devoid of reason.
Can you trust what you see? The sets and art direction reflect a fractured, unstable mind, and show how perspective can distort commonplace objects and scenery. This creates a sense of anxiety and psychological discomfort that's almost impossible to shake off. The film uses this distorted view of the world to reflect the supposed madness of the the main character, but this style is introduced in the framing story and persists after we finish the flashback. In this way, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari questions whether Francis is mad, or if the entire world is.
He tells a story about his past, where his best friend was murdered and his girlfriend kidnapped by the nefarious Dr Caligari and his somnabulist (read: super creepy sleepwalker) Cesare. This is Cesare.
Creepy, right? I told you. Interestingly enough, Cesare is played by Conrad Veidt, the same guy who was the head Nazi in Casablanca about twenty years later. He puts in a really impressive physical performance, making the deadly sleepwalker somehow balletic and catlike.
And then there's the titular Dr Caligari.
He is what the professionals call shady as fuck. Murderous or altruistic, carnival barker or director of a mental health facility, one look at his face should sufficient for audiences to determine that there's just something that ain't right about that boy.
And in the end, the film leaves it up the audience to decide who to believe. Is Francis mad, and the asylum director an eccentric but ultimately harmless doctor intent on curing the young fellow? Maybe, but there's something about the way Caligari turns to camera and insists that now he knows how to help Francis makes you feel like there may be more nefarious deeds at play.
Look, when all is said and done, not everyone is going to be super jazzed about the idea of sitting down and watching a silent movie. I get that. But films like The Cabinet of Dr Caligari are really, truly incredible pieces of art. So I guess what I'm saying is that if you only see one dark, surreal, silent horror film this year, it should probably be this one. Unless you're scared of carnies, that is. Then avoid like the plague.