Color, 1979, 156 mins.

Directed by Tinto Brass, Bob Guccione, and Giancarlo Lui

Starring Malcolm McDowell, Helen Mirren, Teresa Ann Savoy, Peter O'Toole, John Gielgud, John Steiner, Guido Mannari, Paolo Bonacelli, Leopoldo Trieste, Mirella d'Angelo, Donato Placido / Produced by Bob Guccione and Franco Rossellini / Music by Paul Clemente / Cinematography by Silvano Ippoliti

Format: DVD - Image/Penthouse (MSRP $29.99)

Letterboxed (1.85:1) / Dolby Digital 5.1

The standard against which cinematic sleaze must be measured, Caligula has something for everybody: top notch British actors for dramatic weight, a fact-laden script by Gore Vidal, opulent visual design and flashy colors for European film addicts, graphic and plentiful bloodshed for gorehounds, and hardcore sex of every conceivable bent for the raincoat crowd. Obviously this isn't the most comfortable mix, but Caligula still manages to retain a bizarre, shocking fascination two decades after its release. Simply put, there will never be anything like it again, for better or worse.

The young Caligula (Malcolm McDowell), next in line as Emperor of Rome, carries on a flagrant affair with his scheming sister, Drusilla (Teresa Ann Savoy). Caligula orders the death of the corrupt Emperor Tiberius (Peter O'Toole) at the hands of his devoted servant, Macro (Guido Mannari), and ascends to the throne. Caligula gleefully exploits his position in every possible way by engaging in sexual depravity; aside from marrying "the most promiscuous woman in Rome," Caesonia (Helen Mirren), he carries on with Macro's wife, his half brother, and even his horse. After contracting a feverish disease and lingering near death, Caligula's sanity quickly collapses, leading to even more debauchery and butchery as he and his family spiral towards a truly grisly fate.

Designed to compete with the fledgling film efforts of Playboy Productions (who financed Roman Polanski's Macbeth), Caligula was Penthouse publisher Bob Guccione's attempt to break into the movie market with an utterly excessive slap to viewers' sensibilities. For directorial chores he hired Tinto Brass, who had a moderate success with the Nazi sexfest Salon Kitty, in the hopes that Brass would be pliable to Guccione's orders. More bizarrely, Guccione recruited novelist Gore Vidal to pen the screenplay, who not surprisingly became appalled when he realized what was being done to his material. Guccione brought over a planeload of Penthouse pets to Italy and filmed a number of hardcore sequences behind Brass' back, including a long lesbian sequence with Lori Wagner and Anneka Di Lorenzo (who sued for career damages and won less than $2 in court) and the notorious ship orgy. Most of the cast members had no idea about the explicit inserts being shot, though the mind still boggles what Mirren and MacDowell thought when they were asked to prance around naked and simulate numerous perverse sexual acts in front of the camera. Peter O'Toole and John Gielgud get off easier thanks to early death scenes, though they too are surrounded by a number of fornicating extras. Ah, the '70s. MacDowell is actually quite good for most of the film, giving a full throttle performance after which his career obviously had nowhere to go. A number of familiar Eurohorror faces turn up along the way, including two future Tenebrae actors, John Steiner and Mirella d'Angelo, though it's hard to notice anyone else when MacDowell is on the screen. Brass regular Savoy is awful in her large role as Drusilla, though it's doubtful she was hired for her acting talent, and Mirren mostly looks amusing and bewildered by the whole thing.

Originally released at 156 minutes with a self-imposed X rating, Caligula was then sliced down to a paltry 102 minutes for an R rating. The latter version, also released on DVD by Image and Penthouse, is quite a different and far more tedious experience, deleting virtually all of the nudity and leaving in long, long stretches of plot with no action whatsoever. The unrated videotape released by Vestron was almost imperceptibly letterboxed at about 1.50:1 and looked pale, grainy, and drab throughout; judging from the 142 minute running time, it was also time compressed, as no actual footage appeared to be missing. The DVD restores the correct full running time and looks markedly better; on large screen monitors the image quality is very satisfying and looks even richer and smoother than the recent "restored" theatrical reissue. On standard or smaller monitors (about 32" or less), the vast amount of detail may compress poorly and could cause some moire shimmering during many of the long shots. However, it's still vastly preferable either way to the VHS version, and the letterboxing reveals a number of bizarre details which were previously cropped off (e.g., the physically ill man in the background during the first banquet scene). The Dolby 5.1 soundtrack remix primarily focuses on the music (mostly Prokofiev and Khachaturyan standards) split to the rear and sides, with an occasional directional effect (lightning, the whirring decapitation machine, and so on) tossed in as well. It's not a spectacular sound mix per se but seems very generous considering the movie's pedigree. The disc also includes a fascinating and often appalling 56 minute documentary about the making of Gore Vidal's Caligula, as it's called here, which was previously included on one of Penthouse's compilation laserdiscs. A truly bizarre companion piece, this documentary features Vidal waxing rhapsodic about his depiction of Caligula, intercut with Guccione (in full late-'70s disco lizard regalia) explaining his own motivations behind the film. Behind the scenes footage ranges from set construction to preparation for the hardcore sequences, as well as glimpses of some scenes never included in any final cut (McDowell bashing a senator over the head with a sledgehammer, for example). McDowell and Mirren also appear for quick interviews, with Mirren aptly describing the epic as "an irresistible mixture of art and genitals." Lifted from what appears to be a 16mm source, the documentary looks fine for its age and is quite a welcome bonus. The attractive package also features some stylish, fully animated menus, and the first pressing of the unrated edition features an additional sampler disc with excerpts from other Penthouse video titles. Remarkable, dangerous, mind-damaging stuff, and definitely not for the faint of heart.

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