Here’s a classic German silent movie from 1920 that very well be the first movie to have a twist ending. It is really well done for the time and considering the twist it really is an impressive bit of oddity. For a horror movie I wouldn’t say it’s got the same atmosphere of dread as Nosferatu or the acting of Phantom of the Opera but there is an air of insane fear that makes it work.
It starts out with an old man and a young man, Francis outside telling each other their life story. The old man’s is boring so the young man wants to one up him. He sees a young girl walking past. He tells the old man that she is his fiancée. This is odd since she doesn’t show any recognition towards him. His story flashes back to a wee town called Holstenwall where all the sets are cut in strange angles, shadows are in odd and twisted fashions and the paint job make the sets look like a children’s play. This will make sense later.
There is a county fair going on and the strange freaky looking Dr. Caligari arrives to the clerk’s office to get a permit for a booth at the fair. When asked what he does he says he’s in Somnambulist act. The next day the clerk is found murdered from some sort of stab wound. Dr. Caligari sets up his booth and Francis and his buddy Alan arrive at the fair and decide to see the act.
Inside a cabinet Dr. Caligari has command of a 23 year old somnambulist named Caesar which he claims has been asleep all his life. Caligari commands him to wake up. He also tells the audience he can tell the past and future and invites the audience to ask him questions. Alan rushes to ask “When will I die?” Caesar looks at him and says “Before dawn tomorrow.” Somehow Alan gets over this news and goes with Francis to see Jane. Then that night Alan is stabbed by Caesar under the control of Caligari
When Francis discovers what became of his friend he tells Jane and so he and her father go to investigate. It doesn’t go anywhere though. Another murder almost takes place so the police catch the culprit and think they have the right man. Meanwhile while Jane sleeps Caesar sneaks in to kill her but he is captivated by her beauty so he kidnaps her. They chase him until he dies from exhaustion. Caligari escapes capture somehow though.
Francis finds Caligari hiding in an insane asylum as the director. With the help of the other doctors and by finding the director’s journals they discover that the director became obsessed with a mystic called Caligari who in 1093, visited towns in Italy and used a somnambulist to murder people. After being confronted with the dead body of Caesar he snaps and is put in a strait jacket and imprisoned in his own asylum.
So the flashback is over. Francis and the old fellow get up and wander the yard and head back to the insane asylum where we see Caesar staring at flowers and Jane looking away. Francis tells the old fellow not to mess with Caesar since he’ll kill you so much as look at you. He looks like he is really into those flowers so I don’t know about that. Then he goes up to Jane who stares vacantly and says “Jane I love you –when will you marry me?” She replies “We who are of noble blood may not follow the wishes of our hearts”. So as you can see Caesar and Jane are inmates here at the asylum.
Francis has obviously annoyed his new friend since he can tell his story is bull. He leaves him to himself. Especially when Francis sees a clean cut and shaven director of the asylum and he freaks out so much he needs to be put in a strait jacket and locked away. Of course the director is the same actor who played Caligari but now that he has an idea as to what is going into his delusion he says he should be able to cure him.
So that explains the strange landscape and the odd looks of the characters. The story is told from the perspective of a madman. It’s a pretty clever idea when you think about it since it doesn’t make sense until the end really. Everything in this story is the delusional ravings of insanity. I can just image what it must have been like in 1920 to see something so bizarre. Considering EVERY movie seems to write in a twist ending I’d say that they all owe a nod to this one for paving the way.