leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh
If Tim Burton had made THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS (1993) as a black-and-white, live-action feature, it might look something like David Lee Fisher's digital reworking of Robert Wiene's 1920 German Expressionist classic, but with sound and dialogue. The shadow play begins in an eerily stylized garden, where young Francis (Judson Pearce Morgan) tells a curious older gentleman the sad story of his finacee, Jane (Lauren Birkell), who lost her reason under circumstances so fantastic even he can scarcely believe them. Francis and his best friend, Alan (Neil Hopkins), who grew up together in small-town Holstenwall, always seemed unlikely companions: Francis is steady and pragmatic, while Alan is a poet, prone to melancholy and recently recovered from a nervous breakdown. Both loved Jane, but their rivalry was friendly. While enjoying the annual fair, Alan and Francis took a break from carousing to visit the tent of Dr. Caligari (Daamen J. Krall) and his mysterious somnambulist, Cesare (Doug Jones). When roused temporarily from his eerie sleep, Caligari tells the rapt crowd that Cesare can foretell the future. Cesare predicts that Alan will live only until "tomorrow's dawn," and sure enough, he's stabbed to death during the night. Francis' search to uncover the truth behind his friend's murder leads him and Jane into the darkest, most crooked back roads of a madman's mind. As a purely technical achievement, Fisher's film is a triumph: He digitally scanned all the original film's wildly stylized backdrops and then carefully restaged each scene, blending old and new footage almost seamlessly in postproduction. If some of the cast is a little stiff (notably young lovers Morgan and Birkell), others are strikingly good, particularly Hopkins as the fragile, doomed Alan. Kraal is a fine, spooky Caligari, and Jones, who's developed a small specialty of giving real performances through heavy effects in films like HELLBOY (2004) and PAN'S LABYRINTH (2006), makes a thoroughly credible Cesare, the part made famous by Conrad Veidt. Fisher's dialogue draws heavily on the original film's intertitles and script directions, and the addition of sound is a plus for moviegoers uncomfortable with the artificial embarrassment of silence. But the film's stars are still the twisted black and white street sets flanked by inky, tortured trees, crooked exteriors, flattened perspectives and bizarrely proportioned interior spaces. 90 years after they first amazed and scandalized moviegoers, they're still authentically stunning and elegantly nightmarish.