BOB GUCCIONE peddles pornography for the chic. As publisher of Penthouse, he doesn't cater to a readership comprised only of horny old men or 14-year-old boys discovering "soap." His buyers-young and sophisticated, pseudo-intellectual and self-consciously stylish-enjoy Guccione's Thinking Man's Porn: glossy photographs of beautiful women masturbating over captions that say something like "My interests are sky-diving and neuro-surgery and I need a gentle, intelligent man who knows how to make it!" With this audience in mind, Guccione set out to make movies, and Caligula, his first cinematic effort, is like his magazine: pretentious, exploitative, and enraging.
Caligula is epic trash. The film's real vulgarity lies not so much in its gratuitous sex and violence as it does in the hugeness of the production and its arrogant pomposity. Forget the castration scene, the oozing entrails, the close-ups of women urinating, the slow motion vomiting, the fist rammed up the anus. The real obscenity is the amount of money spent on the gallons of fake blood and the tons of naked flesh used in the film; the amount of money needed to waste the talents of such fine performers as Malcolm McDowell, Peter O'Toole, Helen Mirren, and Sir John Gielgud; the amount of money squandered on lavish sets that often look less like ancient Rome than the interior of the Hong Kong.
Guccione refuses to call Caligula pornography. Because of its historical accuracy in the depiction of Roman decadence, Caligula begs to be taken seriously, unlike such gross, reactionary trash as Dawn of the Dead or sexist, abusive trash like Deep Throat. This film insults the audience with its pretensions.
Caligula opens with the portentious pounding of a drum, as a Bible passage about gaining everything but losing one's soul (get it?) appears on the screen in blood red. We then see a cheery young Caligula frolicking in carnal bliss with his sister, Drusilla. But soon, with neither reason nor warning, ambition seizes Caligula. He thinks that his grandfather, the Emperor Tiberius, wants him dead, so he has Tiberius killed and assumes his reign. Caligula thinks he's a god; he says so at least half a dozen times in the long, tedious course of the film. As a display of his power, he makes ridiculous, arbitrary decisions, rapes several people (and a horse), and kills a whole lot more. What motivates this evil monster? Has the lust for power driven Caligula mad? Is he the master or the slave of his decadent society? Who cares? Not the makers of Caligula, since they dispense with such trivialities as plot, character, and thematic development, in favor of the juicier and more exploitative aspects of the story. The film is a two-and-a-half-hour parade of gruesome tortures and unexciting sex to the tune of strange wailing and chanting on the soundtrack. So much for artistic and social significance.
MALCOLM McDOWELL, in the title role, struggles to keep himself from drowning in this cesspool of a movie and fails. His Caligula is sufficiently cruel and sadistic, but the performance lacks wit and imagination. After a while, McDowell becomes as tiresome as the two-and-a-half-hour film itself. This is especially disappointing because, nine years ago, McDowell proved himself an excellent actor by tackling the almost impossibly difficult role of Alex in Stanley Kubrick's A Clock-work Orange. In that film he portrayed a character as villainous as Caligula but, mainly through the control of his extraordinary face, he added something exhiliratingly scary to his performance. Alex's eyes were those of a mischievous schoolboy gone insane; he had the face of a demonic baby, a sinister cherub. In Caligula, McDowell's face has become drawn and taut, effectively expressing fiendishness, but little else.
Curiously, the chic Penthouse perusers haven't come out in full force to see Caligula, especially at $7.50 a pop in New York and $6.00 in Boston. After 31 weeks in New York and Los Angeles the film has grossed less than $5 million, a rather paltry sum for such epic trash. But Bob Guccione won't starve. If the chic desert him, there will always be horny old men and pubescent boys.