“The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” and the Procession of the Ghouls

Halloween Extravaganza at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine on Friday, October 29.

Dramatic silent films are easier to appreciate than to love. The exaggerated, stylized acting common before the sound era feels relatively natural in comedies, but in dramas, it’s strange and foreign. Furthermore, the variable frame rates can give the picture a vaguely unserious air, and the intertitle conventions are unfamiliar enough to feel stilted and awkward.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari manages to overcome more contemporary hurdles than other silent films, though. A landmark of German Expressionism, it features freakishly distorted sets, odd angles, and dark, gothy makeup that leap across the decades reasonably well. Lil Dagover’s wide-eyed gesticulations as distressed damsel Jane don’t do much for me, but Conrad Veidt gets under my skin with his delectably creepy performance as Cesare, the murderous somnambulist. The moment when he opens his kohl-lined eyes in extreme close-up actually makes me shiver.