“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.

At the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, Dr. Caligari got a strong assist from organist Timothy Brumfield, who provided a live accompaniment on the 141-rank Great Organ. (Hearing the organ was, in fact, my primary motivation to attend the Halloween Extravaganza.) I don’t know whether he was playing from a composed score or performing his own improvisations or some of both, but it was dazzlingly well done. Brumfield met dramatic cues with impeccable timing, employed the swell box to great effect, and subtly linked major characters with specific stops. (The low reed that played when Dr. Caligari made an appearance never boded well.) His romantic harmonies, punctuated by some crunchy chromatics, complemented the film beautifully. I was impressed.

Brumfield continued played after the movie concluded and the Mettawee River Theatre Company began the Procession of the Ghouls down the cathedral’s center aisle—an annual tradition. The company, directed by Ralph Lee, uses giant masks and puppets to bring to life all manner of demons and witches and ogres and fiends—some creepy, some comical. It’s not scary, exactly, but it is eerie, and as it features audience interaction (which always makes me uncomfortable—long live the fourth wall!), the ghouls unnerved me despite myself.

I am still a bit puzzled about why, exactly, the Cathedral has made an annual tradition of this Halloween Extravaganza. (The silent movie selection changes from year to year; the other two films in the rotation are Nosferatu and the Lon Chaney Phantom of the Opera.) My confusion might just be a function of having grown up in Florida and attended college in the South, where many churches pointedly hold Fall Festivals or All Saints’ Day celebrations instead of acknowledging Halloween. But even as I mulled this over, as the ghouls concluded their procession, Brumfield suddenly incorporated the melody of “When the Saints Go Marching In”—on the antiphonal trumpet, no less—into the spooky march music. I had to laugh. Maybe New York Episcopalians are just more subtle in their Halloween resistance.