Bad Movie Review (Extra Life 2018) – Caligula
The Bad Movie Review series of posts are a set of posts written as the result of meeting a $1,200 stretch goal for Extra Life, an annual 24-hour video gaming charity marathon event that benefits children’s hospitals.
What better way to end this series of reviews than to look at a movie which uncomfortably used sex as a means to advance the plot line or to distract from any sense of coherence? There are movies out there that take some liberties with the historical accuracy of the characters that they depict. Some of them might crib from or focus on certain traits that seem more exciting than others for the purposes of film. Some of them might decide to skip out on a few events or modify the history a bit to have more of a cinematic feel to the presentation.
And then there is Caligula, which takes the sourced history that as a ruler he was a sadist, cruel tyrant with sexual perversions and decides to focus on the last trait with such gusto and multiple, awful instances that even by today’s standards it’s a bit disturbing, not to mention how uncomfortable it had to be as a late 70’s film. With depictions of orgy, rape, incest, torture and unwilling prostitution, Caligula never really allows its title character to get any more depth than the fact that sex is used not as a tool but as a blunt weapon, with which Caligula batters those in his way. The intrigue and political manipulations of the Roman Empire are set aside just to show how bad Caligula can get, and the results basically show you why the film had so many legal hurdles to overcome to even be shown to audiences (even today, Amazon is not allowed to sell Caligula due to agreements with content providers).
If it was just shock cinema, I think Caligula might actually score a bit higher than it typically got (it’s at 23% at Rotten Tomatoes) because shock films at least try to have multiple dimensions of shock inducement in order to garner a reaction from audiences. With Caligula, it’s mostly just a non-stop roller coaster of sexual deviance tinged with violence and political authoritarianism, with the supporting cast serving as nothing more than vehicles to show how unhinged Caligula becomes as a ruler. From beheading his stepbrother to get a reaction out of his sister (who he wants to marry but can’t), to rewarding murderous loyalty from his head of the guard with a betrayal and abhorrent public execution to raping a wedding couple on their wedding day to allowing public debauchery to become a thing, you never get a rest from Caligula, and that’s where I think this movie falls flat on its face. A titular character movie is only as good as the supporting cast and the ability for them to be believable characters that can hold their own. It never really gets there until the very end, and even then, the future of Rome looks terribly bleak, which is saying something considering what happens to Caligula in the end. If South Park’s Cartman were allowed to rule an empire and his few scruples were swept away in favor of egotism, you’d get something close to what Caligula ultimately turns out to be – just without the cartoon hijinx and the idea that what’s being presented is absurd satire. What you get with Caligula is very, very real, and despite it being a bad movie, the mere fact that it received any kind of serious consideration for its disturbing content just makes my skin crawl.