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'Dr. Caligari' Is Out of Cabinet and on Its Way : Low-budget, limited-release film made in a Fullerton warehouse is establishing a loyal following along the cult-movie circuit


FULLERTON — In the world of big-budget Hollywood movies, success or failure usually is defined in millions of dollars, and pronounced within days of release.

"The Hunt for Red October," the Cold War submarine thriller, filled seats in more than 1,600 theaters and did upwards of $37 million in business during its first two weeks. Conversely, the cop flick "The Last of the Finest" sold less than $600,000 in tickets its first weekend, and quickly was branded a bomb.

Cult movies reside at the opposite end of the film spectrum. Usually made for less than it costs to advertise an average Hollywood release, these films depend on word of mouth, limited art-house release and, in the best scenario, extended runs as midnight movies. Success depends on attracting a loyal core of fans, and builds slowly.

It is at this level of the film biz that the Fullerton-based makers of "Dr. Caligari" believe they have found their niche. Having garnered some glowing reviews at festivals and in a limited release in Orange County theaters (The Times' Kevin Thomas called it "the work of true visionaries"), the movie has started open-ended runs as a midnight movie in Los Angeles, Sacramento, Phoenix and now Corona del Mar, as it gradually makes its way to art houses across the country.

"Word of mouth is great. I would say it's reached the stage of being a cult film already," says the movie's producer, Joseph Robertson, maker of such '60s B-movie camp classics as "The Slime People" and "The Crawling Hand."

"Dr. Caligari," completed last year, is a kinky updating of the silent German classic "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari." It stars Madeleine Reynal, a top Argentine model in her American film debut, as the granddaughter of the asylum owner in the 1919 original. The new Dr. Caligari runs the asylum now and conducts bizarre hormonal experiments on her patients, who range from a nymphomaniac housewife to a mass murderer who gets a sexual charge out of electroshock therapy.

The movie is the brainchild of Gerald Steiner, an Anaheim Hills resident who owns a Fullerton video duplication business. Deciding to make a movie of his own, he financed the project out of his own pocket to the tune of $750,000, and converted an empty warehouse at his business, next to the Fullerton Airport, into a sound stage where the entire movie was filmed.

"I'm a horror buff," Steiner explains. "I've always loved the old films." One of those old films was "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari," and Steiner says he got to wondering: "What if they made it today, with color?"

After connecting with Robertson, he approached Stephen Sayadian with an offer to write and direct. Sayadian made his mark in cult-movie circles with "Cafe Flesh," which mixed scenes of hard-core pornography with an offbeat premise about a post-nuclear society where most of the survivors cannot enjoy intimacy without becoming violently ill. So instead, they gather at the Cafe Flesh to watch staged sex acts by the few remaining "sex-positives."

Made in 1982 for $90,000, the film foreshadowed the then-nascent AIDS epidemic and was a big hit on the midnight-movie circuit, playing at the Nuart in Los Angeles for three years. Sayadian, a Los Angeles resident, admits some surprise at the Orange County connections in the evolution of his new film: "When I think of Orange County," he says, "I think of the Meese Commission."

Sayadian says he was particularly taken aback by Steiner's decision to test market the movie in Orange County malls . "To me, that was like handing out vintage Motown records at a Klan rally," the director says with a laugh. "When this movie doesn't work for an audience, it's painful to watch." He recalls some screenings for studio executives that were met with stony silence: "It was so quiet you could hear a career drop."

Steiner explains that he figured malls would help bolster the word-of-mouth campaign--and he claims that the movie didn't do badly. But its natural home, he admits, is elsewhere: "It is a specialty film. It has to go to art houses. It's not really a mall film."

Indeed, while the mall crowd has been conditioned by the splatter-flick likes of the "Fridaythe 13th" and "Halloween" series, "Dr. Caligari" is a different beast altogether. Its minimal sets, highly stylized dialogue and acting, eccentric sexual fixations and overall outre approach probably would put off hormone-driven teens in search of a good old-fashioned bloodletting. And the older "Driving Miss Daisy" crowd would likely be totally baffled if not offended.

When Sayadian got the "Dr. Caligari" assignment, he brought along Jerry Stahl, his writing partner from "Cafe Flesh" and the stage play "Jackie Charge!," a tale of voyeurism. Sayadian "does the pictures and I put the words to them," Stahl says. "It's like working with Salvador Dali."

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