John Bruni reviews Caligula

Caligula 156 min., 1979
Written by Gore Vidal
Directed by Tinto Brass
Language: English
My rating: ★★★★★

Only Penthouse could have made this movie.

* * *

“I have existed from the morning of the world, and I shall exist until the last star falls from the heavens. And though I have taken the form of Gaius Caligula, I am all men as I am no man. And so I am a god.”

Generally speaking, Roman emperors have been considered a pack of perverts mad with power and driven by greed, gluttony, and a number of other deadly sins. In order to stand out from that crowd, you have to be an overwhelming degenerate. Caligula easily fits the bill.

Check out the cast. Malcolm McDowell, early known for edgy, satiric roles, now fallen into the stagnancy of respectability. Helen Mirren, a highly respected actress. And can you get any more respectable actors than John-fucking-Gielgud and Peter-fucking-O’Toole? To top it all off, the screenplay was penned by literary author Gore Vidal. The pedigree of this film is astonishing. (Although it is worth mentioning that the screenplay is credited as being inspired by Vidal, which suggests that he’s uncomfortable with the unrated, full-penetration version of this movie.)

And yet . . . look at who directed this picture. Bob Guccione, the legendary editor of PENTHOUSE. That’s right, with such an honorable cast and writer, CALIGULA was directed by a pornographer.

But there simply is no other way to tell this excessive tale of delusion and power. It starts with Caligula as a younger man frolicking through the paradise of 37 AD Rome with his sister and lover Drusilla. It follows his depraved rise to power through murder and treachery and shows the absolute insanity of his reign all the way through his death at the hands of his own men. (Please, no complaints about spoilers. This story, as crazy as it is, is based on historical events. If you don’t know how Caligula met his very timely and just end, then maybe you shouldn’t plan on watching the movie.)

When you get down to it, CALIGULA is a cautionary tale about absolute power, and it’s not the mindless bullshit about how it corrupts, et cetera. Though Caligula possesses a boyish excitement at all times, there is never a moment when he is innocent and pure. His obsession with the Egyptian gods drives a very unhealthy interest in death. In one scene where Nerva commits suicide, seconds away from eternity, Caligula ghoulishly perches next to his uncle’s head and quizzes him about what death is like.

No, power never corrupted Caligula. It just gave him the opportunity to exercise his darkest impulses. And they’re pretty fucking dark. The cover copy states that this movie is not for the squeamish or prudish, and this is no lie.

In one horrible scene, a captive has his dick choked off with a loop of rawhide just before he’s force-fed an obscene amount of wine. Bloated, with no way to get rid of all this fluid, a soldier runs him through with a sword, and a flood of wine unceremoniously flows out of his guts.

Not good enough for you? Would you care to hear about the wedding scene? You see, in the good ol’ days (surely the time your grandparents look fondly back upon), emperors had the first right to any bride’s virginity. Caligula takes merciless advantage of this, but he doesn’t stop there. No, he wants the husband, too. In one of the most painful scenes put to film, Caligula, his hand greased with lard, fists this poor gentleman. No, you don’t see the penetration, but the suggestiveness of this scene is so masterful you will never forget it.

Because for all its explorations of power and insanity, CALIGULA is still a PENTHOUSE production. Yes, there are many scenes of pornography. This isn’t softcore fare, either. There are money shots and penetration and dick sucking and everything you’d be ashamed of watching if your mother found out about it.

Is this excessive? Yes. Then again, it’s actually called for. Caligula is not a subject that can be handled in a soft way. His lunacy has to be portrayed like a giant, rigid cock, like the scene where he pimps out the senators’ wives and dances gaily among the orgy, ridiculing those who didn’t have the courage to fight back against him. McDowell jumps into this role and plays it to the hilt. Sometimes, even though it’s obviously a movie (and a period piece at that), you start wondering if McDowell is actually acting, he lives the role so perfectly.

But special notice goes to O’Toole as Tiberius. He is a grim spectre of a man, riddled by syphilis and his own brand of insanity. As his lesion-pocked, gaunt body frolicks among the nubile bodies of young girls and boys, it forces one to gag, especially when he smiles. Jesus, those cold, merciless, ghastly smiles. And like McDowell, he lives his role, especially when he’s teaching Caligula the rules of power, about how it’s better to be feared than loved, about how fate chose him to govern swine, about serving the state even though they’re wicked beasts. “The Senate is the natural enemy of every Caesar,” he says at one point. Considering how things worked out for Caligula, he probably should have listened a bit closer . . . .

But Tiberius is a very dangerous man, too. In one scene, he offers Caligula a goblet of wine as a reward. Caligula, wily even at a young age, knew enough to offer the cup first to Germanicus, the beloved nephew of Tiberius. Just as the young, naïve boy is about to drink, Tiberius, a tired grin on his face, casually covers the goblet with a hand and takes it away.

To think, if Tiberius had poisoned a young Caligula, Rome would have been spared years of torment, misery, insanity, depravity, and blood. Lots and lots of blood.

Many of you might question why this movie is being talked about on a horror movie blog, but truly, this is one of the most powerful horror movies ever made. It so unflinchingly looks at the darkest, most twisted period of the history of humanity that you will never forget it, no matter how hard you might try.

It offends. It goes over the top with its excessive nature. It gets to you. It disgusts. Most importantly, it takes you to places that will horrify you to no end. This hell ride has earned its grim place in cinematic history in fucking spades. Don’t miss it.

Note: After John turned in this review, it came to his attention that the film was, for the most part, shot by Tinto Brass. It was only after principal photography concluded that a dispute between him and Guccione wrestled control away from Brass, and he was practically erased from the history of this film. His name is not listed on the cover copy, nor is it in the credits. Guccione shot a few additional scenes and with the help of Giancarlo Lui edited the film to its present state.

Have You Read...?

About John Bruni

John Bruni is the author of AND JESUS CAME BACK (Rooster Republic), DONG OF FRANKENSTEIN (New Kink), POOR BASTARDS AND RICH FUCKS and TALES OF QUESTIONABLE TASTE (StrangeHouse) and STRIP (Riot Forge). His short work has appeared in anthologies like A HACKED-UP HOLIDAY MASSACRE (Pill Hill), ZOMBIE! ZOMBIE! BRAIN BANG! (StrangeHouse) and the critically acclaimed VILE THINGS (Comet). He edited STRANGE SEX 3 for StrangeHouse, and he was the editor and publisher of TABARD INN: TALES OF QUESTIONABLE TASTE. Find out more at and
This entry was posted in Movies and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply