Bob Guccione’s violent and explicit take on Rome’s most depraved Emperor is one of cinema’s legendary disasters.
Caligula was a demented Roman emperor who ruled the pagans from AD 37 to 41. His reign was short, and so was his popularity, but by the time he was murdered at the age of twenty-nine, he had already been around too long.
Penthouse publisher Bob Guccione produced this $17 million spectacle set in first-century Rome, based on the life of Emperor Caligula.
It’s a lengthy smorgasbord of explicit sex mixed with assorted horrors such as disembowelment, castration, decapitation and strangulation.
The gorgeous Helen Mirren plays Caesonia, the wife of Caligula; Peter O’Toole, toothless and covered with sores, plays Caligula’s grandfather, the emperor Tiberius, who had already murdered his family and half of Rome before the film begins; while Malcolm McDowell – who seems to have made a career from playing nutters – stars in the title role.
McDowell bounds through the incest, homosexuality, necrophilia and rape as though they were cocktail sports in Brighton.
In the first scene, when he is romping half naked (the real nudity comes later) through the forest with his sister-lover Drusilla (Teresa Ann Savoy), he is already crazier than three drunken billy goats.
Hands are shoved into fires. Freaks are tortured and mutilated. Babies heads are smashed against marble walls. The most graphic sexual aberrations flourish in close-ups. Torsos are dismembered, while blood and viscera splatter the camera lens.
There are vulgar sets, tacky costumes and dopey lines like “The priestesses of Isis are meeting at my house tonight”. And in between, a screen full of naked Penthouse centrefolds fondle each other, crawl around on all fours like asylum inmates, roll their tongues, and do the most imaginative things with spikes.
Meanwhile, Caligula throws orgies, mocks gods, overthrows the government, and insults the best families in Rome while a thunderous orchestra plays music that sounds like Stormy Weather.
A fascinating movie if you have the stomach for it.
Teresa Ann Savoy