Directed by Tinto Brass

Oct 6, 1999 at 4:00 am

The '70s were heady years for the porn (then "porno") movie industry. The relatively mainstream success of softcores like Russ Meyer films and Emmanuelle, and the notoriety of hardcores such as Deep Throat and Behind the Green Door, gave rise to the speculation that one day big-budget porn featuring reputable actors — maybe even big stars — "doing it" onscreen would become commonplace.

As the laughable hype around Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut shows, that never quite happened: Home video sent porn into the underground of the living room. But the notion did produce one of the true oddities of '70s film: Caligula, a Grand Guignol-porn epic produced by Bob Guccione of Penthouse magazine.

The film enjoyed a controversial theatrical run in 1979, then spent years on video in a much-abridged, R-rated version. For some reason, the movie is now being rereleased theatrically in its original 148-minute form, with raw sex restored and stomach-turning violence intact. We're shown disembowelments, decapitations, dismemberments, incest, incestuous necrophilia, bestiality (mercifully, implied) and a fundraising orgy with "the most lascivious sluts in all of Rome," namely, the wives of the senators. Watching the movie 20 years later, one wonders whether this is how Tom DeLay pictures the Clinton White House.

Malcolm MacDowell plays the title role, everybody's favorite lethally nutsy teen emperor of Rome. He manages to keep some semblance of dignity even while mincing around in a toga too short for Ally McBeal, graphically urinating and vomiting, violating the dead body of his sister, sharing a sickbed with his horse, and deflowering a virgin on the eve of her wedding and anally fisting her hapless groom, then planting a tiny flower in the crack of his rear. It's a triumph of some sort that, even though he was decades too old for the part, his career survived.

Perhaps because the film was adapted from a screenplay by Gore Vidal — the adapter isn't credited, and Vidal tried without success to have his name removed from the movie — and clearly had a lavish budget, some major talent was engaged. The biggest names — Peter O'Toole as the decrepit old Tiberius and John Gielgud as the disapproving Nerva — aren't involved (again, mercifully) in the sex scenes, and even the younger cast members, like McDowell, Teresa Ann Savoy as his sister and a delectable young Helen Mirren as his tarty wife, remain on the softcore side of the action. (The direction is credited to Tinto Brass, but Giancarlo Lui, Piernico Solinas and Guccione himself are all said to have had hands in it.)

Even today, Caligula still packs some punch. It can't really be called a good movie; long sections of it are punishingly tedious, others are unintentionally hilarious. And only now and then does it rise to any eroticism; there's a sense of disingenuous finger-wagging under the titillation. As cinema, Caligula is pretty banal, but as moralistic kitsch spectacle — a DeMille epic with cum shots — it's tough to forget.

Opens Oct. 8 at the Tivoli.