If Saturday Night Fever, Animal House, and Grease can all have twentieth-anniversary celebrations, why not the film that Rex Reed called a “trough of rotten swill”? Now digitally remastered, Caligula, Bob Guccione Sr.’s notoriously explicit $17 million epic, is being rereleased this fall in theaters and in special DVD and VHS editions.
“It’s always been very, very successful,” says the Penthouse publisher, relaxing in his Romanesque East Side townhouse on a recent afternoon. “We sell directly, on mail order, about 1,000 copies a month. For years, a little theater in Harvard Square showed it on Friday and Saturday nights, like a cult film. And I’ve been approached by a number of people who wanted to do Caligula II.”
His trademark gold chains glinting by the swimming pool and garnishing an equally trademark display of chest, Guccione recalls his long-ago decision to make Caligula. In the seventies, porn films like Deep Throat and Last Tango in Paris had crossed over into mainstream popularity. “Why not make the definitive X-rated film?” Guccione says he wondered. “Why not make a film by a major author, with a major director, major stars, and go all the way?” Guccione got Gore Vidal to write the screenplay about the brutal four-year reign of Rome’s third emperor. Originally titled Gore Vidal’s Caligula, the production starred John Gielgud, Peter O’Toole, and Helen Mirren, with Malcolm McDowell in the title role. As for the director . . .
“I made the biggest blunder of all time by appointing Tinto Brass,” Guccione says. “He was a dyed-in-the-wool Communist, and he said that he saw Guccione as the beast and himself as the hunter.” Guccione fired Brass for running up huge costs, casting actual criminals as Roman senators, and using “ugly” women in the orgy scenes, ignoring the Penthouse Pets Guccione had selected.
Guccione wrested control by secretly filming fourteen minutes of hard-core sex scenes himself and smuggling 120 miles of raw footage to England for editing. The final cut showcases lots of decapitation, disembowelment, fisting, cunnilingus, fellatio, and urination. Newsweek called it “a two-and-one-half-hour cavalcade of depravity that seems to have been photographed through a tub of Vaseline.” Vidal had his name taken off the title. Mirren said the experience was “an unmitigated disaster.”
“It’s the kind of thing people in the East Village rent because it’s twisted and perverse,” says Graeme Knight, assistant manager of Kim’s Video on Avenue A, where Caligula has been checked out 176 times over the past two years. “It should bring joy to the hearts of genre completists,” says the Phantom of the Movies, the editor and publisher of the underground magazine VideoScope. “In an age of Ed Wood collections, it’s not as wonderfully and pioneeringly bad as that, but there’s a new generation that’ll be interested in what shocked people twenty years ago.”