In a warped way, it’s completely logical that the folly known as Caligula (1980) would be the object of a sprawling three-DVD set. Of course, there’s also a single-disc version ($19.99), but anybody committed enough to watch Caligula’s demented jumble of political intrigue, perverse sex and camp design must get the deluxe package, which illustrates how to do right by a problematic movie.
Caligula was wrenched away from its two main creators—Gore Vidal, who wrote the script about the incestuous, murderous Roman emperor; and director and erotic auteur Tinto Brass—by producer Bob “Penthouse” Guccione, who inserted hard-core sex footage. As Brass puts it, he wanted to paint the orgy of power, while Guccione was more interested in the power of orgy.
The plentiful extras are packed with eye-popping material, including a prerelease edit closer to Brass’s intent, alternate scenes in black and white that look like Guy Maddin remaking Cecil B. DeMille, and two drafts of Vidal’s script. But the real draw is separate commentaries by Malcolm McDowell (who played the title role) and Helen Mirren (Caligula’s wife, Caesonia). They are witty and frank—she reveals that costar Peter O’Toole “was chain-smoking dope”—and capture the ambience on the art-run-amok set. “You had to really hold on to your sanity on this movie,” Mirren recalls, while McDowell’s very first words, uttered when the title appears, sum up Caligula’s chaotic history and its enduring appeal: “God help us.”