‘…fear of hamburgers and gardeners…’
One wonders if all male, Italian filmmakers, or at least prominent ones, have a piece of DNA in their being that draws them to making autobiographical films or ones dissecting their own histories and place as directors. Never would the thought come to mind, at first, that Lucio Fulci, considering his emphasis on horror and genre cinema, would make his own 8½ (1963) like Federico Fellini. Is Dario Argento suddenly going to make a meta-film too about himself after Dracula 3D (2012) finally gets put somewhere in the UK or USA? Considering he always played the hands killing female victims in his films, including his ex-wife Daria Nicolodi a couple of times, he may have already been playing around with his position behind the camera already.
When one considers Lucio Fulci’s work however a little deeper, even if one has only seen a slice of his filmography, his use of dream logic – not a cop-out phrase to describe his less narrative driven films like The Beyond (1981), but the only phrase for films like his which purposely abandon logic and narrative from the beginning of them – is abstract enough for a meta-film to make sense for him. He certainly has the personal voice, a nihilistic one which, regardless if he was pushed into making some films of lesser quality, and to add long and extended gore scenes to others, could be heard in all the films I’ve seen. My large gaps in what I have seen of his films prevents me from going further with this idea, but even in Cat In The Brain you cannot argue against it being a Fulci film. When a clearly obvious cat puppet is eating pieces of brain meat scattered around in the opening sequence, it’s not weird, not unconventional, but the moment immediately in which you throw your arms up in the air and give up any structures to film opposite to Fulci’s style regardless of your final opinion of him. If Fulci did not see these parts in his work that were individual, regardless of whether he thought he was making great films or not, than the concept of auteurism needs to ask itself how it is possible for individuals voices of any kind of cinema to be so oblivious to even a smattering of something that is clearly their own flourishes.
Replicating the frustrations with his career he may have actually had, Fulci plays himself, the director Lucio Fulci, as he find the gory horror films he is making and his ordinary life are blurring together. Unfortunately the psychiatrist he goes to, Egon Schwartz, to heal his condition is a psychopath with plans to use Fulci’s illness to cover his serial murders.
When I first watched Cat In The Brain, it was a surprise, a cascading reel of gruesome murder sets pieces, filmed for the film or taken from other sources, that goes from the sickly humorous, the disgusting and at least one that rifts on one of the most famous murder sequences in cinema in a more excessive interpretation. At first it riffs on Fulci’s cinema, the frustrations of his filmmaking, and parodying it too as with one scene, knowingly referencing his obsession with eyeball trauma, where he has to deal with false eye prosthetics not up to his standards. Then things start to become more erratic; with a penchant for wearing raincoat macs in his kill sprees, Schwartz is a merely tangential catalyst to push Fulci, and ourselves, into hallucinatory scenes of debauchery and violence as Fulci slowly starts to become more and more unrevealed mentally. Decapitations, cannibalism, chainsaws, rotting corpses, and in terms of the non-gory hallucinations, even a sinful Nazi orgy amongst other things make up the running time, all nasty in tone and, even if some of the effects are clearly fake, the watery ickiness of many of them by their own would be enough to make some viewers turn green in the face.
On another viewing however, this film was an immense struggle to sit through by the middle, becoming more of a string of set pieces, without a sense of connection, with decreasing impact until I became numbed by it all completely. The production values of the film does not help either on this re-watch, the odd sense that this looks like a TV movie undercut when you wonder whether something this violent would be broadcast on Italian television in the 1990s, flatly put together, aside from some of the gore scenes and moments where Fulci’s trademark fog effects is included, for the most part. Say what you think about the wavering quality of some of his films, but even his obtuse entry in the sword and sandals genre Conquest (1983) has an atmosphere even if it may have been filmed in a rock quarry, something far more memorable than most genre films and is sadly absent from Cat In The Brain. Bar a strangely engaging (and jaunty) version of Edvard Grieg’s In The Hall Of The Mountain King on pan flute repeated in a few of the murder sequences, the music is also terrible and lacks the dated charm to salvage it. You can tell this film was made at the precipice of the 1990s because the synths sound like the cheap, tin-ear ones you can only hear from the early 90s, and there are electric guitar licks throughout the score.
Eventually the film became a chore, a shame considering how Fulci is digging into his personal problems with his films, his interpretation of himself slowly becoming sick of his horror movies. Fulci completely severs the tightrope between being a serious look at his psyche and in revelling in the violent set pieces, like the case is for some of his great films, but the slightly lame and egotistic dissection of himself that is eventually pushed away in favour of the set pieces became off putting. The film sadly becomes a vague collection of scenes without the sense of mood Fulci was truly great at. You could argue that the dulling effect of the set pieces one after another perfectly fits the state Fulci on-screen is suffering through, a clever concept, but the problem with this theory is not that it succeeds at this too well but that, at least on this viewing, I was not feeling my mind was being battered down by the content but just feeling that my time was being wasted. Boredom, the sense of overwhelming and oversaturation, or other effects films have that could be seen as bad to generate in a viewer can be potent, but with the exception of some arthouse and experimental films, and even that is up to personal opinion, the concept of boredom, or the overbearing effect we’re supposed to share with Fulci as he goes through these atrocities, is rarely done properly. I will also argue most of us are far too glib with these terms as well without using them properly – true ‘boredom’, the ennui of time passing that causes you to think about the state you are feeling, is something unique, while the ‘boredom’ we presume we feel watching a dull film is probably the realisation that we could have been watching something else or doing the washing up instead. Sufferance to say, while I want to give Cat In The Brain another chance later down the line, the overbearing nature Lucio Fulci intended to create, resolved in an ending where he rides on a boat literally called ‘Perversion’, may actually be the realisation from the viewer that he’s put together random gory sequences together without the connective tissue and visceral punch that made his legacy with the 1970s and 80s films.