Halloween Horror Marathon: A Cat in the Brain

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Each week, Halloween Horror Marathon does some themed posts. We wrap up the work week with the films of Lucio Fulci. We call them Fulci Fridays, and for those, we team up with Liam O’Donnell of Cinepunx. This week, we look at A Cat in the Brain.

It’s astonishing that this late in Lucio Fulci’s career, he managed to turn out a film that exceeds his earlier work. You can look at just the first five minutes for examples both in terms of oddity — a herd of cats devouring a brain — and in regards to casual brutality — a man carving up his mistress and eating part of her thigh.

Of course, you find it’s all just a scene from a movie: in fact, a Lucio Fulci movie. Fulci is actually in A Cat in the Brain, playing himself. The movie repeatedly calls back to Fulci’s past work, commenting on it, making this sort of a meta fin-de-sicle sort of thing. I’ve read a lot comparing it to Fellini’s 8 1/2, but can’t really comment, having never seen it. However, it does remind me quite a bit of Vincent Price’s 1974 film, Madhouse, which also used clips from the lead’s actual films to present a fictional basis for murder. That, too, was sort of a career retrospective at the end of things (sidebar: I am aware that Price would continue working up until his death in 1993, but pretty much everything after Madhouse was mostly voiceover work).

Back to the ways in which A Cat in the Brain exceeds Fulci’s earlier work with which I started, though. In addition to starting out with a scene that manages to be weird, excessively violent, and encompasses casual nudity, one must really give points to the director for one-upping past depravity with Nazisploitation in this one. That particular scene gets supremely weird, and manages to disturb without a single drop of blood.

Still, the movie’s basically a clip show of the director’s greatest his. Even with the frequent hallucinatory asides, it’s actually the easiest to follow of all of Fulci’s films. Strange to think that this amalgamation of past work allows for a fairly straightforward plot without too many points or aspects of it requiring you to suspend your disbelief to the point of exhaustion.

Random thought: is the use of “In the Hall of the Mountain King” before the good doctor Schwarz kills the prostitute an homage to Fritz Lang’s M? I mean, it has to be, right, especially given that it pops up again?

Lucio Fulci takes a variety of kills and scenes from other films, some of which he made and many of which he did not, and films wrap around sequence to accompany them in which he plays himself. This should be truly awful, no? So, why does it work? I have to be honest, this does not actually play better for me then the early and in my mind masterful works of the great maestro. The pieces fit together too sloppily, and the gore, most of which was not actually filmed with Fulci’s involvement, lacks his sense of style. Is it better than most of Fulci’s later output? Of course. It is in fact a strange shining gem in this later half of his career, in what is otherwise a sea of dreg. Not that all of these later films are unwatchable, but many give off a sense of boredom and a lack of concern. This film though, even with some of its rougher elements, largely makes sense.

So why make a movie like this? The comparisons to 8 1/2, I think, are quite fair, if actually a bit gruesome in its humor. Ok, a lot gruesome. The film plays in some ways like a tour of awful things, with only the faintest plot line to tie it all together. Yet that plot line is so meta, so reflexive on Fulci and his art, I am sucked in. What has his work been about, what has his life been about, what has he even made? In fact, in a larger sense, what is the work of any horror director mean?

It is difficult, knowing as I do Fulci’s real life emotional and health struggles, not to see something terribly maudlin and sad about the film. Yes, it is filled with some gags here and there. The gore aspect is played gruesomely, but still with a sense of how fun it is to be so very gross. Yet, at its heart I sense a brilliant man making a mockery of himself. When one does something like this from a space of certainty that is one thing. Fulci though is creating as a man past his prime, struggling with horrible diabetic complications which I am sure pained him in every moment. He did participate in a few films after this one, but nothing that gained him the kind of attention I am sure he would have wanted.

So do I revel in the fact that perhaps Fulci did have a sense of humor about his unique and strange life before he died? Or do I feel despondent that Cat In The Brain is perhaps a dark joke, a feeling of failure? Is this a kind of death’s head humor before the end, or an embracing of something wonderful in the man’s life? Honestly, it doesn’t matter. A Cat in the Brain is a film that works despite having everything going against it. Perhaps, by injecting the personal into this final grand guignol exploration of death and art Fulci hit some sort of magic mixture? What do you think? How do the rumors surrounding Fulci’s death affect how you see the film? I will be honest, I did not make the Lang reference you did, and I feel less cultured for having missed it.
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Well, if it makes you feel better, I just had to look up Lucio Fulci’s death in order to answer your question. That just seems like such a sad possibility, and a strange departure after this film, because it seems like the director is actually having fun with this picture. His character, despite the repeated wondering as to what’s it all about, ends up with a happy ending twice over — he gets the girl, and he successfully finishes a film.

Yes: the film’s such a reflection on the man’s work that as a meta work (the director reflecting on himself in a film in which he stars), it succeeds. The unfortunate aspect of that is that as a viewer, you start reflecting on the films he made and wonder why they show clips from terrible movies he put his name on, rather than going further into the Madhouse vein and explicitly referencing his earlier work.

The only “explicit” references to that early work are a sad reliance on nudity that just seems crass and an appeal to the inevitable home video market at the time. The film’s fun, to be sure, but the fact of the matter, while I enjoyed its ridiculousness, it’s a film that’s surprising in that it’s better than I thought it would be, but not nearly as good as it could have been. You always wonder what makes a director lose their mojo, and I can’t imagine what being pigeonholed, on top of a near-constant level of pain, could have done for the man. Here he took a chance to make a movie that reflected where he was, as well as where he’d been, and I think the fact that it absolutely shines through is why this movie is as compelling as it is. Do you think that Fulci succeeded in the grand guignol career summation for which it seems he was aiming?

Well, reading about this film on Wikipedia and the recent Fulci feature by my boy Jacob Knight over at Birth Movies Death, I get the feeling that some of the footage was made available to him as part of a settlement. It seems that some companies had started putting his name on movies without even directly asking him, and the footage we are seeing in this film is mostly cutting room floor gore, stuff that was left out of other films. So, Fulci is given access to a bunch of someone else’s gore — some he approved some he did not — and he pieces it together to make a fun and weird commentary on his career? Yeah, I think this does work as a commentary on him.

Isn’t, in some ways, that what Fulci has done? Taken what was made available to him and done his best with it. No one, I do not think, would describe any of his films as art films. Yet, especially in his earlier career, Fulci had a knack for taking what was essentially pedestrian material and raising it up. Not offense to the grand Italian tradition of ripping off other film maker by making unauthorized sequels, but Zombi 2 has to be the GREATEST unauthorized sequel I have ever seen. The City of the Living Dead is a triumph, to me, because of the directing. Now, I do not want to make my case to hard. Clearly, his partnership with long time collaborator Sacchetti was an important aspect of his work. In fact, this film is maybe the lone movie from his work without Sacchetti that is kind of great. However, nothing he made with Sacchetti that I have seen is great only because of the script. Between them existed some alchemy where exploitation was elevated to new heights, and their films were somehow still their gritty core but also something more. The Beyond is still a grindhouse level horror film. It is also sublime.

So, in deep pain and even a bit of shame, Fulci manages to string together a moving bit of magic. A less spell if it were, a minor miracle. He takes other folks rejected violence and with it makes one last romanticized version of himself to almost say goodbye to his audience. I dunno, I am likely looking to deeply again, but there is in that something maudlin but also victorious. Good for you maestro, and thank you.

You can find a lovely copy of the Fabio Frizzi score from Mondo, and A Cat in the Brain is also available on DVD from Grindhouse Releasing.