Turning Dross Into Cat Food

In A Cat In the Brain director Lucio Fulci stars as none other than Fulci himself, with his biography here more or less in line with his biography in real life: he’s an ex-doctor turned movie director, he’s deep enough in a horror rut that if he even tried making more genteel and wholesome material he’s convinced nobody would pay to see it, and even though he’s gained a substantial international reputation his fortunes are a little faded and he’s stuck cranking out material in his standard mode. Even as he lavishes attention on his movies, using his medical knowledge to make the gore look as realistic as possible, Fulci is beginning to feel the strain, with terrible dreams and even waking hallucinations finding the themes of his movies worming their way into his real life – why, it’s even putting him off his steak tartare.

It’s time he talked to someone, and so he decides to talk to Professor Egon Swharz (David L. Thompson). Unfortunately, the professor isn’t an ethical psychiatrist so much as he’s a crazed hypnotist, and far from helping Fulci put his brain in order he sees Fulci’s condition as the perfect cover for his own project. You see, Swharz really wants to get out and do some serial murder of a viciously misogynistic variety, and Fulci is the perfect fall guy – he just has to hypnotise Fulci so that Fulci is caught in a morass of hallucinations, causing him to see himself as the killer, and then Swharz can go as kill-happy as he pleases and Fulci will practically convict himself.

Except, of course, everyone knows that Fulci is a horror director and a weaver of wild fantasies… so even when he tries to confess to the murders, will anyone believe him or will they take it as just a tasteless publicity stunt?

Made on a shoestring budget – there’s extensive bits which are clearly just Fulci and a very minimal crew filming him strolling about his house witnessing bizarre shit – A Cat In the Brain was unquestionably a rather ballsy movie for Fulci to make, especially given the climate of the era. 1990 was not so long, after all, after a whole swathe of Fulci’s films had been denounced in Britain as video nasties, or after his peer Ruggero Deodato was obliged to demonstrate in open court how some of the stunts in Cannibal Holocaust were accomplished in order to clear himself of murder. Fulci casting himself as a nervous wreck who might or might not be a serial killer, or at the very least a huge creep, is an instance of him embracing the absolute worst things people said about him for the sake of telling an interesting story, and on a certain level you have to admire that.

A particularly interesting decision on Fulci’s part was to cannibalise a stack of his recent projects he’d been attached to – Sodoma’s Ghost, Touch of Death, Bloody Psycho, Massacre, The Murder Secret and Hansel and Gretel – to provide footage for the movies-within-a-movie Fulci directs and the hallucinations he suffers. Many of these – all but Sodoma’s Ghost and Touch of Death so far as I can tell – were not Fulci-directed projects at all. Instead, they were part of a Lucio Fulci Presents line of films by lesser directors, with the extent to which Fulci supervised or otherwise endorsed the work varying a lot from movie to movie. Reportedly, Fulci was very unhappy about having his name associated with these, but wasn’t necessarily in a position where he could turn down the money; I wouldn’t be surprised if he’d reached a deal where he got to remix the footage from them for this project as part of his compensation.

He also borrows some of the music from The Beyond, but that’s only sensible because The Beyond has the best soundtrack of any of his films, and is also far and away his absolute best work full stop. The fact that it’s represented in soundtrack form only, aside from a few visual nods like a bit where Fulci stumbles into a world of moans and fog, makes it this tantalising reminder of what Fulci could have accomplished at the height of his powers which remains frustratingly out of reach, like Fulci knows on some level that he’ll never attain such heights again.

Indeed, it’s notable that all of the movies that Fulci lifts actual visual footage from are rather inferior, critically panned late-career products of his, with not one piece more recent than 1988. A big part of that probably comes down to these being the movies it was easiest and cheapest for him to use here, of course, but it’s hard to rule out the idea that A Cat In the Brain may, in part, be an expression of Fulci’s serious discontent with the turn his career had taken – both a self-critical analysis of the rut he’d found himself in and a lament for the rut that the Italian horror movie industry in general had crawled into at this stage in time.

(To give a little timeline context: after horror movies were banned by the Fascists, they only made a post-World War II return with I Vampiri in 1957; in the 1960s directors like Mario Bava started to chart out a distinctive Italian mode of horror cinema, including the giallo subgenre, and in the 1970s the field reached its peak, which lasted until the early 1980s before declining budgets and a dearth of imagination led to its decline into endless pastiche, with cheap rip-offs of famous Hollywood movies and endless regurgitations of giallo cliches delivered with much less taste than the artful material of the 1970s crowding out what few really top-notch releases were still emerging through the cracks. By 1990 it must have been an absolutely miserable time to be a horror director in the Italian industry, especially given the material the studios gave Fulci to crank out.)

There’s a risk inherent to a project like this that it’ll end up taking a decidedly Garth Marenghi turn, ending up as an egotistical puff piece for the authorial self-insert, but I think Fulci avoids that somewhat here. Sure, he gets close: after spending the entire movie examining all of his worst habits, Fulci then has the last scene show him sailing away with a hot actress on his personal yacht, the Perversion. However, were the movie entirely an exercise in self-justification, Fulci would at least make an effort not to seem like a weird creep; if anything, he steers into the crash here, depicting himself getting so excited filming a Nazi-themed sex scene that he can only be playing up to the idea of horror creators as perverse sadists purveying morally corrupting material.

Then again, he does not exonerate the film industry either. At one point, a German documentary team show up to shoot a feature on Fulci; he falls into a trance, visualising a wild variant of the Nazisploitation scene he’s just shot that takes the premise to a hideous extreme, and when he comes around his assistant tells him that he’s just assaulted the cameraman and lead journalist. And yet, when he comes in to apologise to them, the journalist touches him and declares “It was wonderful – I’ve really never had such a thrill in my life!” If the industry and his audience responds so eagerly to his worst behaviour, what chance is there of him curtailing it?

If you read between the lines here and there you can find Fulci airing a grievance or two. For instance, there’s a plot point about Fulci’s personal issues forcing the studio to shoot additional material under other directors in order to paste over the gaps in his movie which I have to see as being partly inspired by his ordeal surrounding Zombie Flesh Eaters 2 – a film that Fulci began but which had to be handed over to the vastly less competent Bruno Mattei to finish. Question marks hang over whether it was illness, a disagreement with the producers, or both which drove Fulci away from the project.

And then in the character of Swharz we have someone who actively promotes the idea of onscreen violence provoking real violence – a promoter of exactly the same sort of moral panic which got Fulci into hot water in the UK market – but as the main mouthpiece of that point of view Swharz is demonised as a vicious misogynist and hypocrite who’s promoting the idea of media violence as a driver of real-life violence as a means of perpetrating a hideous fraud on the public, diverting their attention from the real villain preying on them.

Over its running time the movie walks a disorienting tightrope between realistic and unrealistic sequences, the latter notable for their use of stale movie tropes to denote that Fulci is viewing the world through the logic of cinema rather than from a more grounded perspective. For instance, the Svengali-like hypnotic manipulation the psychiatrist attempts is delivered by Thompson in an astonishingly campy manner, radically at odds with the much more grounded behaviour he shows in other sequences. Likewise, there’ll be moments where Fulci opens his window to see a curvacious neighbour stripping off, or where his psychiatrist’s secretary will giggle on her phone about having him as a client and ponder trying to get a part in his new movie, where the world suddenly seems to be working according to the crude sexual attitudes of the more titillating products of Italian cinema. And, of course, the slayings by Swharz are about as cliched and exploitative as late 1980s giallo gets.

There’s a bit where Fulci’s car break down after he witnesses the aftermath of Swharz’s first murder and he ends up in a realm of fog, moaning, and Fabio Frizzi Mellotron soundtracks reminiscent of The Beyond, where he witnesses strange ritualistic behaviour occurring. Is it at all possible that the mental state induced in Fulci has not merely provided a cover for Swharz’s killings, but a gateway to another world? The scene lasts just long enough to raise the possibility before it becomes apparent that Fulci’s just wandered into his own movie – specifically, a scene being shot by his second unit director.

Perhaps the most interesting vision Fulci suffers is the moment where he sees his youthful, life-filled young neighbour, but is overcome by an image of her as a rotted corpse stuffed in her wheelchair and callously tossed down the stairs. In this, there is perhaps a suggestion that the role of the horror director or author is to see death in everything, and to allow us to do the same – in other words, someone working in the same memento mori tradition that has been part of art and philosophy for thousands of years. That, at least, is the most sophisticated reading I can think of for the movie – but this is a film which opens up with a sequence of highly unrealistic cat puppets nomming away at an enormous pan of brain bolognaise, so maybe I’m reading too deeply into this.

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