Nov 14, 2013

A Cat in the Brain

Although he directed a couple more films before his dubious death at the age 68 in early 1996 from complications relating to diabetes (some suspect he may have committed a sort of passive suicide by refraining from taking his medication), Guido ‘Godfather of Gore’ Lucio Fulci’s late era effort A Cat in the Brain (1990) aka Nightmare Concert aka Nightmare Concert (A Cat in the Brain) aka Un gatto nel cervello is certainly his last decent work and acts as a sort of fitting conclusion to the director’s roller-coaster-like career in celluloid carnage. A sort of highly reflexive yet rather ridiculous ‘metafilm’ in the autobiographical spirit of Federico Fellini's (1963), Rainer Werner Fassbinder's Beware of a Holy Whore (1971), François Truffaut's Day for Night (1973), Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz (1979), Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories (1980), Wes Craven's New Nightmare (1994), and Tom DiCillo’s Living in Oblivion (1995), A Cat in the Brain is a work starring director Lucio Fulci as himself as a fallen old filmmaker that is having trouble differentiating between the unhinged ultra-violence scenes in his films and real-life, which some viewers might take as an admittance of guilt from the director in regard to making a moviemaking career out of the cinematically morbid and grotesque. Wallowing in wonderfully wicked Grand Guignol-esque dark humor, A Cat in the Brain, like the totally unwatchable Demonia (1990), was meant as a comeback film of sorts for Fulci, but highly disappointed his fans and was almost never actually released, yet since the over two decades since its initial release, the film has gone on to become regarded as a classic and even minor masterpiece among fans, hence it lavish release on DVD in 2009 by Bob Murawski and Sage Stallone’s Grindhouse Releasing (a sort of ‘Criterion Collection for horror flicks’). Arguably Fulci’s most experimental yet simultaneously half-assed and gimmicky work, A Cat in the Brain has the curious quasi-conman distinction of being mostly assembled in post-production as a work largely comprised of clips from not only the filmmaker’s previous (and largely inferior) works, including Il fantasma di Sodoma (1988) aka The Ghosts of Sodom aka Sodoma's Ghost, Touch of Death (1988) aka Quando Alice ruppe lo specchio, and Hansel e Gretel (1990), as well as music from the director’s magnum opus The Beyond (1981) aka ...E tu vivrai nel terrore! L'aldilà, but also films directed by other Italian horror filmmakers. Indeed, on top of featuring clips from films Fulci directed, A Cat in the Brain also, quite absurdly, features excerpts from films that the filmmaker worked on in some other capacity (presenter, special effects, etc.) including Andrea Bianchi’s Massacre (1989) aka La morte della medium, Mario Bianchi’s Non aver paura della zia Marta (1988) aka Don't Be Afraid of Aunt Martha, and Leandro Lucchetti’s Bloody Psycho (1989). In part shot at Rome’s Cinecittà Studios—the studio of Italian master auteur Federico Fellini—A Cat in the Brain is a sort of ‘Fulci’s worst hits’ that manages to combine some of the best segments from the director’s greatest and most embarrassing cinematic failures, thus saving fans of the ‘Godfather of Gore’ the trouble of having to watch these absolutely horrendous horror hatchet jobs in their seemingly endless entirety. A totally trashy yet equally charming self-denigrating work where Lucio Fulci—a man who started out as a director of comedies and who tackled virtually every film genre, but only found success in gore and guts drenched giallo and zombie horror flicks—comes to terms with the fact that he made a minor monetary killing off celluloid killings and thus must live with that fact, but also someone who has been pigeonholed as a director of horror/gore/giallo and has been condemned to a genre ghetto. 

 Dr. Lucio Fulci (Fulci as essentially himself, or at least as how his fans see him) is an ex-medical doctor (Fulci indeed studied medicine in college, before becoming an art critic and eventually a filmmaker) who has just wrapped up the day’s shooting for his latest half-ass horror flick Touch of Death (1988) starring Brett Halsey at Cinecittà Studios and he is rather hungry for steak as an Italian man of refined tastes, but when he goes to eat at his favorite restaurant, he has a traumatic flashback from a grizzly cannibal scene he shot earlier that day, so he leaves the eatery on an empty stomach. The next day is no different as Fulci loses his cool on his movie set upon examining the special effects, forcing a film technician to remove a plate of gazing animal eyeballs out of his decidedly distorted sight. After coming home from an exhausting day of work and attempting to sleep, Fulci is rudely awakening by a funny fellow sawing wood with a chainsaw, thus causing the filmmaker to have flashbacks about his latest conspicuously craven cinematic chainsaw craziness. In a fit of rage, Fulci pseudo-sinisterly storms outside and smashes a bunch of paint cans with an axe, thus causing red paint to poor out that reminds him of his metaphysically macabre masterpiece The Beyond (1981). Luckily, Fulci discovers that his neighbor, Professor Egon Swharz (David L. Thompson), is a Jewish psychoanalyst that bares a strikingly resemblance to Sigmund Freud (as Fulci revealed in a interview, he thought Freud was a charlatan who stole his idea of 'confession' from the Catholics) who takes on the filmmaker as a patient, recommending that he begin, “breaking down the barrier, the boundary between what you film and what’s real” as a means of eradicating his perturbing celluloid-induced psychosis. Of course, Fulci’s problems are compounded by the fact that he is directing two films at the same time, Il fantasma di Sodoma (1988) aka The Ghosts of Sodom and Touch of Death (1988), and that his prick producer Filippo (Shilett Angel) wants him to pick up the pace, even at the sacrifice of artistic integrity. In preparation for a scene for his negligently assembled Nazisploitation flick The Ghosts of Sodom, Fulci tells the young actor playing a SS officer, Robert Egon (who looks a lot like Justin Bieber!), that he is “a symbol of death…And you've also the whole horror of the Nazis,” but the scene he shoots comes off looking about as sinister as a Jess Franco flick and the filmmaker mutters to himself, “Sadism, Nazism; is there any point any more?,” thus demonstrating his disillusionment with degenerate exploitation sleaze that was already done before and better by Liliana Cavani with The Night Porter (1974) and Tinto Brass with Salon Kitty (1976). After spotting a tall German Aryaness reporter (notably, during the mid 1970s, Fulci was engaged to a German woman who eventually ran off and stole all his money, leaving him nearly bankrupt), Fulci has a nasty vision from The Ghosts of Sodom and flips out, ultimately running amok and smashing the TV crew’s camera and even attempting to rip the Teutonic babe’s clothes off. Of course, Fulci’s worst problems have yet to begin. 

 Naturally, Fulci goes back to Professor Swharz, who in the meantime has viewed all of his patient’s films and who puts the filmmaker under hypnosis and states, “You'll do everything I tell you when you hear this sound. Your mind will make you live scenes you think are real. You will slowly be possessed by madness. You'll think you've committed terrible crimes,” thus revealing that he is not a saintly soul-doctor, but a Svengali-like psychopathic sadist with a lurid lust for blood who is an even bigger crackpot than Wilhelm Reich. Somehow via hypnosis-activating remote control buzzer device, Swharz is now able to transmit his thoughts to Fulci and plans to frame the filmmaker for a serial killing spree he has planned out. Fulci fails to remember what happened during his session with the deadly doc, but Swharz certainly does and subsequently kills a prostitute, for which the filmmaker wrongly thinks he is responsible upon arriving at the scene of the crime. Meanwhile, Fulci’s car breaks down on the way to a film shoot and when he finally gets there, he finds that his producer Filippo and assistant director have already started without him, thus taking over his power as auteur without his consent. Naturally, after having such horrendous and horror-cliché-ridden visions, Fulci goes home to relax, but is once again plagued by scenes from his creepy celluloid past. Of course, Swharz continues to kill, which includes a young couple and a poor groundskeeper who witness the killing, and after Fulci arrives at the scene of the crimes, he takes the blame while the prof hides in the background. On his way back him, Fulci hallucinates he runs over a hitchhiker in a hallucination of a scene from Touch of Death, which puts him over the edge to the point where when he gets home, the director attempts to make a ‘full confession’ to the police, but luckily a certain Inspector Gabrielli (Jeoffrey Kennedy) is on vacation. After failing to get real psychological help from Swharz, Fulci goes by Inspector Gabrielli’s home, where he witnesses the good cop’s family being brutally butchered and dismembered, but it is just another horror flick inspired hallucination caused by the professor. Eventually, Swharz strangles his nagging wife, who is arguably the source of his homicidal proclivities, to death with a piano wire, nearly decapitating her in the process. Afterward, Swharz once again follows Fulci and causes him to have nightmarish visions, eventually causing the filmmaker to faint in an open field. The next day, Fulci learns that Inspector Gabrielli’s men caught Swharz redhanded and shot him dead, thus vindicating the filmmaker of the heinous crimes. Flash forward several months later, Fulci is shooting his latest film ‘Nightmare Concert’ and in the end he sails off with his leading lady (whose body parts were shown previously in a basket, with her dismembered fingers hanging from fishing hooks), but not before bidding a farewell to not only his film crew, but also to fans in what is his last ‘great’ film. 

 Described by the director’s daughter Antonella Fulci as being her “best beloved enemy” aka filmmaker father’s cinematic realization of “his juvenile dream of being Peter Lorre in Fritz Lang’s “M” for 20 seconds over the flute of Grieg’s “Peer Gynt”,” A Cat in the Brain is not only in many ways the Godfather of Gore’s most personal work, but also his funniest and most eccentrically entertaining as a sort of fittingly superficial autobiography from a once serious filmic artist who ironically became famous directing some of the most exploitative and gratuitous gore flicks ever made, only to have his career and success degenerate just as quickly as it had risen, sort of like one of the zombies from his films. As someone who considers myself a softcore Fulci fan whose longstanding yet undoubtedly wavering interest in Italian horror and exploitation fan is largely nostalgic, A Cat in the Brain is sort of ‘fanboy’ (I hate to use this word!) guilty pleasure that reminds me why I started loving artistically meritless Guido gore flicks in the first place. The fact that Fulci was able to haphazardly churn out one more masterpiece, A Cat in the Brain, on a meager budget of around $100,000 using recycled celluloid sleaze from the lowest point in his career just goes to show that he was no mindless moron who was totally unconscious of his lot in life, but a keenly conscious fellow who had a nasty knack for using his weaknesses to his advantage, hence how he eventually found his niche as a ‘thee gore godfather’ in the first place as an eclectic filmmaker who failed in virtually every other film genre he worked in. A work where Fulci cannibalized his own films and those of lesser filmmakers to bring new life to cinema conventions he not only pioneered, but also helped to kill by ‘beating to death’ one-too-many times, A Cat in the Brain is ultimately a sort of undead celluloid epitaph that offers more laughs than screams and tears. Indeed, concluding with Fulci sailing away on a yacht named “Perversion” (a reference to the filmmaker’s proto-Basic Instinct erotic giallo Perversion Story (1969) aka Una sull'altra), A Cat in the Brain is undoubtedly the best way for his fans to remember him, as a swarthy old little man whose humble appearance acted in stark contrast to his mastery of the cinematically grotesque and bedding much younger ladies.  Of course, if nothing else, A Cat in the Brain is the film where Fulci demonstrates once and for all that, at least to some degree, he really was an artist and not merely a mindless artisan with a curious craft, and for that reason alone, the film is mandatory viewing for anyone that loves the art of filmmaking, degenerate or otherwise.

-Ty E

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