A CAT IN THE BRAIN [1990]

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Directed by:
Written by: , ,
Starring: , ,

AKA UN GATTO NEL CERVELLO, NIGHTMARE CONCERT

Italy

AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY AND DVD

RUNNING TIME: 93 mins

REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic

 

Lucio Fulci is a horror movie director who’s shot scene after scene of bloody mayhem. However, all this gory stuff he’s created begins to have an effect on him, and he starts being haunted by sequences that he’s filmed. After imagining he’s watching an orgy in Nazi Germany but has actually ran amuck, smashed a TV crews camera and tried to rip an interviewer’s clothes off, he goes to psychiatrist Egon Swharz for help. However, Egon has even bigger problems. He wants to commit some murders, and knows that he can make Lucio think that he did them himself….

My Lucio Fulci review series continues with what is probably the most seen and most popular [both Clive Barker and would you believe it Jean-Luc Godard are fans] of the films that he made in the final stage of his career, where ill health, tiny budgets and probably some dissatisfaction that he was typecast as a horror director combined to make his output rather careless and lacking in his earlier style, though Aenigma and Touch Of Death did have a few echoes of past glories and weren’t quite as bad as I expected. Fulci said several times that Wes Craven ripped off A Cat In The Brain for his Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, though to be honest you could also say that he himself ripped off 8 1/2. One thing that was clear to me even early on watching this film is that, if it had had more thought and care put into it, it could have been very good indeed. The idea of a horror movie director analysing himself and what he’s created is promising, but is all but wasted because Fulci seems most interested in cramming in as much bloody mayhem as possible, much of it from other films. I’ll happily admit I’m a bit of a gore hound sometimes, but watching this movie is akin to watching a weird kind of show reel for much of the time, and a poorly put together one too as the footage often doesn’t match up very well, while I so wish that it hadn’t only been a few months since I’d seen his Touch Of Death because there’s a hell of a lot of footage from that misfire of a comical serial killer flick. Suspense and that great old Fulci atmosphere is almost entirely missing, partly replaced by a lazy, facetious tone that jars with the sadness one can’t help but get from seeing the visibly frail, sad Fulci pottering about onscreen. On the other hand it’s hard not to have some fondness for a film which argues that the mad ones are those who insist on a link between screen and real violence, not those who just enjoy watching the former.

When he made this film, Fulci’s career was in a bad place, with his last two films sitting on a shelf and the ones immediately before having only had limited releases. Therefore the budget was even lower than normal for A Cat In The Brain. Antonio Tentori’s original script was originally going to feature a young character as the lead, a filmmaker new to horror films and becoming rather affected by the new genre he finds himself working in. However, Fulci decided that he wished to play the role himself, so the screenplay was tweaked and also worked on by Giovanni Simonelli, then money was saved by using footage from no less than six films: Touch Of Death, The Ghosts Of Sodom and the non-Fulci films Bloody Psycho, Massacre, The Murder Secret and Hansel and Gretel. At the time none of these had actually been released, which perhaps makes the device of taking footage from them a bit more acceptable. The new footage was shot in and around Rome’s Cinecitt√† Studios including just outside Fulci’s nearby house. Even though by now Italian films tended to be shot with live sound, Fulci didn’t want to use his own voice even in the Italian version so his lines were dubbed by Elio Zamuto. Some release prints featured a different ending that claimed Fulci was a killer, which would have made little sense. Though going straight to video everywhere except in Japan where he was still quite popular, the film got a bit more attention than Fulci’s previous few, though in the UK the BBFC rejected it outright for video release. Because Fulci never told him that he used clips of him from Touch Of Death, actor Brett Halsey didn’t find out until some time after the film’s release, and wasn’t too happy, feeling that he should have been paid.

We open with Fulci sweating it out at his writing desk as his voice-over lists numerous vicious acts. “A woman hacked to death with an axe…..someone chopped to bits by a chainsaw….” – followed by a dissolve to a huge brain that’s then chewed on by an amusingly fake cat. That jazz source piece from The Beyond heard when John and Liza go for that drink turns up, this time nice and loud, as the camera prowls a house – and then we realise that we’re actually watching footage from the opening of Touch Of Death with its dismemberment and steak eating! You really do see quite a bit from this film, including that ridiculous club face bashing where a few bashes cause skin to fall off, then the victim gets up and runs off! It’s the film that Fulci is shooting you see – or should I say one of them because he also seems to be making a sleazy Nazi horror which of course is the ‘real’ film that he made around the same time, Sodom’s Ghost, How meta! But he’s starting to lose it, all that violence [and probably sex too seeing as we get to see a rather amusing orgy which I guess is from Sodom’s Ghost] getting into his brain so he starts seeing things and even accidentally knocks over a bowl of fake [or maybe not] eyes. A handyman wielding a chainsaw even makes him hear those eerie cries from The Beyond which also turn up later. In a rage, Fulci smashes an axe into cans of paint belonging to the handyman. Is the spilled red paint intended to recall the acid/blood scene in The Beyond? And is this clever? Well, not really, though if you really like the Scream kind-of self-referentiality and hip awareness [I’m not a fan] then you may dig it more than me. And Fulci’s clearly just massaging his ego with scenes like nurse Lilly, whom he’s tried to ravish while in a trance, saying: “Lucio, you’re wonderful, I’ve never experienced such emotion”.

Fulci knows that he must sort himself out though and does what seems like a sensible thing to do – go to see a psychiatrist. However, for reasons not entirely explained though he’s clearly both offended by and fascinated by Fulci’s films, psychiatrist Egon Swharz comes up with this unwieldy plan involving a buzzer device which, when he switches it on, will always be heard by Fulci and cause him to think he murdered people that Swharz actually killed. Fulci’s under hypnotism when we learn all this, and when he awakes he remembers nothing, though Swharz then goes out in his car to kill a prostitute with some surprisingly shaky POV camerawork, then a couple having sex in a car. From here on it’s basically one gory sight after another while the plot has no room to develop, though some may say who needs plot when heads are cut off including one of a little boy, chainsaws are frequently put to use, a shower stabbing makes Janet Leigh’s fate seem like it belongs in a kid’s movie [the knife stabbing at the camera is a good touch], a body oozes green blood then has its stomach open up, a girl in a wheelchair is shoved down some steps [but there’s no Jason Voorhees in sight], maggots crawl all over a putrefying face, piano wire slices through a neck, a head is smashed into glass a la every Dario Argento film made between 1976 and 1985 etc, etc, etc. In one scene the most odd looking creatures appear all over the place like an Italian version of Nightbreed, the shoddiness of the masks not dispelling [in fact they somehow add to] the disorientating effect. Elsewhere images from earlier Fulci seem to be recalled, or deliberately chosen because Fulci, Tentori etc. knew that viewers may make a connection with previous stuff.

The over the top nature of many of these scenes dilutes the shock value and some bits are just dumb, like a woman who has her tongue ripped out but who can still scream. Sometimes it’s like watching a Herschel Gordon Lewis film what with the obvious cuts so you can tell straight away how the scene has been constructed. It’s also obvious what’s old and what’s new footage as backgrounds can change colour and quite often neither Fulci nor Swharz are in the same shots as anything gruesome. There’s certainly some childish fun to be had here though, and those of us old enough to remember how badly the BBFC used to treat horror films no doubt will feel like cheering at Fulci sticking two fingers up at the censors who liked to chop bits out of his films [even if the BBFC of the time had decided to pass it, the UK version of the film would have probably lasted under an hour], but there’s no rhythm to it at all, and the relationship between serial killer and troubled filmmaker could have been so much more. We don’t even get a proper climax, with us just being told of exciting events instead, though of course it’s possible that the budget failed to allow for their realisation. O well, let’s not grumble too much, because Fulci allows himself the luxury of being able to sail off into the sunset with his leading lady, and it’s really nice that he gives himself such a happy ending, seeing as he’s such a tormented figure throughout the film. One senses a sadness in his look at himself as a horror director. “If I made romantic movies, nobody would to and see them” he says at one point, and Fulci was pretty much stuck making horror at this stage of his career, the early part of which saw him make films in many different genres [and among all the horror I will be exploring a few of these in due course]. Some poignancy still surfaces despite the cack-handed handling, and you still get a few typical Fulci extreme close-ups, plus a great moment when Fulci wonders into some fog and realises that it’s a set and that they’ve started filming without him – perhaps Fulci fearing his own redundancy?

Sadly as an actor Fulci, while he’s certainly not terrible, tends to either seem disinterested or to slightly mug, while David L. Thompson as Swharz seems to be relying on maniacal grins to convey his insanity. He barely even registers as a character. Fabio Frizzi’s at times rather too upbeat score largely consists of two pieces consisting of repeated phrases with slight variance in the higher registers. It’s okay but you won’t remember anything here. It’s obvious that Fulci intended A Cat In The Brain to be not just an ironic summing up of his horror career but his final statement [though he went on to make two more films, both of them horror] on a genre to which he’d contributed considerably yet was also somewhat trapped in, but the sloppiness [typical of late Fulci] in execution, plus the sad fact that he just couldn’t raise decent funds, held the end result back from fulfilling its potential. It’s kind of depressing in a way. And I wish that Fulci had responded to his criticisms of misogyny [which, while I’m most certainly not the PC type, do seem to have some truth in them] more than just having a bit of woman slapping. But there’s a really deep, thoughtful film in there somewhere, no doubt the film that Fulci actually wanted to make.

Rating: ★★★★★½☆☆☆☆

Dr Lenera
About Dr Lenera 2754 Articles
I'm a huge film fan and will watch pretty much any type of film, from Martial Arts to Westerns, from Romances [though I don't really like Romcoms!]] to Historical Epics. Though I most certainly 'have a life', I tend to go to the cinema twice a week! However,ever since I was a kid, sneaking downstairs when my parents had gone to bed to watch old Universal and Hammer horror movies, I've always been especially fascinated by horror, and though I enjoy all types of horror films, those Golden Oldies with people like Boris Karloff and Christopher Lee probably remain my favourites. That's not to say I don't enjoy a bit of blood and gore every now and again though, and am also a huge fan of Italian horror, I just love the style.

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