A Cat in the Brain (aka, Nightmare Concert) (Lucio Fulci, 1990)
What gobs of potential, both ironic and horrific. What thematically rich material to play with, to have Italian horror director Lucio Fulci, meta-style, playing his filmmaking self in the middle of shooting a new horror film, while tortured with growing feeling he’s losing his grip on sanity, as the luridly gory and morbid images he has created all his professional life are coming back… and they’re either harrowing hallucinations… or possibly, even worse, half-realized remembrances of violent acts he’s actually committing…
While it’s hard to imagine Fulci actually had hoped for this low budget self-reflexive film playing it Fellini 8 ½ style would be celebrated as his return to form as an Italian horror maestro (especially considering the aging, slightly hunched and wearying director isn’t exactly the most magnetic of performers – for anyone but his most rabid fans, that is), it’s even more so when you realize that most of the plentiful gory sights, shown in the director’s typically morbid long take style, in which the ripping damage done to flesh is lingered on way beyond considerations of taste (thankfully), are actually cribbed straight from previous films (including some that aren’t even his own!).
Fulci was four years past his last complete effort, The Devil’s Honey and it was almost a decade since his last masterpiece, which was – yes, I’ll dare say it, if you’re too chicken – New York Ripper, perhaps his most personal — certainly his angriest – film, with an uncompromising perspective I argue is far more misanthropic then merely misogynistic (even with the brazenly defiant repeated rending of the tortured female’s body almost all film long), standing as a startling howl of anger against an uncaring, brutal world that traumatizes its children (with the scarring of those wide-eyed innocent brains a favorite Fulci theme) and literally rips apart its women (another Fulci fave).
A Cat in the Brain opens interesting and provocatively enough, with an overhead shot slowly moving down on Fulci’s bald pate as he sits at his writing desk feverishly scribbling, as in voiceover he imagines a shocking catalogue of bodily dismemberments (almost entirely on the female body) – with a darkly amusing sudden insert of a cat literally shredding at the remains of a human brain as the director imagines his own mind being beset by such a razor-sharp creature.
Unfortunately, very little that follows lives up to the startling presentation – and grand potential — of this opening. Other than a deliciously realized moment of the tired and unsettled Fulci returning to his film set late, after chasing his own literal demonic visions, where a scene effectively reminiscent of the brilliant, fog-shrouded vision of Hell from his 1981 tripped-out, hypnotic and narratively elliptical masterpiece The Beyond is being shot without him, with his assistant having taken over when they couldn’t find Fulci (leaving him implicitly questioning his own value as the ‘director’), and the darkly hilarious one where the confused director awakens from a black out to discover he’s sexually assaulted the uptight middle aged female executive producer… and because he’s a famous director with a possibly lucrative imagination, they overlook the whole thing, the rest of the film is almost entirely bereft of any real observations, as well as -perhaps worse — much effective atmosphere (something the director was a master at in his heyday).
There’s a laziness, or perhaps just an uninspired sense, to much of the filmmaking (something unfortunately far too common to a lot of Fulci’s later work). Perhaps the director’s already failing health was preventing him from bringing the mojo required. The cribbed stand-apart gore gags, as juicy as they are, are oft cut clumsily into the film and, while that has its own kinda off-kilter charm (as an editor, shots that don’t quite match up in the purely logical sense are always a source of stimulation – I think that’s true for most editors, in fact… just take a gander over at the singularly bizarre, wildly inspired and wonderfully iconoclastic way in which the action scenes in James Bond’s sixth entry, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service are cut together and it’s not a surprise to learn it was the one in which the editor of the first five Bond efforts Peter R. Hunt took over as director), in this case, unfortunately, it also speaks to a lack of real effort.
I’m not saying it’s a dull movie. Watching Fulci as he does a lot (and I mean, a lot) of walking around, with the repetition of him stumbling across a hallucination of some startlingly brutal murder, only to watch in semi-detached horror, shrug and then move on, isn’t without some amusement. The few scenes we watch cut together from the film the fictional Fulci is shooting are well done, often, in clever meta-conceit thinking, with no introduction into what they are, showing interesting angry domestic scenes with Fulci favorite Brett Halsey ending – naturally – in some nastiness (with the odd thing being I don’t think these are taken from a film Fulci directed!).
However, other than perhaps the hint at Fulci’s own ill-fated traumatizing attempts at domestic life (stemming from having borne witness to and surviving his parents’ painfully difficult relationship) that these Halsey scenes perhaps hint at (and which almost all Fulci films – at least the good ones — already do anyway), A Cat in the Brain, for all its potential, doesn’t really offer much beside the obvious, and doesn’t attempt to explore Fulci’s connection to his disturbing work in any revealing way. It’s kind of a shame as the ironic-minded Fulci was at the perfect age for reflection… just perhaps no longer in the health required to dig deep within, find the material and present it on screen.
The subplot of the nefarious psychiatrist (who is given the oddly unfortunate first name of ‘Egon’) who our fictional Fulci confesses his fears to, going out and replicating the director’s murderous primal desires on unfortunate victims (leaving Fulci convinced of his guilt) is, again, another element with great potential to draw themes and personal reflections… but is handled in the most mundane way, with zero attempts at insights… and the best part about it – the juicy murders committed – are, again, taken from other films!
A Cat in the Brain is, as most of Fulci’s later efforts were, pretty weak in comparison with what was an impressive string of greatness, starting with Beatrice Cenci in 1969. Yet, even with the worst of that later lot (which “Cat” isn’t… it’s one of the better ones), I’d argue that through all the clearly diminishing budgets and his very weakening physical state, Fulci retained a nobility as a working-class genre filmmaker; he never had, for instance, as head-scratching a moment as his far more bourgeoise (and once-equally brilliant) Italian horror rival Dario Argento did with, say, his Mother of Tears where it was so bad — so just wrong — you couldn’t imagine it was even the same filmmaker.