• Gabe Powers

Cat in the Brain Blu-ray Review (originally published 2016)

Disturbed by the images that he creates for his own graphic horror movies, an Italian horror director named Lucio Fulci (Lucio Fulci) seeks help from a psychiatrist named Professor Schwarz (David L. Thompson). But Schwarz isn’t interested in helping his newest patient – he’d rather hypnotize the ailing filmmaker and frame him for murder.



In the early 1980s, Lucio Fulci was riding the highest high of his entire career. Following a successful run of spaghetti westerns, gialli, farcical comedies, and period melodramas, he had his first international mega-hit in 1979 with Zombie (Italian: Zombi 2; aka: Zombie Flesh Eaters and Zombie 2: The Dead are Among Us, 1979). Despite being a logical extension of his earlier films, Zombie’s extremely graphic violence – itself a result of cashing-in on George A. Romero’s trend-settingly violent Dawn of the Dead (1978) – became a calling card and the one thing a new legion of viewers would come to expect from his work. As a result, producers and financiers were happy to pay premium cash for whatever Fulci wanted to make next, as long as it was gory, spooky, and included zombies in some capacity. This offered the director, who was already more than happy to shoot scenes of excessive and creative violence, a unique chance to cut loose with surrealistic, Gothic-themed horror movies, culminating in a trio of fan-favorites – City of the Living Dead (Italian: Paura nella città dei morti viventi; aka: The Gates of Hell, 1980), The Beyond (Italian: ..E tu vivrai nel terrore! L'aldilà; aka: Seven Doors of Death, 1981), and House by the Cemetery (Italian: Quella villa accanto al cimitero; aka Zombie Hell House and Freudstein, 1981).


Arguably, House by the Cemetery was Fulci’s last great movie and also utilized key elements of the still-burgeoning North American slasher movement, which had grown in part out of the giallo tradition. Still, it didn’t mark a definitive end to his prime era. Its immediate follow-up, New York Ripper (Italian: Lo squartatore di New York, 1982), was a return to the giallo model with the cruel, trashy flavor of the grimiest grindhouse slashers. New York Ripper offered fans another glance at the kind of expert gore they’d come to expect from the maestro, alongside the Zombie-levels of Italian exploitation audience placation, from postcard-worthy NYC settings to the lurid sex scenes. The New York Ripper was followed directly by an attractive, near-remake of Hammer Studio’s Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb (1971) called Manhattan Baby (Italian: Il malocchio; aka: Eye of the Evil Dead) in 1982. Soon after, Fulci’s films lost much of their patented visual flair. Even the creatively interesting ones – namely his foggy barbarian fantasy, Conquest (1983) and Running Man-like sci-fi action flick, The New Gladiators (Italian: I guerrieri dell'anno 2072, 1984) – lacked the atmospheric perfection of his best work. Murder Rock (Italian: Uccide a passo di danza; aka: MurderRock, Murder-Rock, Dancing Death, and The Demon Is Loose, 1983) sits in the middle of this downturn and matches the vibe of these mediocre, but still quite watchable films.



Murder Rock represented Fulci’s career as the bottom began to fall out of the Italian horror movie industry. His final giallo-esque film, A Cat in the Brain (Italian: Un gatto nel cervello; aka: Nightmare Concert, 1990) was something more desperate, like an aging home run slugger pinning his entire late career on just one more big hit. This awkwardly metatextual film, which was aimed directly at the most ardent, lifelong Italian horror aficionados, became a legend among the second generation of Fulci’s fans, who were barely able to find the director’s most famous films on home video, let alone an obscure, mega-low-budget movie from the early ‘90s. That reputation grew as ‘zine writers and bootleggers got their hands on dupe tapes of Italian, German, and Japanese VHS releases, leading Fulci novices to check it out when it finally hit DVD, only to be baffled by an ambitious, largely slapdash, and entirely narcissistic headtrip through the director’s best and worst impulses.


Following the failed release of the highly anticipated Zombi 3 (1988) – a movie that was marred by production woes and which was taken over by Hell of the Living Dead (Italian: Virus - l'inferno dei morti viventi; aka: Night of the Zombies and Zombie Creeping Flesh, 1980) director Bruno Mattei when Fulci was too ill to finish – Fulci found himself stuck in a cycle of inferior, uninspired, and increasingly cheap horror movies for the straight-to-video and TV markets. This included one listless black comedy, Touch of Death (Italian: Quando Alice ruppe lo specchio, 1988), and three languid variations on a teens in a haunted house theme, Sodama’s Ghost (Italian: Il fantasma di Sodoma, 1988), The Sweet House of Horrors (Italian: La dolce casa degli orrori, 1989), and House of Clocks (Italian: La casa nel tempo, 1989). Of these, only Touch of Death had the slightest odor of giallo, owing a bit of its existential mystery to A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin’s untrustworthy narrator/protagonist.


With his health and career deteriorating, Fulci combined his classic gialli ideas with his esoteric gore sensibilities for A Cat in the Brain. The film had an undeniable creative spark, especially compared to the five films that preceded it (possibly six, because the release dates for Demonia [1990] differ from source to source), but was also a twisted gnarl of good news/bad news contradictions that make it one of the maestro’s most controversial films within the fan community. It is unlike any other movie in his repertoire, yet so self-referential that it remains impossible to disentangle from his popular horror movies and thrillers.



A Cat in the Brain is built around a clever concept, that Lucio Fulci, the director, is so tortured by his own violent movies that he can’t be sure if he has become a murderer himself. Yet, it wastes so much of its time revisiting the same old ideas he’d already driven into the ground following The New York Ripper. Its delirious gore is also hampered by its cheap aesthetic ugliness. Supportive fans will call it a self-reflexive final celebration of about three decades of filmmaking, while cynical viewers and Fulci detractors will notice that A Cat in the Brain is basically the Italian gore equivalent to a TV sitcom clip show. A substantial amount of screen-time is devoted to characters watching footage from other movies, including Sodoma’s Ghost and Touch of Death, as well as Mario Bianchi’s Murder Secret (Italian: Non aver paura della zia Marta; aka: Don’t Be Afraid of Aunt Martha, 1988), Andrea Bianchi’s Massacre (Italian: La morte della medium, 1989), Leandro Lucchetti’s Bloody Psycho (1989), and Giovanni Simonelli’s Hansel and Gretel (Italian: Hansel e Gretel, 1990), all of which were originally released under the Lucio Fulci Presents banner (Fulci had also reportedly co-directed Hansel and Gretel).


Despite admitting that the final product was basically made in post and that the script was nothing but descriptions of bodily mutilation, Fulci himself seemed genuinely proud of Cat in the Brain, or at least the concept of Cat in the Brain. It’s likely that, beneath the tacky production and ambitious themes, the film was a spiritual exorcism for the director, who was painfully aware of the extreme arc his career took in the 1980s. Like Dario Argento’s Tenebrae and Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (a film that Fulci accused of ripping him off, despite Craven likely being unfamiliar with Fulci’s work, especially his late ‘80s/early ‘90s work), Cat in the Brain is a semi-autobiographical work – one meant to purge each director’s frustration with his artistic pigeonholing. Argento wanted to make fantasy movies, but, when Inferno (1980) flopped, he was forced to return to gialli, at which point he dissected his own storytelling conventions. Craven wanted to get away from horror altogether, but, after suffering multiple box office bombs in a row, he returned to the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise that he had created. Tenebrae, New Nightmare, and Cat in the Brain all satirize the reactionary assumption that violent entertainment can only be made by violent artists. Argento doesn’t literally appear in his film, but the protagonist is clearly a stand-in who (spoiler) uses his experience penning pulp mysteries to plan the intricate murder of his wife and her lover (end spoiler). Craven does cast himself in New Nightmare as a fictional filmmaker who must continue writing Freddy Krueger stories in order to keep a very real ancient evil at bay.



Fulci’s version of the trope seems the most confrontational. He doesn’t jokingly imply that maybe the critics are right about his violent impulses, like Argento does, nor does he create a fantastical excuse for his screen counterpart to be making scary movies. Instead, the movie version of Fulci appears bored and exhausted by his creative lot in life. He’s seen going through the motions of directing with little emotional investment and minimal interest. He appears frustrated, sure, but it really isn’t until his evil psychiatrist exploits the violent art = violent artist myth and hypnotizes Fulci that reality and fantasy begin to blur. Horror movies might not make filmmakers into monsters, but prevailing misconceptions and critical protests of those horror movies just might. Of course, if this is Fulci’s point, it means that he’s avoiding any real self-assessment. In interviews, he was known to cite emotional traumas as reasons (though rarely excuses) for the escalating misogyny seen in throughout his later movies and happily offered extensive philosophical analyses of his obsession with rotting flesh and punctured eyeballs, but, apparently, he wasn’t really willing to explore these questions on-screen.


Unlike Tenebrae, Cat in the Brain doesn’t quite work as a classic giallo or even a postmodern one, because the killer’s identity isn’t a mystery. Fulci reveals Schwarz’ plan very early on (the character maniacally explains his evil plan before he executes it), which undercuts potential suspense and puts the dramatic onus entirely on the psychological component. Had he approached it as a murder mystery, he could’ve drawn out the possibility of fictional Lucio as a suspect until the startling reveal, like he had in Lizard in a Woman’s Skin, where (spoiler) the lead protagonist convinces the authorities and the audience that she isn’t sure if she’s the victim or the villain (end spoiler). Fulci almost implies a similar double-cross when he supposedly murders a woman off-screen in the film’s final minutes, but (assuming you’re watching the complete, uncut version of the movie) this is revealed to be a final metatextual joke. Though, this brings us to the question of whether or not Cat in the Brain is supposed to be a comedy, like the godfather of Italian meta-filmmaking, Frederico Fellini’s 8 ½ (1963). Surely, the idea of a crooked psychiatrist hatching a scheme to murder prostitutes and his wife based on his patient’s career in horror movies is supposed to be at least a little funny, as is the scene where Fulci runs over the same hobo with his car about a dozen times, only to realize he has been crushing an innocent garbage can.



Video

For many, many years, Cat in the Brain was basically a legend among Fulci’s North American fans. It never had a US theatrical release and, as far as I know, there was no officially licensed VHS version, which forced fans to trade second and third generation dupe bootlegs of Italian, German, and Japanese tapes (the 2001 limited edition Image Entertainment collector’s VHS doesn’t really count in this equation). The quality was lax at best. Grindhouse Releasing’s Bob Murawski and his Box Office Spectaculars label fixed the problem with their 1998 special edition, 1.66:1, non-anamorphic Laserdisc. Of course, laserdisc players were still pretty rare, so a lot of fans were still dependent on bootleg and foreign DVDs (I’m not sure on the release order, but there were non-anamorphic discs from Astro Films in Germany and Screen Entertainment in the UK, anamorphic releases from Raro in Italy and One Plus One in France). Grindhouse released their own extras-loaded anamorphic disc in 2009.


This Blu-ray debut is presented in full 1080p and is framed at the appropriate 1.66:1 aspect ratio. It is a substantial upgrade over Grindhouse’s DVD, though it’s still limited by the condition and quality of the original film. According to specs, this transfer was ‘restored in high-definition,’ but it should be noted that the DVD specs read the exact same thing, so I suspect that this is an uncompressed version of the previous release, not a bottom-up rescan/restoration. The two transfers feature similar color qualities (there is still a bit of a blue haze over much of the footage), gamma/contrast levels, and basic details, because there isn’t a lot more that the HD format can get out of a 16mm source. However, the DVD was also rife with compression effects, specifically edge haloes, and featured other fuzzy artifacts that made the movie appear as if it had been shot on a video format. This is actually a common issue for Fulci’s late-’80s/early ‘90s output, possibly because so much of it was also shot on 16mm with TV and home video releases in mind. The 1080p version does away with almost all of the digital artifacts and offers more natural grain structure. Even though it isn’t razor sharp or highly contrasted, it finally looks like a ‘real’ movie. The tighter imagery also helps to define highlights during the particularly dingy sequences. The footage taken from the older movies is consistently grainier, darker, and sometimes scratched up, which I suppose works, since it is supposed to be clearly delineated from the rest of the movie.



Audio

Grindhouse has recycled the original mono English and Italian tracks from their DVD release and present both in lossless 1.0 DTS-HD Master Audio. Cat in the Brain was shot without sound, so both tracks are dubbed and the lip-sync is off (fun fact: Fulci wasn’t confident in his own acting ability and had Elio Zamuto dub his performance for the Italian release). I spent most of my review time listening to the English track, because it is the one I am most used to hearing. Neither track is particularly lively in terms of effects work, but the foley and sound catalogue additions are quite crisp and neatly separated for a single-channel treatment. Dialogue is less consistent and sometimes muffled. Fulci’s English voice is particularly mumbly, which I suppose sort of fits the film. The Italian dub’s dialogue is stronger overall. Fabio Frizzi’s soundtrack score does include a couple of new themes, but is mostly a hodgepodge of other cues he wrote and performed for other Fulci movies, mostly The Beyond and the movies featured within the movie. The music is well-integrated to most scenes, though some of it is mixed pretty low on the original tracks.


Extras

Disc one:

  • Italian and English language trailers


Disc two:

  • Have a Nice Vacation, Doctor Fulci (27:10) – The first brand new extra is an interview with co-screenwriter Antonio Tentori, who discusses meeting Fulci as a fan, becoming friends, and being brought aboard as a collaborator, as well as the plots and concepts of a number of the movies they made together with special emphasis on Cat in the Brain. There was no working audio on my review copy, but the whole interview was subtitled, so it didn’t really matter.

  • A Nightmare in the Brain (28:00, HD) – This new interview with Sandro Grossi covers the cinematographer’s education, inspiration, early work as an assistant, and his big break as DP for Fulci on his later movies.

  • Frizzi & Fulci (30:30, HD) – The next new interview features composer Fabio Frizzi. Always a jovial guy (his Twitter is very sweet), Frizzi speaks in English as he runs down his long history with Fulci, beginning with the director asking him to write a Bob Dylan-esque ballad for Four of the Apocalypse (Italian: I quattro dell’apocalisse, 1975) and extending through Cat in the Brain. He moves quickly, recalling his musical collaborators and even the brands of keyboards he used.

  • Fabio Frizzi: Live in Hollywood (7:40, HD) – Footage from Frizzi’s band’s 2015 Beyond Fest performance of Cat in the Brain main theme.

  • Painter of Nightmares (17:50, HD) – The final exclusive Blu-ray interview is with artist Enzo Sciotti, who painted the original Cat in the Brain poster art.

  • Screenwriter Antonio Tentori interviews Lucio Fulci (16:30, HD) – Audio from a 1987 radio interview, set against posters and stills from the films that Fulci and Tentori are discussing.

  • Trailers for other Grindhouse releases

  • Fulci and Halsey’s biographies/filmographies (including Easter eggs of interview outtakes and trailers)



Catalogue interviews from Grindhouse’s DVD release:

  • Lucio Fulci: Rome, July 27, 1995 – The Television Years (40:20. SD), Genre Terrorist (40:50, SD)

  • Living La Dolce Vita (46:00, SD) – Interview with actor Brett Halsey (who only appears in Cat in the Brain because he was in Touch of Evil).

  • Memories of Lucio (interviews from Mike Baronas’ Paura: Lucio Fulci Remembered, 2008) – Jeofrey Kennedy interview (1:00, SD), Sacha Maria Darwin interview (2:10, SD), andMalisa Longo interview (1:50, SD)

  • Lucio Fulci on Fangoria’s Weekend of Horrors NYC 1996 footage/still gallery slideshow (23:31, SD) – As it did on the DVD, this begins as a slideshow of posters and video releases, before leading into VHS video of a Q&A from his first and only trip to a fan convention in the states.


The images on this page are taken from the BD and sized for the page. Larger versions can be viewed by clicking the images. Note that there will be some JPG compression.


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