Cat in the Brain (1990)
by Steve Habrat
If you’re one that has ever sat through an entire Lucio Fulci film, you understand that the Italian horror director was something of an acquired taste. The “Godfather of Gore”—as he is often referred to—took great pleasure in painting the movie screen red with globs of entrails, buckets of candle wax blood, jellied brains, rotting skin, and showers of wiggling maggots, something that he was often criticized for. Surely, a man that crafts ultra-violent films such as these must have, well, a cat fiercely clawing, scratching, and chewing away at his brain! Near the end of Fulci’s long and varied career (he made everything from comedies to gialli to spaghetti westerns), he released Cat in the Brain (aka Nightmare Concert), a meta-gorefest that finds the cult filmmaker reflecting upon his gruesome body of work and the toll those gory films had on his psyche. Strung together with horrific snippets from his earlier gialli and horror films, Cat in the Brain is surprisingly well rounded and clever for a film that threatens to act as a sort of highlight reel for Fulci’s most revolting kill scenes. Yet the splatter master smartly builds a thought-provoking thriller around these recycled sequences, and the end result is a standout release from the twilight of his career.
Cat in the Brain finds Fulci playing himself, Dr. Lucio Fulci, a horror director who is well known for his ultra-violent genre films. One day, after filming a particularly nasty sequence involving cannibalism and a questionable steak, Fulci decides to go to a nearby upscale restaurant for lunch. Upon arriving, Fulci orders up a steak, but his appetite is quickly curbed when his mind wanders back to the gruesome sequence that he was filming just moments before. Some time later, Fulci suffers another flashback after glimpsing a gardener slicing up some logs with a chain saw. The flashback triggers a nervous breakdown that prompts the horror director to seek out the help of a local psychiatrist by the name of Professor Egon Swharz (played by David L. Thompson). Swharz suggests that Fulci try hypnotism to aid with these terrifying flashbacks, but as it turns out, Swharz has a much more sinister plot in store for Fulci. Swharz plans on committing a number of heinous murders and using the hypnosis to trick Fulci into thinking he committed the murders, pushing the already fragile director to brink of madness.
With Cat in the Brain, Fulci is fiercely aware of his fan base, composing a grand old opera of sex, violence, and depravity almost exclusively for them. It also finds the director recognizing the fact that he wasn’t exactly held in high regard in many circles, as he was often attacked for the exploitative nature of his horror films. In response to the criticism, Fulci conjures up a tidal wave of carnage that features chain saw mutilation, beheadings, cannibalism, melting faces, surging guts, a cat gnawing away at a brain, and various other segments of bloodshed that will have his devout fans floating on cloud nine and his harshest critics groaning is disgust. While there are various points of Cat in the Brain that send a chill or two (a certain graveyard sequence comes to mind), the endless barrage of grindhouse violence seems to be Fulci’s way of taunting his critics—looking them square in the eye and saying, “You thought my pervious work was vicious? Well, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet!” Of course, his response comes off as light-hearted and comical, as he presents himself in the opening credits as a perverse mad scientist hunched over a pad, conjuring up various death scenes to use in future movies. This transitions into a close up of a cheesy-looking cat devouring Fulci’s glistening brain matter, a ravenous and cartoonish madness that just can’t be tamed.
Then we have Fulci’s sympathetic performance as himself, a role he seems to take great pleasure in playing. In between his bouts of insanity, Fulci portrays himself as a nice guy who is just doing his job. To his friends and neighbors, he is simply that guy who makes those horror movies, yet everyone seems to have a general fondness and respect for the artist. When that cat starts hissing and clawing around upstairs, Fulci really gets to have fun with people’s perception of him. When directing a Nazi orgy, he presents himself in a misty medium shot as he manically whispers orders to his bare-naked cast members. Other times, he is stricken with disgust over the visions he suffers from, clutching at his heart like he is fending off a sudden heart attack. The stand out scene comes when he wanders around a friend’s house in terror, gasping at visions of the friend’s family members getting chopped, stabbed, sliced, and diced like a couple of Thanksgiving turkeys. (This sequence also appears to feature a bloody tribute to the shower sequence in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho) The puppeteer behind Fulci’s madness is David L. Thompson’s Professor Swharz, a grinning madman who hypnotizes the poor director into thinking he is on a killing spree. Thompson is surprisingly creepy in the villainous role, a sadistic psychiatrist who uses other people’s demons to his advantage. One thing is certain; Fulci doesn’t think much of shrinks.
While Cat in the Brain’s self-reflexive structure seems a bit disjointed and slightly puzzling in places (Would you expect anything less from the “Godfather of Gore?”), Fulci still manages to produce a final product that effectively blurs the lines between what is a hallucination and what is real. This makes Cat in the Brain seem like a playful horror exercise, one that simultaneously toys with the viewer like a ball of yarn, while advising other horror directors who may have suffered light trauma from their violent work to opt for a sunny vacation with a pretty girl over a trip to the dreaded psychiatrist’s office. Another admirable aspect is the fact that Cat in the Brain is able to overcome the trap of acting as a highlight reel. It actually takes on an identity all its own, as Fulci meshes the gooey clips seamlessly with his freshly shot footage. Overall, Cat in the Brain is far from Lucio Fulci’s best work, but as a late-career effort from a man who was past his glory days and grappling with deteriorating health, it’s something of a high point. This is a delightfully deranged and darkly hilarious horror rendition of Federico Fellini’s celebrated art-house classic 8 ½, with an overflowing ladle of sex and sleaze drizzled on for extra zing.
Cat in the Brain (aka Nightmare Concert) is available on DVD.