Stephen King has said that he’s often shocked by people’s initial reaction to him in person. Since he creates horrific nightmares of blood curdling and spine chilling terror, tales that traumatize the very marrow in your bones and scar the substance of your soul, fans assume that he is an equally dark, diabolic person. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth, whether or not his imagination holds such demonic thoughts. Making people frightened is merely his job, as it is for writers like Clive Barker, or filmmakers like Wes Craven or Dario Argento. They all suffer from a contextual confusion which suggests what they create is the same as who they are.
Lucio Fulci clearly felt a similar sense of personal misrepresentation. As the man infamous for putting more arterial spray than art on the silver screen, the mind behind such blood-soaked epics as Zombi, The Beyond, and City of the Living Dead was, by 1990, in the twilight of his career. And yet even during these final, inconsistent years, a new fanbase devoted to his guts and grue dynamic were clamoring for more. In the mesmerizing meta-experience, Cat in the Brain (released as Nightmare Concert internationally, and back on DVD from Grindhouse Releasing), the glorious goremeister takes said reputation as a splatter savage and literally turns it upside down and sideways. The results speak volumes for how we watch scary movies, and how we view those who make them.
While working on his latest film, Fulci finds himself slowly coming unglued. At his usual lunching spot, a suggestion of steak tartar makes him physically ill. Upon returning home, a gardener with a chainsaw causes him concern. Convinced he is losing his mind, he visits Professor Egon Schwarz, a psychiatrist with a knack for hypnosis. As part of the proposed cure, Fulci will let himself be “put under”. Unfortunately, Professor Schwarz is a psychopath who wants to go on his own sinister killing spree. Tricking Fulci into thinking that he himself is committing the crimes, the maniac medico begins murdering hookers with unhinged abandon. All the while, our flustered filmmaker experiences visions from his past films, disgusting, gruesome hallucinations that convince him he’s a monster.
Cat in the Brain is either the laziest excuse for a movie ever made by a true Italian giant, or one of the most unusual and unique films ever crafted by a fading cinematic icon. By utilizing clips from movies he either directed or produced, including The Ghosts of Sodom (1988), Don’t Be Afraid of Aunt Martha (1988), Touch of Death (1988), Bloody Psycho (1989), Escape from Death (1989), Massacre (1998), and Hansel e Gretel (1990), Fulci fashions a formidable tale of personal torment and professional assessment. Convinced he is nothing more than a cinematic circus geek, the filmmaker puts himself in the place of his audience and stands in revulsion over what he sees. To witness a man who makes atrocities for a living play at being equally insulted by their outright repugnance is a bit disconcerting at first. It’s like watching your favorite chef gag on his own cooking.
But Fulci knows that’s how we’ll react, and he keeps driving home the point to make sure it sticks. There are disturbing murders – including a couple involving Leatherface’s favorite power tool – that are simply nauseating in their cruelty. At other instances, we laugh as holdover actor Brett Halsey (he’s featured prominently in the clips) plays lethal lothario, killing various women with a combination of sadism and satire. In fact, the material that’s the least effective here revolves around Professor Schwarz and his wide-eyed, over the top sense of slaughter. When actor David L. Thompson puts on his murder’s mug, we’re not sure if he’s crazy, or just advertising the dentist who polished those sparkling pearly whites. It’s as gratuitous as the Nazi orgy sequence which goes on for far too long.
As a result, it would be easy to consider Cat in the Brain to be self-indulgent, self-centered, and self-aggrandizing. This is Fulci paying tribute to his forgotten legacy, the later period films long after The Beyond, Zombie, and The House by the Cemetery created a firestorm of loyal fans. Indeed, many of the movie reference will be completely foreign to even the most dedicated lover of the Italian icon. Still, there’s no denying the man’s way with special effects. While some of the sequences seem dated by today’s standards (Fulci even rejects an eyeball gag which he professes still fails to look “real” to him), the brutal natural of their visual aggression cannot be denied. Sure, the bodies look like latex and stage blood, but what Fulci does to them is beyond belief.
As part of the new DVD from Grindhouse Releasing, we get a chance to hear Fulci defend himself in a rare and very revealing interview. The man is very open about his career and very candid about his work within the genre (i.e. – would people go to his films if he made comedies, he wonders out loud). There is also a chat with actor Halsey that’s a lot of fun, as well as a look at Fulci’s appearance to the 1996 Fangoria Weekend of Horrors. Just watching him bathe in the warmth of his frenzied fanbase is reason enough to check out this intriguing featurette. Toss in a wealth of additional content, including a few more Q&As, a bunch of stills and poster art, the original theatrical trailer, and a collection of liner notes penned by Antonella Fulci, novelist David Schow, and director Eli Roth, and you’ve got a wonderful digital presentation of a complicated, controversial film.