In this column, cult columnist Saoirse takes you on a biweekly jaunt through the obscure annals of the cult film world. We’ll touch on everything from Giallo to J-Horror to Wakaliwood & so much more. If it’s a low budget genre film, or even a big-budget flop with a dogged audience, or even an undiscovered gem, it belongs here.
This week we look at an obscure comedy-horror from cult icon Lucio Fulci, A Cat In The Brain.
Lucio Fulci is such an enigmatic and mythologised figure in cult cinema. He’s one of those directors that actual cult fans would probably include on their Mt. Rushmore of cult film directors but most cinephiles would probably overlook him as just a schlockmeister. Nothing could be further from the truth. I first encountered Lucio Fulci after watching Suspiria, Phenomena, and Tenebrae for the first time and needing more of whatever this ethereal Italian strain of horror was. I just poured through my University library renting any Italian horror movie they that was had distributed by Arrow Video which was how I discovered films like Contagion, Demons, and more importantly, City of the Living Dead. City of the Living Dead has all of the strange dream like qualities of something like Tenebrae, with somehow more nastiness and less plot cohesion, but I only took that as a good thing. In fact, as great as it is, when I watched the slightly more structured rendition of The Beyond I somewhat missed the insane fantasia that is presented in City of the Living Dead. After the terrifying plot set up it devolves into the insanity of a story that purely focuses on the power of the image, a technique Fulci has time and time again returned to in his work, and it’s a meaty body of work with many a nook and cranny to hide in. You have his work in the western genre with Four of the Apocalypse and Silver Saddle, adventure films like White Fang, or historical dramas like Beatrice Cenci. What we have here is a meta-textual horror-comedy full of some of Fulci’s boldest storytelling yet.
A Cat in the Brain, directed by Lucio Fulci, stars Lucio Fulci, playing Lucio Fulci. He’s embarking on his latest gory outing. What at first looks like a more gory version of his earlier Gialli, then cuts back to see him directing the film. We later find out that he is starting to be traumatised by the horrific images he conjures. At the start of the picture he goes to his usual restaurant but seeing minced meat triggers some latent trauma in his brain about the scene which he just shot where an insane killer chops pounds of flesh off a victim before grinding them up. When he sees some German investors who wish to invest in his film and make a documentary about the making of it, he has a vision of a debauched Nazi orgy which absolutely took my breathe away, there’s one Nazi riding this girl and using his tie as a reign like a horse, it’s quite incredibly extreme and the handheld nature of the camera viscerally puts you there. Here’s where we burst the bubble though, it’s from a different Fulci movie. It’s called Sodoma’s Ghost which is a Nazi ghost slasher, from what I can tell? It’s apparently not very good and I haven’t seen it. Fulci was in fact in somewhat of a flop era at this point in his career. The last movie he had that is at all widely argued to be a classic of his and essential was maybe 1982’s The New York Ripper, (this being a 1990 film), and that film was derided upon release and has only since gotten a reappraisal, (not least from yours truly). Since then he’d racked up 11 director credits with everything from the schlocky and silly but disposable, (1982’s Manhattan Baby), to the famously terrible, (1983’s Conquest and 1984’s Murder Rock). In fact his directing credit in 1988’s Zombi 3, the then latest in his opus zombie franchise, was famously only partly accurate, as his 70 minute cut was expanded after he had a stroke by Bruno Mattei, asked by the studio to basically put more gore in.
So this is the position Fulci is in when he makes A Cat in the Brain in 1990. He was never a critic’s favourite but I can’t imagine his name in horror was much more than a punchline at this point and I have frequently seen it used in such ways. Much of his work for the last decade had seemed ultimately perfunctory. The last film in his The Gates of Hell trilogy, The House by the Cemetery was the most cooly received of the three before his career took a nosedive. His health was in extraordinary decline. We’d just come out of the 80s, famously the video nasty era. To cap it off, his other tentpole zombie franchise was in dire straights after studio meddling. So what can he do?
Spurred on by a lawsuit, details of which are scant on the ground, at least to me, Fulci took footage not just from his own films but from other films made by directors who’s worked with him as a producer and constructed a hellish farce around it where he is a character in the film tormented by visions of his previous work. You have to remember Fulci’s self imposed title outside of just being a horror director of Genere Terrorista, taking whatever genre, from Comedy to Western, and ignoring the preconceived idea of what they can be and doing his own thing with them. If you look at his Gialli, they either look nothing like any other Giallo, (Don’t Torture a Duckling) or were deeply formative on a strain of Gialli that came after, (A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin). So of course he’d take his own oeuvre and do his own riff on Fellini’s 8 ½ with it, telling the story of a director in a rut who just happens to be him. It’s a deeply personal picture to the extent that it’s shocking that it was put together so quickly, utilising a self awareness Fulci almost never showed in his personal life. He was famously an arsehole, who would slag off whoever he’d just been speaking to to the point where he just began slagging off himself because he’d run out of people. Stories of him as a person tell the story of someone who would push those around him but ran deeply with insecurity despite the many masterpieces under his belt. This talent and insecurity are themes here as we see insane images he constructed in even his worst work, and he shows himself post-stroke as someone just trying to get by from one day to the next in the life he’d found himself in, which is something I can relate to. His version of 8 ½’s creatively impotent director character is of course after so many consecutive failures, himself.
The film creates a harsh delineation between fantasy and reality even as the plot confuses them. The film’s most outrageously stylish sequences are the ones that take place in the fantasia of cinema, but the film’s grimiest and bleakest take place in reality as we see real life murders unfold at the hands of a maniac.
Even with all this he still manages to work in some further meta commentary. The plot, (which I know we’ve taken a while to get to, it’s my column not yours shut up), is that Fulci goes to a psychiatrist, who is being cucked, for help with his visions. The psychiatrist then hypnotises Fulci to think that he has committed horrible murders when really the psychiatrist is committing the murders, so that Fulci will stop making his horrible and violent films. It is about halfway through that he reveals his grand intention, “after all isn’t that what they say, that too much violence can turn you into a violent killer yourself”. In this way Fulci makes his grand subversion and thumbing at his critics, how the real danger are those who aim to paint artists with the brush of filth to cover up what filmmakers provoke in these same audiences that they can’t face. Censorship is a bitch, man. The ending, which I won’t spoil, shows us that the enemy in these scenarios is purely constructed, and then does it again. The ending we get shows a humility in Fulci and this film, it knows it’s insubstantial, and silly, and ultimately a bit of fluff, but does that stop it having a damn good time? Hell no. It’s maybe the frothiest Fulci horror I’ve seen but that’s only a plus for me, it shows he has a lightness of touch, and an ability to mock himself and have a bit of fun with a movie. It’s frothy and light, but also has scenes of Nazi orgies, zombies on wheelchairs busting through windows, and decapitations, and that’s not the half of it. It’s a late career masterpiece and it’s a shame this was almost the last film he made but for a few, what a glorious talent he was.
I’ll end on this anecdote. I had the absolute pleasure to see Fulci’s Zombie Flesh Eaters on the big screen about a year and a half ago now. This was at the BFI Southbank, maybe the best cinema in the whole of South London. Zombie Flesh Eaters was always a favourite of mine. I love the schlockiness of it while looking absolutely gorgeous visually with a light commentary on colonialism worked through it. It’s a worthy if totally accidental sequin to Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, which it wasn’t shot as but the marketers made it after the fact. It has a scene where a zombie fights a shark. Then not very long into it start to hear titters at the dated vocal dubbing, which is just something you sometimes have to expect and accept going into these movies, and these laughs, from about two rows behind me, stayed for the whole movie. I had to leave after a certain time because it was just so annoying. These people obviously thought they were going to a knowing schlock fest of ‘come laugh at the so-bad-it’s-good movie that the stupid, cheap Italians made’ and not this work of transgressive art. It was grating as anything. Now, while I still think those people are arseholes, I do see positives to take away from these interactions. No, these movies aren’t for them, they’re not theirs, but they are mine. I feel an ownership, like they belong to me, like I uncovered them in some old Egyptian tomb myself ,Manhattan Baby style, and in that way they don’t just belong to me but every other cult film fan out there who saw a movie that changed their life and now they have to uncover every other film like it that they can find even if they have to order a French blu-ray and rip subtitles online if it means they can watch a 1k restoration of an old Shaw Brothers film. They belong to all of us, and it belongs to every reader of this column.They belong to all of you. I think, based on A Cat In The Brain if nothing else, if Fulci was still around, he’d appreciate that better than anyone.
This thanksgiving I want to be thankful for all my friends and family of course, but also everyone here at A Fistful of Film who let me write this and have let me write it for nearly a year now, which is terrifying. This thanksgiving I’m thankful for all my readers that are the reason I still write this column every fortnight. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart, thank you so much.