By the time Lucio Fulci made Cat In The Brain, the writing was on the wall for the Italian genre filmmakers who had spent the last few decades cranking out oddball potboilers around the world. The scene was almost dead, with budgets slashed to the bone and limited talent available to make the few shoestring productions that could still be cobbled together. However, Fulci was too irrepressible to be beaten by these circumstances: even when saddled with lousy scripts and worse actors, his work had a style and sensibility that was undeniably his own.
Viewed through that mindset, you could consider Cat In The Brain to be Fulci’s last stand as a confrontational horror auteur. The production was dreamt up as a way to cannibalize gore sequences from a series of then-unreleased horror titles that had been cranked out for Italian television, some directed by Fulci and others not. The wraparound he devised to frame the shocks is inspired in an unhinged, ballsy sort of way: Fulci plays a fictionalized version of himself, an overworked genre director who feels the brutality of his work is causing his sanity to crumble.
Fulci turns to a psychiatrist (David L. Thompson) for help, not knowing said doctor is a quack who uses hypnosis to plant more violent visions in the director’s mind to use as a cover so the doctor can kill his wife and other women. Fulci finds himself spiralling into a kind of grindhouse Slaughterhouse Five where he has become unstuck in reality, trying to get his imagination under control as he is barraged by visions of a series of blood-drenched killings.
Cat In The Brain is a controversial title amongst Fulci fans, with the detractors saying it is a far cry from his glory days of Zombie and The Beyond. It’s easy to understand why they feel the way they do: the mix of new and old footage is sometimes awkward, the acting and dialogue are equally shoddy and any attempts at style are hampered by the cheap and quick aesthetic of the production. If you’re looking for the high-style Grand Guignol surrealism of old, it’s in short supply here.
That said, to take issue with the cut-rate resources and hasty craftsmanship here is to miss the point. Cat In The Brain is the kind of crazy-quilt affair that gets by on sheer audacity… and audacity is a quality that Fulci never lacked. Even in these diminished circumstances, Fulci is swinging for the fences as he uses this quickie production to work out his issues with women, psychoanalysis, horror films being used as a societal scapegoat and the death of his beloved film industry.
The result is unexpectedly personal and deeply felt in its crazy excesses, with Fulci’s hangdog, somnambulistic presence looming large over the cobbled-together narrative. You can feel the exhaustion coming off him in waves as he staggers through the film’s minefield of gore scenes: he’s not an actor in the conventional sense but his beleaguered visage sells the frustration and weariness he felt during this era. The bloodshed around him might be fake but the bone-tired quality he projects is as real as it gets.
And even if you’re not invested in the travails of Fulci’s career, there are plenty of rewards here for the Eurotrash thrill seeker. The fact that Cat In The Brain pillages the gore from a series of films means that it’s packed with wall-to-wall bloodshed: there’s slashings, decapitations, limb-lopping and gratuitous use of Brett Halsey killing aging Italian starlets used as a film-within-a-film. There’s even a crazy Nazi-officer orgy scene lifted from Sodoma’s Ghost used as a hallucination that Fulci experiences when talking to a German news crew: this is a highlight of the film, with Fulci working himself up into a lather and being dragged from the room as he tries to direct his hallucination.
In short, Cat In The Brain is a find for fans who grew up on the wild Italian horrors of the ’70s and ’80s, a bit of guttersnipe post-modernism created long before horror critics started throwing the term around. There’s even a final scene gives a wink to his fans, an acknowledgement that you and he are in on the joke he just perpetrated. If you’re a Fulci fan, you might find yourself rooting for the aging auteur as he uses this end-of-the-road filmmaking gig to give one last poke in the eye to his critics and enemies.