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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.

 Cat in the Brain: Grindhouse Blu-ray
 Cat in the Brain: Grindhouse DVD
Lucio Fulci is most known for his graphic excess and disregard for linear/logical storytelling, but his pure filmmaking skill often transcends the mindless brutality he is accused of peddling. His decade-spanning career also covered more than just gothic horror. Some of his best work included gialli, period dramas, and spaghetti westerns. I bang the gong for the ‘Godfather of Gore’ a lot here on DVDActive and I will probably continuing doing it for as long as there are reasons to discuss his wide body of work (for broader discussion of his overall work, see my reviews of A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin and The Beyond). If there is one Italian genre filmmaker that deserves re-evaluation – someone who has earned the right to be respected by the critical establishment as much as he is respected by his ardent fans – it is Lucio Fulci. That said, most of his movies still lie firmly on the outskirts of mainstream acceptance. In fact, his metatextual opus, A Cat in the Brain, might only appeal to longtime aficionados. At the very least, a full appreciation of this odd and ambitious movie may require a working knowledge of Fulci’s best and worst output.

Arguably, Fulci’s last great movie was House by the Cemetery, which capped off the maestro’s run of gothic zombie movies in 1981. Following that, he unleashed his cruelest film, New York Ripper (Italian: Lo squartatore di New York), and a decent potboiler called Manhattan Baby (Italian: Il malocchio; aka: Evil Eye) in 1982. After this, his films lost much of their patented visual flair. Even the creatively interesting ones – namely his adult fantasy, Conquest (1983) and sci-fi action flick, New Gladiators (Italian: I guerrieri dell'anno 2072, 1984) – lacked the atmospheric allure of his best work. Worse, he was stuck in a cycle of trying and failing to recapture his glory years with inferior, uninspired, and increasingly cheap horror movies. Most of these films had at least one memorable scene (usually a gory one), but were, on the whole, well below the director’s standard (1986’s The Devil’s Honey; Italian: Il miele del diavolo and aka: Dangerous Obsession; was an exception that came close to the director’s thematic standard). Fulci’s brand deteriorated alongside his health as he churned out made-for-TV cheapies ( The Sweet House of Horrors and House of Clocks, both 1988) and a belated pseudo-sequel ( Zombi 3, 1988) that garnered critical disdain. The deterioration wasn’t Fulci’s issue alone, of course – the entire Italian horror industry was in freefall, with Dario Argento’s bigger budget productions (though even those began to torpedo in quality by the middle of the ‘90s).

 Cat in the Brain: Grindhouse Blu-ray
 Cat in the Brain: Grindhouse DVD
A Cat in the Brain (Italian: Un gatto nel cervello and aka: Nightmare Concert, 1990) is notable as creative spark that flashed briefly at the very end of Fulci’s waning years. It is also a twisted gnarl of contradictions – a good news/bad news proposition that has become one of the maestro’s most controversial films within the fan community. It is unlike any other movie in his repertoire, yet obsessively tied to his horror filmography. It is built around a clever concept, yet spends an loads of screen time revisiting the same old ideas. It is gleefully gory, yet it is aesthetically unattractive. Supportive fans will call it a self-reflexive final celebration of about three decades of filmmaking, while cynical viewers and Fulci detractors will note that it is basically the Italian gore version of a sitcom clip show. A substantial amount of screen-time is devoted to characters watching footage from other movies, including the director’s own Sodoma’s Ghost (Italian: Il fantasma di Sodoma, 1988), Touch of Death (Italian: Quando Alice ruppe lo specchio and aka: When Alice Broke the Looking Glass, 1988), as well as Mario Bianchi’s Murder Secret (Italian: Non aver paura della zia Marta and 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 fell under ‘Lucio Fulci Presents’ banner when released.

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, at least on a conceptual level. Personally, I believe that the unspoken truth beneath the film’s tacky production and ambitious themes is that it represents a spiritual exorcism for the director, who was painfully aware of the extreme arc his career took in the 1980s. Like Dario Argento’s Tenebre (aka: Unsane, 1982) and Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (a film that Fulci accuses of ripping him off, though it is doubtful Craven was familiar with Fulci’s work, especially post- Beyond), Cat in the Brain is a semi-autobiographical work – one made to purge the director’s frustration with the constraints of artistic pigeonholing, typecasting, and ‘genre jail.’ 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 was forced to return to the ongoing Nightmare on Elm Street series he created. Tenebre, New Nightmare, and Cat in the Brain all deal with the conservative public’s 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 alert) uses his experience penning murder mysteries to plan the intricate slaughter of his wife and her lover (spoiler over). Craven does cast himself in New Nightmare as a fictional ‘Wes Craven’ who must continue writing Freddy Krueger stories in order to keep a very real ancient evil at bay.

 Cat in the Brain: Grindhouse Blu-ray
 Cat in the Brain: Grindhouse DVD
Fulci’s version of this 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 an ‘important’ or fantastical excuse for his screen-counterpart to be making scary movies. Instead, the movie version of Fulci appears bored and exhausted by his lot as an organizer of cinematic mayhem. In the film, he goes through the motions of directing with little emotional investment and minimal interest (possibly just the side effect of the director’s less than stellar acting). 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 really begin to blur. Horror movies might not make filmmakers into monsters, but prevailing misconceptions and critical protests 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 (not excuses) for the unchained misogyny seen in many of his films and happily offered extensive philosophical analysis of his obsessions with rotting flesh and punctured eyeballs, but, apparently, he wasn’t willing to explore such things on-screen. As Stephen Thrower notes during the rather biting review of Cat in the Brain seen in his 1999 book, Beyond Terror: The Films of Lucio Fulci:

“It's a shame though that Fulci bothered with the psychiatrist's couch in the first place. Nevermind that he stampeded to a resentful transference with the therapist without revealing anything about himself on the way.”

 Cat in the Brain: Grindhouse Blu-ray
 Cat in the Brain: Grindhouse DVD
Unlike Tenebre, Cat in the Brain doesn’t really work as a proper giallo or even a post-modern one, because there really isn’t any mystery behind the killer’s identity. Fulci reveals Schwarz’ plan very early on (the character explains everything he’s going to do before he even does it), which robs the story of potential suspense. Had he taken a more traditional approach, he probably would’ve drawn out the possibility of himself as a suspect until the reveal, like in Lizard in a Woman’s Skin, where (spoiler alert) 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 murders a woman off-screen in the final minutes, but, assuming you’re watching the ‘complete’ version of the movie, this is revealed to be a joke. Though, this brings us to the question of whether or not Cat in the Brain is supposed to be comedy, like the grandfather of Italian meta-filmmaking, Frederico Fellini’s 8 ½ (1963). Surely, the idea of a 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.

There is no doubt that Cat in the Brain is a visually uninspired film. Its atmospherically flat images can’t hold a cobweb-wrapped candle to the likes of The Beyond or City of the Living Dead (Italian: Paura nella città dei morti viventi; aka: The Gates of Hell, 1980), both of which were photographed by long-time collaborator Sergio Salvati. Salvati had since moved on to work as cinematographer for Charles Band’s Empire Films, where he ensured that a number subpar movies looked brilliant. Replacement DP Alessandro Grossi’s comparative lack of experience (this was his first film as cinematographer and he did a better job shooting Fulci’s next movie, Voices from Beyond, 1991) and the use of 16mm, instead of 35mm both aggravate the issue. I assume that all of this was the result of the short shooting schedule/lack of budget (again, a lot of the footage is recycled from other movies), but, in a strange way, the TV-friendly compositions fit the meta-narrative that Fulci is selling. This murky, smoky, and dimly-lit photography sells the ugliness of the gore and also the (possibly intended?) meta-commentary on the griminess of middle-late ‘80s Italian gore movies.

 Cat in the Brain: Grindhouse Blu-ray
 Cat in the Brain: Grindhouse DVD

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. As you can see in these comparison screencaps (Blu-ray top, DVD bottom), the two transfers feature similar colour 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 artefacts 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 artefacts 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.

 Cat in the Brain: Grindhouse Blu-ray
 Cat in the Brain: Grindhouse DVD

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.

 Cat in the Brain: Grindhouse Blu-ray
 Cat in the Brain: Grindhouse DVD

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’s 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.
  • Catalogue interviews from Grindhouse’s DVD release:
    • Lucio Fulci: Rome, July 27, 1995:[list]
    • 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)
    • Malisa Longo interview (1:50, SD)[list]
    • 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.
  • Trailers for other Grindhouse releases
  • Fulci and Halsey’s biographies/filmographies (including Easter eggs of interview outtakes and trailers)


 Cat in the Brain: Grindhouse Blu-ray
 Cat in the Brain: Grindhouse DVD

Overall


Again, Cat in the Brain isn’t the best place for burgeoning Fulci fans to start and it probably won’t win over any converts on its own merits. But it is a pretty wacky late entry in the director’s outrageous filmography and a smorgasbord of gory effects. Regardless of your opinion on the film’s quality, there’s no doubt that Grindhouse has given it the royal treatment, including what I assume is the best possible 1080p transfer from the 16mm source, two clean and uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio tracks, and several hours worth of old and brand new supplements.

* Note: The above images are taken from the Grindhouse Blu-ray and Grindhouse DVD and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.


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