When I first heard about Lucio Fulci’s CAT IN THE BRAIN it was something to do with it having been banned in Britain, which always makes things sound enticing. The description suggested that the movie, in which Fulci plays himself, a director of horror movies undergoing a breakdown in which he’s losing the ability to distinguish between fact and bloody fiction, used highlights from many of Fulci’s previous movies in order to ramp up the gore quotient. This sounded both cheap and nasty, but also oddly meta. It sounded like the last gasp of the giallo, and it was pretty close to being Fulci’s last film (but the tireless Dr. F. managed a couple more, and was set to make WAX MASK when he died).
But the movie doesn’t actually cannibalize the Fulci back catalogue for its gratuitous bloodletting — to give credit where it’s due, pretty much all the unnecessary bloodletting has been staged especially for this movie. Still, by casting himself as stocky, nervous leading man, Fulci is attempting some kind of career summation, making this his TESTAMENT OF ORPHEUS, only with considerably more arterial spurt (when Cocteau gets a spear through his nice V-neck sweater, there’s no leakage of the Blood of a Poet).
Much of the time, Fulci seems to be playing Cronenberg’s VIDEODROME game — “If violent movies made us violent, THIS is what the world would be like.” But Fulci is not smart like Cronenberg. It’s interesting that he was a doctor, because (a) “Dr. Fulci will see you now” is not reassuring and (b) his films are routinely preposterous about psychology, behaviour, basic cause and effect — they seem to have made by an idiot who’s good with the camera. Now, you can be smart enough to get a degree and still be an idiot when it comes to creating believable characters. Fulci seems to be one of those smart-dumb guys. I don’t accept that the people in his films are ridiculous because he doesn’t care — if you’re able to appreciate good characterisation at all, it would just KILL you to write such crappy dialogue and action for the people in your movie.
I really hate this asshole.
The neurotic Fulci on-camera seeks the help of a shrink, who hypnotises him and sets about framing him for some murders he’s committing, just because. So this is an unusual giallo where we know the killer but we don’t quite know how serious our director’s derangement is. Now, Fulci was a comedy director before he got into horror, and maybe the stupid, ugly way he portrays the world has something to do with the lowbrow world of Italian sex comedy (I haven’t much of this genre, but I’m imagining it to be a bit like British sex comedy but with slightly more attractive photography and girls — Edwige Fenech trumps Sue Lloyd — in other worlds, depressing). All the women seem to have stepped out of bad pornos. Fulci sexualises them without bothering to cast particularly attractive girls, get performances out of them, or photograph them in a flattering way.
Some earlier Fulci gialli might muster a passable misogyny defense by virtue of their all-pervasive misanthropy, something the genre seems to thrive on (I would love a good theory as to why this element seems so central). Here, the violence towards women, not so much gleeful as laborious and plodding (“Don’t enjoy it anymore. Bad for me,” narrates Fulci, talking about smoking but probably meaning cinema), served up to us with a disapproving scowl, seems to have no meaning at all.
We’re left with the stocky, ill-at-ease director (more dyspeptic than psychotic) trudging from bloodbath to bloodbath, depressed by his own films and this metafictional take on them, and enthused only by his white Mercedes, which he films parking at Cinecitta with great care and attention, for what feels like minutes on end. I think he must have been very fond of that car.
The ending is almost quite good. But as Fulci, saved from madness, evil hypnotists, the long arm of the law, and movie-making, sails off into the sunset, he still doesn’t look very happy.