June 8, 2009

DVD Review: Cat in the Brain

Before Wes Craven had a New Nightmare and well before Michael Haneke faced down his audience with contempt in not one but two versions of Funny Games, Lucio Fulci was deconstructing the director's and audiences' relationship to onscreen violence in 1990's Cat in the Brain. Of the three films, this is easily the trippiest, least focused, and seriously over the top. It is the sort of film that, when it ends will leave you wondering just what it is that you saw. It walks the line between reality and dream, it is a thin line to be sure.

When Fulci made this film his best years were behind him, it had been a long time since he created anything along the lines of Zombi or The Beyond. Instead of helming classics, he was working his way back down the list with such titles as Touch of Death and The Ghosts of Sodom. Not content to continue down this path, Fulci decided to go the experimental route, putting himself front and center on the screen in a film that challenges his position as a horror auteur, even going so far as to recycled some footage from those lesser films.

Cat in the Brain, also known as Nightmare Concert, takes a look at the fragile nature of a horror director's mind. It is purely fiction, of course, but the way he flips the idea of what such a person is like in reality is quite interesting. Not only does it do that, but we also get to see what can happen to a fan if they consume too much of the auteur's dark product. What makes those fascinating subjects even more entertaining is the exploitative nature of the manner in which the points are made. The movie is constructed as much to titillate the audience as it is to be a through provoking journey.

The story, such as it is, plays on the idea that the public believes that people who create these dark, gory, perverse works must also be dark and perverse. Seriously though, who else could make these things, there has to be something wrong with them, right? No, not really. In Cat in the Brain, our central character, a fictionalized (?) version of Lucio Fulci, playing himself, finds himself slowly losing his mind during a particularly troubling movie shoot.

We begin with Fulci shooting a sequence featuring cannibalism and dismemberment via chainsaw, after which they break for lunch. Fulci goes to a nearby restaurant, but the thought of a fillet sickens him, and whatever you do, don't mention the steak tartar! It escalates to Fulci having visions of people being murdered, or faces melting, and other naughty bits (many being taken from other films). The visions become so troublesome that the director goes to a psychiatrist in search of help. Unfortunately, he picks the wrong doctor.

It seems this doctor has some murderous intentions, and sees the good, but ailing, Lucio Fulci as the perfect patsy. The doctor watches all of Fulci's films and reads all the scripts as "research" to help Fulci get to the root of his problem. However, he has the ulterior motive of researching interesting ways to kill people on his rampage and using Fulci's problems of assigning blame away from him and onto the director.

Watching Fulci slowly become consumed by his creation is interesting. The director becoming the victim, so to speak, of his own creations. What is the relationship between a director and his film? Could a lifetime of helming gore films take a toll on one's psyche? In the film it takes an unexpected turn when he suffers from car trouble and arrives late to the set only to find the assistant director has taken over and continued the shoot without him. Can a director become so predictable that he isn't even needed?

After you deal with Fulci's madness from a lifetime of horror, you still have the doctor to deal with. He stands in for the audience, a student of Fulci, based on his consumption of the director's catalog. Rather than horrifying, it is inviting, encouraging imitation. The doctor uses the films as something a template with which to carry out his own murderous intentions. Is this who is thought to be the audience?

It is interesting to stop and think about how we react to what we consume as entertainment and how it affects us, just as the creator is affected by a lifetime of the same material. It would be naive and arrogant to think it has no affect on us. The key is to recognize it and know how to digest such material. Cat in the Brain takes a look at one possibility.

On the other hand, if you do not want to watch the film as a meta experience, you can be content to watch a seriously surreal horror movie. The movie bends reality and dream to the point where they become intermingled. There are moments where you think you are seeing an actual murder, only to learn it is a vision and vice versa. It is filled with wall to wall gore, some of it well done, some of it not so, but it is all heavy on the red stuff.

Technically, the movie is quite flawed. The story is not terribly clear, although that may be by design since it is not so much about plot as it is about atmosphere and the overall experience. With footage coming from multiple sources, there is an issue of matching, but that is not the only problem. It seems the film was shot "Ed Wood style" with many shots being done in one take regardless of coverage quality; for example, during an early doctor kill you can see one angle was shot during the day and the reverse at night. Still, it is still a lot of fun.

Audio/Video. The film is presented in its original widescreen aspect ratio. The transfer is not the best, but I do not see this film as being one that had much of a budget, nor do I think it was taken care of all that well, so we should be thankful for what we are able to get. Grindhouse Releasing has done a fine job of getting it into as a good a shape as it is. To that end, the video is always clear, but very soft and does not have much in the way of fine detail. Definitely watchable, but do not expect crystal clarity.

The audio is in the same boat. There are two tracks of equal quality, English and Italian, both in mono. The film was shot with English and Italian speakers, all speaking their native language, necessitating the two dubs. It is a little odd to watch, but it is not an uncommon occurrence in Italian horror, especially in the 70's and 80's. Neither is great, but they both get the job done.

Extras. This 2 disk Deluxe Edition has its fair share of extras.
  • Disk 1. In addition to the movie:
  • Two trailers are included, the original Italian trailer as well as a more recent US trailer.
  • Production Stills and Promotional Materials. This is a slide show of movie posters and video boxes used for the film.
  • Lucio Fulci at Fangoria's Weekend of Horrors - NYC 1996. This interview session runs 22-minutes and shows the director in good spirits answering questions about his films and collaborators through a translator.
  • Disk 2.
  • Interviews. This section has two interviews with Fulci, one with Brett Halsey, and a series of people remembering Lucio Fulci: Jeoffrey Kennedy, Sacha Maria Darwin, and Malisa Longo.
  • Biographies. Text bios and filmographies for Lucio Fulci and star Brett Halsey (who did not know he was even in the movie until it was released!).
  • Previews. Trailers for Pieces, The Beyond, Cannibal Holocaust, Cannibal Ferox, I Drink Your Blood, and a whole bunch more.

Bottomline. This set is a must have for fans of the film, Fulci, or horror. It is a trippy film that has a lot to offer within its cheese-lined walls. It is certainly over the top and one of the bloodier films I have seen. Watching Fulci turn the camera on himself and his legacy is an interesting experience that should be seen.



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