Friday, April 23, 2010

Cult Classic: Garrett Cook on Lucio Fulci's Cat in the Brain

Jordan Krall's Halloween 3 review brought to you by Brawny. And by Tom Atkins, who gave everyone in New Jersey $1,000 to think his moustache is cool.

Tonight, Leza and I are going to give you a double dose of Dollar Bin Massacre commentary. As if Jordan's rollicking defense of the ponderous Irish bashing glory that is Halloween 3 wasn't enough, we're also going to talk about a real movie. Well, maybe it's a real movie. Maybe it's the realest movie you'll ever see. A lot of you might think that honor goes to the brilliant Slashed Dreams, but we're saving that for Sunday. Mo, I'm talking about Lucio Fulci's Cat in the Brain. Amazon, IMDB and some film blogs weren't particularly kind to this movie and a lot of people don't know what to make of it. So, what else is new when it comes to a work of Italian horror? Even Argento and Bava's best movies are divisive. (With the probable exceptions of Suspiria and Maschera del Demonio.) This one has a lot going for it, though. It's not often when you see a movie juggle literal and figurative guts and brains so well.

When I first saw Dario Argento's Opera, I was floored. First of all, its title is one of the more interest double entendre I've seen. Not only does it describe the setting of the film, but it's subject.

", does Caddyshack," you say. If you say this I'm assuming you do not know that "opera" is Italian for work as well. If you did know that, I'm sorry for patronizing you like that. Also, you get a virtual cookie for being so perceptive. This double entendre reveals that it is not just about the opera, but about filmmaking and Argento' s body of work. The film examines voyeurism the nature of observing and the nature of directing and it does it very well. It's very good metahorror. When the killer says "I can take you any time I want" and you know it's Argento talking, it's an experience.

But in watching Opera, you get the feeling that Argento hasn't opened up all that much. He's given you some of his insights into gore, directing and perception but you don't walk away with quite enough in my opinion. Lucio Fulci' s Cat in the Brain takes things further. Just as Fulci goes further to test the boundaries of good tastes with the gore and sexuality in his movies, so too does he go further into himself in Cat in the Brain.

The protagonist of Cat in the Brain is Fulci himself, a director becoming unhinged as his works creeps into his day to day life. There's nothing exceptionally special about the plot of this movie. It's pretty derivative (though if you watch this movie, take note that it predates Carpenter's In the Mouth of Madness). A mad psychologist uses hypnotism to make an artist think he's committing horrible crimes. Pretty sloppy. You can make an argument that it's basically Mad Love (without the love). The artist tormented by his work is a pretty old chestnut too.

So, what makes Cat in the Brain so special? It's the depth to which Fulci goes to show you his world and his neuroses. There is no respite from horror. From the sound of a man cutting logs outside his window to a plate of steak tartar, he is haunted, reminded that he has made a covenant with the dark side of human nature and it cannot be broken, no matter how much he longs to escape it. Cat in the Brain goes further than asking if art shapes how one perceives reality, it asks if the artist can truly be a part of rational reality or is his imagination inescapable?

The mad psychologist of the film, Professor Egon Schwarz (a name that calls to mind painter Egon Schiele and the dark side of the psyche, his last name, after all meaning black) seems to think so. He sees Fulci's hallucinations and the intrusion of his imagination as something to exploit. He intends to use Fulci's art as a means of exploring his own perversions through murder. Can we blame him? Aren't we exploring these very perversions watching this psycho psychologist butcher people or Fulci experience his gory delusions? He acts like a true B horror movie villain, not hearkening back to the traditional giallo killer, but further, to Christopher Lee, and god help him and us, Bela Lugosi. He looks straight at the camera, revealing his plans out loud, he fights with his shrew of a wife like Vincent Price in House on Haunted Hill. This vintage horror cliche reminds us that we are just watching a movie, even while it is very real for Fulci.

Fulci's hallucinations are things of stock footage, mannequin parts, fake blood, awkward acting and poorly made eyeballs to us and yet to the director this is real, this is serious, his work, his world and his heart, an important thing to think about when looking at any work of art but doubly so for Cat in the Brain. While some think that the creation of gore and horror is the work of a callous person, this film argues that it is a sensitivity to the dark and frightening nature of the world around an artist that draws him into horror.

Cat in the Brain is a film about how there is something in us that wants to claw its way out, and with its intelligent meditations on the genre and the people that work in it, it succeeds in letting the cat out of the bag about the inner workings of a bizarre cult genius.

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