Gorings, stabbings, slicings, slittings, flayings, and disembowelings. Plus: a head in a microwave
CULT HORROR "I am a genre terrorist," legendary Italian "B" filmmaker Lucio Fulci professes in an interview on the freshly released two-disc edition of his 1990 film Cat in the Brain (Grindhouse). "I perform my commercial deflagration, then I get bored and move on." Likely aware of his more successful compatriot Dario Argento's moniker, the "Italian Hitchcock," perhaps the late Fulci fancied himself as a sort of Italian Howard Hawks with mild frontal lobe damage: whimsically genre-tripping (comedies in the '50s, westerns in the '60s, thrillers in the '70s) while mastering and exploding conventions. But this would be something of a fanciful delusion. Fulci's mid-career adoption of giallo, the "spaghetti horror" he helped pioneer and perfect, trapped him in an almost literal genre hell of his own making. With the success of the breakout Zombie (1979), blood-and-gore-thirsty fanboys cried out for more, and Fulci, eager for the commercial success that mostly had eluded him to that point, demurred.
It's fitting then, that the hallucinatory Cat in the Brain would star Fulci as himself, a director tortured to the point of madness by brutal, graphic visions of his past and current productions: limbs hacked off with chainsaws, numerous decapitations, heads cooking in microwave ovens, and generally just a lot of gorings, stabbings, slicings, slittings, flayings, and disembowelings. When a psychiatrist suggests he is suffering from an identity crisis due to work stress, Fulci objects, "If I made films about love no one would buy a ticket."
But don't assume Cat in the Brain is Fulci's attempt to drive the final nail in giallo's coffin, much as Michael Haneke's Funny Games (2007) tried (and failed) to do to its 21st-century offspring, torture porn. It's certainly bad enough to do so: Fulci's acting is painfully garish, the edit (featuring footage cobbled from his past films) is out to lunch, and the atypically pedestrian score is worthy of the worst MacGyver episode. But much of Cat's perverse charm, like much of giallo, comes from its chainsaw-rough edges. Fulci's meta conceit may be more Wes Craven's New Nightmare (a 1994 release he derided as a rip-off) than 8 1/2 (1963), but it's still satisfying. In the end he has perpetrated a cinematic rope-a-dope, a "statement of innocence in the form of a joke," as his journalist daughter writes in the DVD's liner notes. The maestro of splatter held an abiding affection for the genre after all, despite his alter ego's haunted visions. Fulci's messy violence and gore might not have always been in the best of taste, but for the man himself, they set the stage for an awful lot of good, clean fun.