The films of Lucio Fulci aren’t remembered for their stories so much as they’re remembered for their shots. Shots of spears and knives penetrating organs and eyeballs (The Beyond.) Shots of zombies fighting sharks underwater (Zombi 2.) Shots being fired directly into someone’s head from a point-blank range (most of them.) Fulci came to prominence alongside an unofficial school of Italian horror filmmakers in the 60s and 70s. If they were gorehounds, then he was a Great Dane. His sense for plasma-soaked prosthetics may as well have been a signature, because you know a Fulci killshot when you see one: lumps of flesh rip away from a victim’s body in clumps, like clay off of the block. Sometimes you get a movie like The Beyond, which melts all that violent mayhem into an aesthetic mania. But usually you just get blood.
Cat in the Brain (1990)—which plays midnight shows at the Coolidge Corner Theatre this weekend, courtesy a restored print from Grindhouse Releasing—bottles it all up. Fulci plays himself in a narrative that allows him to re-stage and reuse sequences from pictures he had recently directed or produced. The seemingly well-mannered director (he looks like an Italian Brian De Palma) finds that his work directing horror films at Cinecitta Studios is beginning to seep into his psyche (highlight reels of his gnarliest sequences are spliced into his otherwise mundane work days.) He’s starting to get off on those murder scenes—the ones he helps to stage in Andrea Bianchi’s Massacre, Leandro Luchetti’s Bloody Psycho, and his own Sodoma’s Grave, among others—and he confides that condition to a nearby psychologist. The doctor, being an authority figure in a work of Italian genre cinema, immediately manipulates the situation to his own sadistic ends. He begins offing victims with methods taken from those movies, meaning that each dismemberment plays out two separate times, art imitating life imitating art. If you’re generous, it’s Fulci’s 8½. If you’re derisive, it’s a VHS-era compilation tape made by a blood-fetishist, with scattered fragments of the home videos he taped over peeking through in between the kills.
Each female victim leaves an errant breast hanging out of her tanktop, but that’s not what’s pornographic about the experience. Cat in the Brain is a perpetual rush of bloody highs—bodies squished under cars, necks snapped by piano wire, young children tenderized by chainsaws—that never stops for lows. Its all-flesh no-filler structure recontextualizes the experience of watching Fulci’s movies—and confirms what many might have suspected—by orienting the physical pleasure of watching violence as his art’s end-all be-all raison d’etre. You’d need a non-murderous psychologist to provide a diagnosis for that complex. But the film builds and builds and builds to spurts of blood, then rests until it’s ready to go again. That’s a psychosexual aesthetic condition, and it’s hardly exclusive to the films of Lucio Fulci, but he’s more aware of it than most. We see Fulci go to bed many times during Cat in the Brain, and he’s always alone. And the boat that we see him riding off on? Its name is Perversion.
CAT IN THE BRAIN. COOLIDGE CORNER THEATRE. 290 HARVARD ST., BROOKLINE. FRI 6.17 AND SAT 6.18, AT MIDNIGHT. UNRATED. CAT IN THE BRAIN WILL BE RELEASED ON BLU-RAY ON JULY 12.