From the Archives: The Terror Test: Test Prep #12

Slicing Up 8 ½ Eyeballs

Originally written for The Terror Test: Episode 44. Contains A Cat in the Brain (1990) and 8 ½ (1963) spoilers.

“You can’t make love stories.”   ~ 8 ½

“If I made Romantic movies nobody would go see them.”  ~ A Cat in the Brain

Around age twelve, I started seeing names like Argento, Bava, and Deodato in magazines like Fangoria. Mysterious and colorful or bizarre and dusty images from movies like Suspiria (1977) or Cannibal Holocaust (1980) accompanied the articles. I couldn’t tell what exactly these movies were about, but I knew I wanted to see them.

Director Lucio Fulci quickly became a personal favorite. Most famous for Zombi (1979) (or Zombi 2–a movie capitalizing on the success of Dawn of the Dead (1978), released in Italy as Zombi) and The Beyond (1981), he worked in many genres. (Check out the peplum Conquest. ) Fulci was imaginative, but rarely had budgets to support his ideas, so the movies get frequently dismissed as exploitation, and to be sure, his output is uneven. He’s an interesting filmmaker that deserves audiences with open minds. He makes some strange decisions and it’s hard to tell how much of any one film is due to low budget or his odd sense of humor, and that goes triple for A Cat in the Brain, a metafilm that I couldn’t even process as a teenager.

Fulci’s metafilmic approach has caused the movie to be compared to Federico Fellini’s 8 ½, which sounds intriguing, but I’ve never seen the idea analyzed. I wanted to begin thinking through that connection here.

It occurred to me while watching these two movies that Luis Buñuel’s work acts as a guide, since both use elements of surrealism (and form an interesting tryptich with Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York (2008)–and if we wanted to go overboard add Eraserhead (1977)). 8 ½ functions similarly to L’Age d’Or (1930), in which the surrealism is often related to societal mores and morals. Similar mores–though ones that are also related to celebrity and art–are confronted in 8 ½. Buñuel spoofs various levels and aspects of society–religion, sexuality, art–as does Fellini. 8 ½ is very much about the director, Guido, in relation to the people around him and how he’s expected to behave and what he’s expected to do. The use of this imagery also gave certain critics, particularly other Italian directors at the time, critical fodder against Fellini because they believed that he was abandoning Italian Neorealism with 8 ½.

Buñuel’s imagery in Un Chien Andalou (1929) is more violent and the scenes are also more tenuously connected than in L’Age d’Or. This is a surrealism that fits A Cat in the Brain.  The famous opening sequence of eye slashing is a proto-Fulcian scene of eye gore, infamous sequences for Fulci fans.

On a less abstract level, and as a way of setting out this comparison for those who haven’t seen these films, I would say the difference between them is like the difference between a weird dream and a weird nightmare.

These strains of Buñuelian surrealism crop up as dreams and hallucinations in both films. Interestingly, the opening scenes, when we meet our director-protagonists, are both filmed from behind their heads. 8 ½ opens with our protagonist trapped in a car and eventually born into the world of the film and into the world of film. He then dreams of flying–of some sort of freedom, maybe–only to realize he is tethered to business partners, literally in this case, like a balloon, and soon crashes onto a beach. 

Similarly, in Cat, the camera closes in on the back of Fulci’s head as he reads a list of ways to kill people in his films. While this scene represents a birth (traditional, from subconscious to conscious, into film and into the film industry, etc.) in 8 ½ , Fulci goes for a Grand Guignol approach and as we sink into his diseased brain we find, literally, a cat eating it, as a possible metaphor for creativity (another kind of birth) or the ruin of his mind because of his own macabre art. It’s a bizarre, yet silly image, and Fulci recreates this tone throughout the film.

Both movies revolve around directors struggling with creativity and the film industry. 8 ½  is often considered Fellini’s masterpiece, and it’s a masterpiece that almost didn’t happen. Fellini’s previous two outings, Nights of Cabiria (1957) and La Dolce Vita (1960) were successful, award-winning films and Fellini’s habit was to begin pre-production on his next project towards the end of his current one. For what he considered to be his eighth-and-a-half movie (the half being his part of Boccaccio ‘70 (1962), an anthology film), he hit a kind of midlife crisis he referred to as a “director’s block.” The film then relates its own production as 8 ½ . He decided to throw his chips down on his creativity and the film. This anxiety, of not knowing what to do or where to go with this project, then permeates the story and characters of 8 ½ .

Fulci had made a series of movies that were to be under a “Lucio Fulci Presents” label, and he either collaborated or wrote and directed much of the series. These movies received little in the way of proper releases and different sources claim different credits and Fulci pseudonyms. While I don’t want to wade into separating this from that in terms of those films, they are important because they get diced and spliced into Cat. It has an odd distinction of being a film built out of pieces of Fulci’s other films with an interwoven frame story. It’s about filmmaking itself. Cutting on screen and off. Cannibalising ideas. And Fulci stars as “Fulci,” an aging Italian horror film director with an air of Charlie Brown about him.

The Fulci character in Cat is facing his own problems with the film industry. He’s wondering if all the pop culture shrinks are right: watching all this violence has somehow warped him. So instead of Fellini’s director’s block, Fulci is faced with an overactive creativity, one that has driven him mad to the point of possibly recreating his horror sequences in the real world. Like the Fellini character who lives the film and his own life as a film, the Fulci character does, too, but these are very different cinematic worlds. Fellini’s life becomes film, and Fulci’s films become his life.

In 8 ½, after Guido, the Fellini stand-in, crashes to Earth in his dream and wakes up, he is immediately surrounded by screenwriters, producers, and actors looking for answers and direction. The director gives them information, sometimes even contradictory information, to placate them. Marcello Mastriani is able to capture a melancholia and impish wit at the same time as he tries to keep everything under control. Everyone’s asking the director about what to do. They want direct knowledge, rather than working on something or trusting their instincts. What does it mean? What is my part? Many people rely on the directors for answers that they don’t have and these overlap the current existential states of the director figures of both movies.

Fulci, of course, takes this to absurd levels. Through a subplot of a mad psychiatrist, Fulci, the character, is also looking for answers or guidance through analysis. The psychiatrist and one of the main “flashback” killers both favor Fulci. They have glasses and beards, but, and I can’t help but think this is on purpose, the “actor” versions of Fulci are more traditionally handsome than the director, in the same way that Mastroianni becomes Fellini’s handsome stand-in.

In other words, everyone’s looking to them for answers they don’t have themselves. Hilariously, Fulci has an actor in an SS uniform–who is later in some sort of Naziploitation orgy scene–ask what his motivation is. Rather than simply pointing at the actor’s costume, Fulci, with comic disbelief in his eyes, gives the actor a dignified and reassuring answer, even though the “motivation” should have been obvious. Fulci knew he wasn’t making Hamlet or 8 ½ , though, interestingly, these sequences were filmed at the famous Cinecittà Studios where Fellini also worked.

There is a strong sense of humor with both directors. Neither one makes traditional comedies, for sure. Also, Fellini and Fulci also work in genres or have reputations that seem removed from comedy, but as I’ve written in this space before, special effects artists often call what they do in horror films–murders, mutilations, gore, etc.–”gags.” Compounding the many gore scenes is Fulci’s bizarre sense of humor. The approach often taken toward Fellini is one that reminds me of the approach toward Beckett–almost holy. This is Serious Art. But both of these artists are also funny. Along with several humorous allusions to Pinocchio in reference to Guido’s dishonesty, Fellini is said to have posted a sign next to the camera for the actors to see that said, “This is a funny movie.”

We may consider meaning from various perspectives in our lives and I think that in some way, these films have resonated with certain viewers because of these unusual broad shifts in tone and genre that are sure to alienate parts of an audience. Both of these directors took chances in order to make, if not deeper, at least different, connections between life and art. In one of his hallucinations, Guido is told by spirits that “You are free. You just have to choose.”  This is what he resolves in the famous ending sequence of 8 ½. He chooses to embrace life and the people around him and the work (the famous dance as a stand-in for both cinema and life) he has chosen.

Similarly, Fulci, at the end of Cat, resolves to make “Fulci” movies, which denounces the notion that his films create violence, and enjoy beauty away from the beast of his horror work. At first he baits us with a scene of him cutting off a woman’s fingers for fishing. Then the camera pulls back and we realize he is making a fictionalized version of A Cat in the Brain. They break and Fulci cuddles with the young actress and sails off, barely registering the grotesque scene he’s just filmed. Both of these director figures come to an understanding, or at least project one, about embracing the world and their existence in it through these metafilmic devices.

I should say that I don’t consider Cat on the same level as 8 ½.  The latter rewards extra viewings more than the former. There’s a lot of dead screen time of Fulci walking around in Cat. There’s a murder scene in it that, while it’s supposed to be happening at once, has at least three different lighting set-ups.

Regardless, A Cat in the Brain is a bizarre mess of a movie that is sometimes brilliant, particularly for a fan. It also has one of my favorite movie moments ever:

In the last shots, as the young woman and Fulci’s sailboat comes into frame and moves out to sea you can see what it’s been named:



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s