Cat In the Brain's Grindhouse Restoration Now In HD! (DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

Update 3/28/15 - 7/20/16: Grindhouse returns! They're revisiting their classic Cat In the Brain with a brand new, 2 blu-ray disc set (or 3 disc set if you count the bonus soundtrack CD). An updated transfer, all new extras, more funky collectible packaging. What's not to love? Well, actually, I've heard a few rumblings about the transfer. Best have a look.

Admit it, whenever you first heard the title of Lucio Fulci's Cat In the Brain, you never would've expected this film to actually deliver you the image of a cat in a brain. Whatever criticism you may have of this film, you gotta admit, Fulci delivered. Today's film is a high concept but low shelf entry in the Fulci catalog. It's fun, got of lot of cheesy gore, plus you could say Wes Craven ganked the basic idea for his New Nightmare film years later. And it's been issued a number of times on DVD around the world. But that was capped pretty thoroughly when Grindhouse released a fairly definitive 2-disc set in 2009. But I still hang onto my old, banned Astro-Film DVD, which goes under the title Nightmare Concert. And we're going to find out why as we look back at Cat In the Brain...
So one of the appeals of this film is that Fulci himself stars in it. He's often given himself little cameo roles in his film, as a cop or a coroner with a line or two of dialogue. But here he stars, as essentially himself: a horror movie director played by gruesome nightmares inspired by the scenes of his own films. And what's worse - the murders he's dreaming may actually be happening around him? Is he going insane? Or is some mysterious murderer out there somewhere, copying his films? Find out as Fulci reuses a whole bunch of old movies and stitches them together into one, semi-coherent narrative. That's right, instead of filming new murder scenes for his movie like most people do, he just uses clips of other movies' murders and cuts them into the movie. How cheap! Fortunately, Fulci is charming, and he does put in some genuine effort to match his newly shot footage of himself with the scenes from the old films. So while you'd never rank this anywhere near his best films, it does make for a bemusing watch.

Specifically, the films cut into Cat In the Brain include two directed by Fulci himself: The Ghosts of Sodom and Touch of Death, and one he produced called Massacre. But the other three are films he was less officially responsible for: Bloody Psycho, Never Hurt Children, and The Broken Mirror. Those films were released under the heading "Lucio Fulci Presents," and in two of them, he's listed in the credits as "Supervised by." So it's hard to say exactly how much of those films he was or wasn't responsible for behind the scenes, but I guess enough that he felt comfortable re-purposing them here.

Oh, and did I say the Astro-Film was "banned?" Yes, a bunch of the films they released were banned in their home country of Germany, and the head of the company was even arrested and imprisoned. That's pretty messed up, since they were just releasing old 80s horror movies - bloodier than some, but not exactly shocking snuff films or anything.
German Astro-Film DVD on top; US Grindhouse DVD middle; US Grindhouse blu bottom.
Okay, first the DVDs. Both discs claim to present the film in the correct aspect ratio of 1.66:1, but the Astro-disc is really closer to 1.47:1, so you can see the framing is noticeably different in the second set of shots. Almost as importantly, if not more so, the Grindhouse disc is anamorphic and pillarboxed, while Astro's disc is a smaller, non-anamorphic image floating in a windowbox. The image quality shifts around a bit as the film jumps between film clips spliced from other movies; but the Grindhouse's HD restoration is always substantially superior to the Astro disc. I mean, those comparisons speak for themselves. The colors, the lighting, everything. Even the flecks and scratches (like the white mark on the guy's cheek in the top shot) have been cleaned up on Grindhouse's disc.
But now, seven years later, Grindhouse has upgraded their DVD to a new HD blu. It's, well sharper. Though it looks kinda block-y, not quite like natural grain, but more reminiscent of those old Italian HD transfers companies like Blue Underground and Shriek Show were getting before people complained and the Italians finally got new scanning equipment. And considering this isn't one of Grindhouse's new 4k or even 2k fresh scans, I think that's basically what's going on here. This is an older scan, probably the same one the DVD was taken from in 2008. So yeah, I see what people have been kvetching about. Still, this is a blu-ray, and doesn't have the muddying compression of SD. So it is an upgrade over the DVD (it also squeezes in a pinch more vertical information), just not as big an upgrade as we might've hoped for from Grindhouse. But given that this film is a hodgepodge of old, lesser quality filmstock, I can also understand why they might not've seen much value in paying for a new scan. Even with a new 4k scan, I doubt we'd be seeing much new detail or anything. It's not like there's a button you could push to make this film look like Lawrence Of Arabia that they're neglecting to push.

At least the blu means we've gotten an audio upgrade from Dolby 2.0 (which both the Astro and Grindhouse DVD had), to DTS-HD tracks. And both the Grindhouse discs give you the option of English or Italian audio (Astro only has English and German), plus English subs.
Now when Grindhouse came out with their DVD, they only stepped it up with the transfer, but they brought us a whole second disc worth of extras, mostly in the form of some very in-depth interviews. There are two 40+ minute interviews with Fulci (which are really one long interview split into two parts) and a 46 minute one with Brett Halsey, who wound up in this film only by way of his starring in Touch of Death. There are also three very brief interviews with Jeofrey Kennedy, Sacha Maria Darwin and Malisa Longo, all of which are taken from the Paura: Lucio Fulci Remembered Volume 1 DVD. Besides those and a collection of trailers (including Cat In the Brain's), there are a couple easter eggs with additional footage of Fulci at conventions and clips of Halsey commenting on some of his other films. It also comes with a substantial booklet and a very cool lenticular 3D cover.

But Astro-Film has a 40+ minute unique extra of its own, which is why I hang onto it. Basically, it's a menu screen with links to a clip of all six films that were cut into Cat, showing you a reminder of how it was seen in this movie and then showing you how the scenes played in their original context immediately after. This is a very cool feature, and I'm surprised Grindhouse didn't attempt something like this on their disc. Because the clips inserted into Cat weren't just dropped in as whole chunks that play exactly like they did in the old films. Fulci edits himself into these scenes (well, some more than others), so they're new and different. And even if Grindhouse couldn't actually show you the portions of all six films like this disc does (understandable... something tells me Astro pulled it off only because they were operating outside copyright law), they could've at least done something to talk about the films edited into Cat and talk what films were used and what those films were about. That just seems like a very essential issue for understanding and appreciating Cat In the Brain that really ought to be in a special edition.

Oh, and the Astro-Film disc has the trailer, too.
But while Grindhouse's new blu-ray may've been underwhelming in the transfer department, they did step things even further up in the special features department. First of all, everything from their DVD is back, including the Easter eggs, Paura clips, everything. It has an equivalent booklet (which does a nice job covering each of the film's Fulci inserted into Cat), but instead of a lenticular cover, in comes in a glow in the dark slipbox [right], and also includes the soundtrack CD and a bonus portrait of Lucio. But besides the superfluous, they've also added some substantial new content to the second disc of extras. Because this is such an unusually constructed film, the interview I was most looking forward to was with the screenwriter, Antonio Tentori, and he does not disappoint. He talks for 27 minutes, answer many of our long-held Cat In the Brain questions. Then there are all new interviews with cinematographer Sandro Grossi, Fabio Frizzi, They also uncovered another vintage Fulci interview, this time a 1987 radio one with Tentori. And there's a clip of Frizzi performing Cat's main theme live in Hollywood in 2015. And finally, there's the familiar round of Grindhouse bonus trailers. Interestingly, they again included Pigs, even though that wound up coming out from Vinegar Syndrome.
So the Grindhouse blu is the best way to watch this film, but if you already have the DVD, you could probably live without upgrading, at least in terms of the film itself. For me, the extras made it more than worth double-dipping for, and then, any little extra improvement with the film is like a nice bonus. But while I'm not sure how obtainable that Astro-Film disc is nowadays, I do recommend hunting one down if you can, because their feature looking at all the other films was very cool and a real boost to understanding and appreciating Fulci's oddball experiment. But if you're just looking to buy this film for the first time, you should be quite satisfied with Grindhouse's new blu-ray package.

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