(1972) Directed by Lee Frost; Written by: Lee Frost, Wes Bishop and James Gordon White; Starring: Ray Milland, “Rosey” Grier, Don Marshall, Roger Perry and Chelsea Brown; Available on Blu-ray and DVD
“Genius must be prolonged. Philip, I want to transplant my head on a healthy body.”
– Dr. Maxwell Kirshner (Ray Milland)
“Honey, I know you don’t like to answer a lot of questions, but how did that happen?”
– Lila (Chelsea Brown)
After a nearly one-year absence, I decided to revive Cinematic Dregs, an ongoing exploration of the crème de la crap from film’s nether regions. Yes, there are many excellent blogs that already handle this sort of thing, but I couldn’t truly call myself eclectic if I didn’t throw some of the more questionable celluloid offerings into the mix occasionally. A hearty “thanks” goes out to the good people at Olive Films for supplying a screener copy of today’s dreck du jour from the weird and wild early ‘70s.
The Thing with Two Heads handles some of the most volatile, ethically challenging issues plaguing our society, in the silliest way imaginable. The basic premise is sound: what if an individual from the upper echelons of society is forced to cohabitate with someone from the lowest rungs? Of course, since this is a product of American International Pictures, we can’t expect a sublime meditation on race relations and classism. Instead, we’re treated to clunky dialogue and wacky hijinks.
It’s a testament to Ray Milland’s professionalism that he treats the material with far more gravity than it deserves. Milland stars as the cantankerous Dr. Maxwell Kirshner, director of the Kirshner Transplant Foundation, a brilliant surgeon and unabashed racist. He demonstrates a revolutionary new procedure to transplant a head onto another body, using a gorilla* as a test subject. Unfortunately for the host body, this means amputating the original head, once the body has had sufficient time to accept the transplant. Max, who happens to be suffering from a terminal illness, sees this as a suitable means to an end, and sets out to find a new body for his head. When his health takes a turn for the worse, his assistant, Dr. Philip Desmond (Roger Perry), is forced to make a last-minute decision, and strikes a deal with the Lt. Governor to secure a death row inmate for the experimental procedure. It’s interesting to note the filmmakers attempted to create some semblance of veracity for the scenes depicting surgery (the film credits two medical advisors, Dr. Cadvan Griffiths and Rod Steele). Well, at least they devoted screen time to show the medical team sterilizing Max’s basement for the secret procedure.
* Fun fact: The dual-noggin simian was created and performed by a young Rick Baker.
“Rosey” Grier plays convicted murderer Jack Moss. On his way to the electric chair, he figures he has nothing to lose by volunteering for a medical experiment that will eventually prove fatal. In his mind, he’s just bought himself 30 more days to prove his innocence. Of course, the physicians neglect to reveal the details of their little experiment to him, other than stating it’s a “transplant.” It should come as no surprise that neither Max nor Jack is particularly keen on the new arrangement. Max is horrified to discover he’s become, by proxy, the very thing he despises, while Jack is mortified to learn his body now has an unwelcome new appendage.* They spend the rest of the movie bickering at each other and trading insults. The mind reels over the missed opportunity for a sitcom here, but all I could think of was how uncomfortable it must have been for both performers to play the two-headed person.
* Jack’s girlfriend later inquires, “Honey, I was wondering… Do you have two of anything else?”
Not about to take things lying down (or sedated), Jack finds the opportunity to make his getaway. This leads to a chase scene on cars and dirt bikes that drags on a bit too long (I suppose the producers figured, “We hired the stunt men on motocross bikes and police cars for the whole day, and damn it, we’re gonna use ‘em!”). You have to respect how Jack’s long-suffering girlfriend Lila (Chelsea Brown) seems so nonplussed about the whole affair. When she answers the door and sees her fugitive boyfriend sporting an extra head, does she gasp with incredulity, or shriek in horror? Nope. She simply responds, “You get into more shit,” as if acquiring the head of a rich racist white dude was just another one of his schemes. (Spoiler alert!) Perhaps the biggest stretch, apart from said cranial transplant, is the happy ending as Jack and his cohorts drive off, presumably continuing the search for the guy who framed him. The question of his innocence is never firmly resolved, and they seem blissfully unaware of the massive police dragnet that likely awaits them before they cross the county line.
The Thing with Two Heads is the sort of head-scratching exploitation classic that could only spring from one decade. Call it ridiculous, misguided, or ham-handed, but I had a great time with it, making this edition of Cinematic Dregs the most enjoyable yet. Just don’t think about it too much. No, really. Don’t. This schlock masterpiece only reminded me there are so many bad movies and so little time. Yep. Cinematic Dregs is back. And like a film-blogging Tom Joad, wherever the rich tapestry of film history is being abused, I’ll be there.