THE THING WITH TWO HEADS (1972)
Back in 1983 I was first introduced to this film like many Brits by the Medved brothers’ TV series THE WORST OF HOLLYWOOD showcasing some of the celluloid stinkers of the past. However, they may have been unfair to this 1972 AIP release as it’s too consistently and inappropriately funny to be anything other than intentional spoofery! The dialogue alone is priceless and even when meant to be serious compounds the hilarity, so I’ll be joyously quoting it at length here (and giving them the benefit of the doubt intention-wise). Admittedly there are elements that are just plain wrong but we’ll get to those as well.
THE THING WITH TWO HEADS is a Blaxploitation companion piece to the seemingly more serious AIP horror exploiter THE INCREDIBLE TWO-HEADED TRANSPLANT (1971) wherein Bruce Dern as the scientist grafts a murderer’s head onto a large, child-minded adult with predictably catastrophic results.
Here, the tone initially appears straight. Re-invigorated horror genre star Ray Milland plays Dr Kershner, ‘one of the foremost transplant specialists in the world’, a paraplegic scientist with a bitter racist streak. This is clearly signposted early on as he tries to fire his new young black staff surgeon Dr Fred Williams (Don Marshall) under a pretence of budgetary cuts. His sneer of racist disgust is accentuated by condescending Fred with faint praise as a mere ‘lab man’.
Clandestinely, Dr Kershner is experimenting in the field of head transplants and has already grafted a second bonce onto an adult gorilla. The evident ‘guy in a monkey suit’ soon makes a break for it and in lieu of strangling his agent ransacks a mini-mart till he’s cornered, both heads enjoying a banana each.
Kershner’s colleague is Dr Desmond, amusingly portrayed here by Roger Perry, a man whose gift for science is rivalled only by his talent for understatement. On understanding the near immortality offered by such transplants on humans he mutters “This could revolutionise the whole profession”.
Of course the deranged Dr Kershner wants to use the technology for his own head to be given new life atop an uninjured body: ‘Perhaps someone with an inoperable brain condition’. In ‘70s exploitation cinema, that’s a broad field of opportunity. His inhuman selfishness extends to demanding the operation be carried out in secret to avoid public ‘scrutiny’. A prison is contacted and a hilarious speech by an officer over the tannoy invites a volunteer to come forward from Death Row - with the comforting thought that should the operation be fatal they would have the ‘personal satisfaction that your life has aided humanity and the scientific world’. (Maybe medical altruism is the last thing on a condemned man’s mind?)
A wrongly-convicted hulking black man Jack Moss (former pro football player Rosey Grier) is about to be given the electric chair. Another possibly unintended laugh is the officer who prefaces the juice with ‘More power to you, brother’. Jack’s reaction is understandably non-plussed. He’s about to get a very unnatural dose of said power coursing through his body. With nothing to lose, he decides to go for the experiment and before long we cut to the operating theatre.
Leaving aside the queasy unintended(?) racism of going from a gorilla to a large black human subject, the operation is a success. Curiously, in the sequence where Kershner’s severed head is moved across, it looks more convincing in close-up than in a wide shot. The one fly in the ointment is that on waking, Dr Desmond has to break the news to Kershner that he’s now sharing a body with a member of his racial enemy. On seeing his big meaty arm raise up, Milland comically responds: ‘‘Is this some kind of a joke?’
The premise is now set for Jack to go on the run to prove his innocence of the original crime attached to the unwilling and appalled (at times crap papier-mache) head of Kershner who continually schemes to hijack the whole body for himself. This conflict echoes the serious intent of the Curtis/Poitier film The DEFIANT ONES (1958) where a bigoted white and a black prisoner are grudgingly forced into racial harmony by being shackled together through a prison break and beyond. Here though it’s played for preposterous fun, including a wild cross-country car-chase on motorcycle (with Fred on the back) versus a redneck set of Keystone Kops police cars. Amongst the carnage, the police ham-string themselves. “What kind of assistance do you require?” asks the base of one of its’ vehicles after a crash.
“Well, a tow-truck would be nice” groans the defeated driver.
Along the way, AIP also pulls off a well-used exploitation trick of theirs by inserting all-too-obvious stock footage from a desert scramble bike event into our unlikely heroes’ chase
Eventually, the three (ish) wind up using Jack’s girlfriend’s pad as a hideout. She could also use some acting classes as her underplaying is surely not meant to be so bad. On seeing her escaped lover sharing his body with a white-man’s head for the first time: ‘You get into more shit…’, she dead-pans. Her mind swiftly computes side-benefits though. “Do you have two of anything else?” Later, in a private moment with Fred, she also demonstrates the same gift for understatement as Dr Desmond, defending Jack’s innocence: “He certainly doesn’t deserve what he’s getting”
Kershner’s lack of principles as well as his bigotry knows no bounds. He secretly attempts to persuade Fred to help him amputate Jack’s head in return for claiming all the medical credit from Desmond as the original operating surgeon. No dice. At one point elsewhere, unbeknownst Desmond defends his unscrupulous boss with a hugely funny throwaway mumble of back-story: ‘He’s not had an easy life…Even his childhood’.
If the evidence so far isn’t enough to convince you of the film’s deliberate parodying, listen to the car radio newscastor who plays an interview with the failed police officer from the chase; ““I’ll get ‘im. I’ll get the b-“ before being cut off.
Finally, Fred does the decent thing and removes Kershner’s head. It is left at his house awaiting Desmond plaintively: “Philip. Get me another body please.” We are left with the joyful trio of Fred, Jackie and his girlfriend driving off singing ‘Oh Happy Day’
THE THING WITH TWO HEADS is a two-headed, wrong-headed pleasure…