My ongoing odyssey, known under the umbrella title See Reptilicus And Die, to watch every single movie illustrated in Denis Gifford’s A Pictorial History of Horror Movies, while both deeply silly and a colossal waste of time, did afford me the opportunity this week to explore the work of W. Lee Wilder, brother of the more famous Billy. Mrs Wilder was evidently a woman who knew what she liked, as she called one son Wilhelm and the other Billy (although she named him Saul). W. Lee seemingly knew what he liked also — cheapjack sci-fi horror pictures.
In other words, W Lee Wilder embodies the noble tradition of the Idiot Brother. As a lifelong Curt Siodmak fan, I have to respect this tradition.
Never get a six-year-old to do your titles.
THE MAN WITHOUT A BODY, which is a long-winded and indirect way of saying THE HEAD, is a cranial transplant flick that’s unusually stupid, even for this particular sub-genre. Shot in Britain, the movie begins in stock-footage New York, where tumorous oligarch George Coulouris is facing his own demise with undisguised ill-humour. His inoperable brain-lump is set to cause imminent lights-out for the blustering titan of industry, despite his otherwise supposedly perfect physique – his doctor calls him a “living Rodin,” which is stretching things a bit, since we’ve just seen George stripped to the waist, glowing with ill-health, his body a dough-slab from which spindly arms depend like watery noodles. One forms the impression that, even in Technicolor, George would remain gray. Maybe the doctor meant “a living Rodan,” referring to the Japanese movie monster, but the analogy still seems flawed, even if George does squawk a lot.
Some brief but tedious business introduces George’s slutty French mistress and a tiny bit-part is coughed up for Kim Parker as a saucy French maid — I’m obsessed with the beauteous Parker but FIEND WITHOUT A FACE seems to have been her only substantial role: she is THE WOMAN WITHOUT A BODY OF WORK. The Polish Parker shares a scene with the Yugoslavian Nadja Regin, both seemingly playing French, about equally well.
Flying to London, Coulouris angrily crashes the lab of painfully sane scientist Robert Hutton, a pioneering brain-transplanter who’s just succeeded in reviving the head of an embalmed monkey and stapling it to a fresh body. By wildest coincidence, I’d only just enjoyed Hutton’s work in THE EARTH DIES SCREAMING a few days earlier, if “enjoyed” is the word I want (it isn’t, he’s a drag).
Here’s the science bit: real-life surgeons have actually managed to graft one monkey’s head onto another monkey’s body, and see no reason why the operation couldn’t be repeated on humans. The only problem is that severing the spinal cord results in total paralysis, and you then need to deploy all the usual immune system suppressants to stop the body rejecting the head, or the head rejecting the body, whichever it would be. Maybe they toss a coin for it. Not, on the face of it, a very appealing op, but for a paraplegic facing organ failure (the innards of the paralysed give out far quicker than those of their ambulatory cousins) it could actually be a tempting prospect.
Poetic justice department: after performing this parlour trick on a baboon, one scientist foolishly inserted a digit into the beast’s maw to test its reflexes. It bit his finger off.
Say hello to my little friend.
Anyhow, here’s where the film begins its ever-accelerating plunge into the stupid. Coulouris, learning that the transplanted monkey brain can be taught new tricks, benefitting from the skills acquired by its body, wants Hutton to give him a new head, which he will train in the art of being George Coulouris, thus cheating death. His cancerous old noggin can be thrown out with the garbage, he doesn’t care about that. Hutton is extremely reluctant, but after touring Madame Toussaud’s wax museum to get inspiration for whose embalmed bonce he wants stitched to his neck, George engineers the grave-robbing of the tomb of Nostradamus. Because a 15th century prophet’s head is exactly what you’d want if you were a New York businessman. Naturally.
The bodiless monkey seen earlier in the film was played, with rare skill and nuance, by a real monkey, its head thrust through a hole in the table-top. A similar approach is used for Nostradamus, but unaccountably Wilder and his co-director Charles Saunders (Bily had Charles Brackett, so W. Lee needed a Charlie of his own) decorate their cranial loner with a false nose, false moustache, false eyebrows, to the point that they might as well have a mannequin head sitting there. And it looks more like Baron Munchausen (who knew a thing or two about disembodied heads, or claimed to).
Nostradamus didn’t see THIS coming.
Delivered to Hutton’s lab, the top storey of the deceased seer is duly revived with the aid of tubing, and commences to mumble unmemorably. He doesn’t pronounce any prophetic quatrains, but he does have a perfect command of twentieth century English. Coulouris, by now visibly losing his marbles by the handful, begins the long and difficult impossible task of brainwashing the severed head into thinking it’s him, so it can be transplanted onto his shoulders and continue his life. Think of it as a sort of cranial relay race.
Fascinatingly, Coulouris goes about turning poor Michel de N, or his upper quadrant, into a sort of Mini-Me, by reciting lists of his business holdings, more or less exactly the technique he used to groom Charles Foster Kane as a responsible financial mind. And with equal success! Soon, the disembodied sage is dispensing financial advice that has Coulouris’s business empire teetering on the verge of complete dissolution.
Yes, they shave in this lab. They also smoke. If they want the toilet, I expect they just do it in the corner.
Oh, and meanwhile, since Wilder, like his justly more celebrated brother, has one foot in film noir, he concocts an uninteresting subplot in which Mad George’s slutty mistress carries on with Hutton’s assistant (Sheldon Lawrence as “Dr Lew Waldenhouse”) an equally slutty fellow who actually shaves in the lab. It’s a classic noir scenario, cuckolding the rich, dangerous guy, and it generally ends badly for all concerned. George takes a horrible middling revenge and goes on the lam, leaving Waldenhouse slain. Hutton feels he has no choice but to attach Nostradamus’s head to the slaughtered loverboy’s lifeless form to reanimate him. We’re spared the scene of Hutton trying to get Nostradamus to memorize the names in Waldenhouse’s little black address book, in order to brain-train him for his new life, and instead the movie lolls towards its conclusion.
Yes: I know. This movie literally does not know what a brain IS. The assumption is made that it’s an organ like any other and, if transplanted, will serve the new owner like a heart or liver, and the new owner will soon learn to think with it just as before. This genuinely startling misconception seems to be the work of a scenarist rejoicing in the name of William Grote, who went on from this to write absolutely nothing else, except, I venture to hope, a lengthy apology.
The operation is a terrifying success — the new Nostradamenhouse Monster lives, breathes, and lumbers about. At this point, Fiona requested that I stop the film lest she wet herself. Ladies and gentlemen, can your bladders withstand the horror that is–
– THE MAN WITH A BODY!!!?
Staggering forth into the London night, looking not unlike Spongebob Squarepants, Dr Lew Nostradamus heads straight for church. Or at least, one assumes it’s a church: it has a church’s entrance, and a bell-tower, and a blast of organ music to introduce it, but Hutton is heard to say, via hasty post-dub, “He’s gone into that school-house!” I guess the censor objected to the following scenes of carnage playing out in a House of God.
Coulouris, happening upon his fugitive head by happy accident, pursues Waldendamus up to the schoolhouse belfry (?) — he might actually be shouting “Hey, you, come back with my head!” at this point but I may be imagining things — and is thrown to his death. Michel de Waldenhouse then wraps the bell-rope round his neck and jumps, in a successful bid for freedom: the head, still swathed in a full mummy’s worth of bandages, detaches from the body and dangles on high, looking down as its parasitic torso plummets to destruction, atop the shattered heap of Coulouris already adorning the flagstone beneath.
Doc Nostradamus hangs his head in shame.
Let’s be honest. THE MAN WITHOUT A BODY isn’t a great film. It isn’t a good film. It’s a pungently hopeless film, stale and reeking with imbecile despair. But it does illustrate an important scientific principle: genetics ain’t everything.
In the indispensable Conversations with Wilder, Cameron Crowe, who’s clearly a braver man than I, tentatively raised the subject of Billy’s unesteemed sibling.
Crowe: Anything we should say about your brother?
Wilder: No, he was a fool. He lived in America many years before I even came here. I came here, really kind of pushed by Hitler. He was in the leather-goods business — he manufactured handbags. And then one day he said, “Well, if my brother can do it, I can do it too.” He sold his business, he bought a house here, and started making pictures, one worse than the other, and then he died.