Where’s the rest of me?

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There’s an important distinction to be made between films with severed heads in them— such as THEATRE OF BLOOD, where Arthur Lowe’s disembodied bonce turns up adorning a milk bottle on Ian Hendry’s doorstep, or NIGHT MUST FALL, where Albert Finney delivers a veritable masterclass in eccentric and flamboyant acting as he works up the courage to look at the severed head he’s got in his hat-box — and severed head films, films which feature severed heads in starring or at least co-starring roles. THE THING THAT COULDN’T DIE and THE BRAIN THAT WOULDN’T DIE are two excellent examples of the latter. (But where is the third film in that triptych? I propose it should be called THE BRAIN/THING THAT SHOULDN’T DIE.)

THE HEAD is possible the greatest severed head film ever (I’m not actually saying it’s good, mind you), and it has interesting credentials too. Director Victor Trivas had a lengthy-ish career which produced some dignified and respectable films, including NIEMANDSLAND (1931). His 1933 screenplay THE TRAP was adapted to make Orson Welles’ THE STRANGER (at least according to the book Orson Welles at Work — I can find no sign of this movie on the IMDb), and WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS also apparently has a Trivas source.

It’s 1959, and Trivas returns to the cinema after a twenty-four year absence (is this even the same guy? Are we sure?) with an original screenplay about a brilliant surgeon, played by an on-his-uppers Michel Simon, whose “life serum” has kept a dog’s head alive, in the absence of its body, for, oh I don’t know, longer than you’d normally expect anyhow. (It seems a missed opportunity that we don’t get to see this living doghead. What would look best? Something with voluminous jowls, like Simon himself — a bloodhound, or even a cocker spaniel.) Poor Michel then gets to experience the dog’s life, when his insane assistant performs a head transplant that’s only partially successful — he gets the head OFF, alright, but fails to find a viable body to connect it to.

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Having created its indelible image: Simon, a tiny fat head perched on a mountain of chins, lying amid a folded towel upon a glass table, surrounded by gurgling tubes, while the severed head theme plays incessantly on the soundtrack (it involves a saxophone, this theme, and is unpleasantly wheezy), the film doesn’t really know what to do with him. There’s an attempt at having him outsmart the evil assistant, who’s gone totally mad and transplanted a hunchbacked nun’s head onto a stripper’s body (does that qualify as insane? I don’t see how we can judge him without knowing more about his background and personal circumstances) but Trivas seems uncertain how to resolve his plot, or even whether to resolve his plot. Or whether he wants to have a plot.

In fairness to Mr. Trivas, I was watching a cheapo dubbed version, and who knows what alterations the film had undergone — there are signs that plenty of stripping has been removed, and some of the storyline and character motivations may have gone with it (maybe the nudity really wasessential to the plot? That would be seriously ironic). I was also watching it an an AVI, which my fancy DVD player started to play out of synch. Since it was dubbed anyway, this didn’t seem like a major worry, although by the end the film was not just a few frames out, but whole lines out. Each character seemed to be speaking the other’s lines. I was hoping the nun would meet the stripper, because then, you see, they really would have been speaking each others’ lines, literally, and the film would have arrived at a strange kind of cranial equilibrium.

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I’m grateful to Christoph Huber for bringing this film to my attention— it’s quite trippy and wrong. Apart from the rare pleasure of seeing Michel Simon without his limbs and trunk (you can’t really get that anywhere else), it affords us some suave and glistening production design from the very important Hermann Warm, who designed THE CABINET OF DR CALIGARI (I mean, he designed the film, not just the cabinet). Warm always spoke warmly about director Robert Wiene, whose contribution was greatly downplayed by that film’s writers. Other highly relevant credits include Dreyer’s VAMPYR and Fritz Lang’s DER MUDE TOD. His work here (sharing credit with Bruno Monden) is a joy, giving us an expressionistic strip joint that Fritz Lang could stage a seance in (although with all the strippers, it could get distracting) and a gleaming oilslick-black surgical theatre in Simon’s modernist nightmare house.

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Science-note: surgeons have already kept a monkey head alive without a monkey attached to it, and they’ve proceeded to attach the monkey head to a headless monkey. The monkey was paralysed from the neck down, of course. On the plus side, this technique could extend the life of a paraplegic person suffering from organ failure. On the minus side, it’s pretty hard on the monkey. A scientist put his finger in the monkey’s mouth to see if it was responsive, and it bit his finger off. You have to be on the monkey’s side, there.

18 Responses to “Where’s the rest of me?”

  1. Arthur S. Says:

    The greatest of all severed head films is of course Peckinpah’s BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA.

    Robert Wiene was also a mentor for Robert Siodmak(along with Lang) and Siodmak completed his last film during which Wiene died. Aside from CALIGARI, he made RASKOLNIKOV, a very respected and memorable expressionistic reading of CRIME AND PUNISHMENT and his HANDS OF ORLAC is also pretty good, and which influenced Malcolm Lowry’s great novel “Under the Volcano”(which is quite similar to Peckinpah’s film).

  2. well I for one would like to get hold of a decent print of The Head, not least because I’d like to hear the soundtrack clearly. The unearthly ( or wheezy as you put it david ) quality is because its not saxophones BUT the sound sculptures of Baschet & Lasry for a lot of this film, 1959 makes it a whole year before they did the soundtrack to Cocteau’s Testament d’Orphee so I’m guessing this is the first use of these incredible Earth Trumpets etc.. in a movie.. and they sound great and really add to the disembodied feel (ahem) of the film .. though Mr Baschet doesn’t even mention this soundtrack on his webpage, only the Cocteau one, so maybe he doesn’t think the film is ART enough… even though there seems to be a strong sculpture theme running throughout ( love the intro shot of dr OOD peeking into the window initially framed thru the modern art hanging mobile)… is there a proper digital transfer out there somewhere??
    I suppose we have to clarify wether this theme is ‘ disembodied heads’
    among which I would recommend yr fave W. Lee Wilders: Man without a Body (1957) in which Nostradamus’s beardy head is kept alive and continues to spout prophecys… and 1963’s They saved Hitler’s Brain which has the disembodied head of hitler kept alive mechanically to issue orders to Nazi’s in hiding…
    If the theme includes disembodied ‘brains’ being kept alive then we can include all the Donovans Brain versions, The Lady & the Monster, 1936’s The Man who Lived Again ( nee Brain Snatchers ).
    I haven’t seen Freddie Francis’s The Brain so I don’t know which subgenre that comes under??? But I love the end of The Head when the police suddenly decide to take the mad ramblings of the lovesick Sculptor seriously just because they find out he’s the son of a Judge!!! ‘ well why didn’t you say so earlier!! we could have had this movie wrapped up a half hour ago!’
    Not sure the peckinpah cuts it as the head isn’t LIVING!!!!!!

  3. The Thing That Couldn’t Die cracks me up every time. One of my favorite Mystery Science Theater videos.

    On my DVD player I can fix the sound-increasingly-out-of-sync issue by rewinding a few seconds then hitting play again. That also sometimes fixes the problem of the timer showing me completely made-up numbers, so I’ll see the credits of a 100min movie start to roll when the thing says I’m at the hour mark… throws off my whole evening.

  4. So, David, you’ve finally gotten around to this one. A few years back I discovered this film when a friend, who’s far more into B films than I am, showed me a glimpse of it, and I was stunned to see Michel Simon was featured (from the neck up, of course). Seems I recall hearing that part of his reason for doing this film had to do with a makeup dye that had an adverse effect on him, he ended up partly paralyzed in face and body. Convinced that his career was either over or damaged, he agreed to take part in this film. Ultimately, he ended up doing just fine careerwise. I honestly wasn’t too keen on seeing this until I read of Hermann Warm’s involvement in it. I saw probably the most well-known disembodied head movie, The Brain That Wouldn’t Die, as a kid back in the Sixties. I remember one particularly gruesome scene that consisted of the monster (some thing kept behind a door and fed through a sliding window) ripping off someone’s arm, either the scientist or his assistant, and the unfortunate victim walking up the stairs, his bloody stump smearing the wall as he staggered upward. Heady stuff for a kid to see on TV on a Saturday afternoon.

  5. Quite a good film to do if you’re paralysed! He does walk about a bit at the start, before his “mishap”.

    So that’s what that music was! It’s very effective. I don’t know of any decent version of this film, but maybe in Germany?

    The Brain that Wouldn’t Die sounds like a shocker. No chance of that turning up on UK daytime TV. Barbara Windsor’s bum was the most startling thing we were likely to be exposed to.

    I’m going to convert The Head from AVI to DVD, it’ll make a nice double feature with The Alraune.

  6. You haven’t seen The Brain that Wouldn’t Die? It’s really great, without any allowances for z-grade psychotronic values – one of the best, most singlemindedly nutty b-movies of the sixties, paid due tribute by the great Frank Henenlotter in his Frankenhooker, which is full of BTWD references. Back when I used to like Tim Burton I remember him saying with regard to Ed Wood that he didn’t actually enjoy any Wood films other than Glen or Glenda, that they didn’t deliver the delirious cheap thrills, the pared-down dream imagery of something like BTWD. He was right. It’s an outrageous potpourri of pulp. Especially the longer, uncut version with the stripper fight (complete with dubbed in cat noises).

  7. And it’s on Google! That’s my night’s viewing sorted out.

    Burton’s right about Wood. But which Burton films would Wood recommend?

  8. Definitely Mars Attacks!

  9. I think you’re probably right! Ed Wood probably wouldn’t have liked Ed Wood, because it’s hard to be objective about these things. As a Lugosi-lover he’d probably appreciate the gothic hi-jinks of Sleepy Hollow too.

  10. I’ll go on record as being a “Brain That Wouldn’t Die” fan.

    Were I a composer, which I’m not, I’d love to put together an Expressionist pastiche of “Brain” done in the style of Schoenberg’s “Erwartung,” with the Virginia Leith character as its protagonist.

  11. I’m watching it RIGHT NOW. Definite musical potential. I feel a song contest coming on.

  12. A theater in San Antonio, the Overtime Theater, is adapting “The Brain That Wouldn’t Die” into a new stage musical! It’ll have 15 original songs complementing the overcooked dialogue and cheesy plot, and will be staged in October 2009.

  13. Sounds like a great idea! They should hire me to do lyrics, actually.

  14. Can anyone tell me if they remember the movie about Hitler’s head in a hatbox and still very much alive calling the shots?

  15. That sounds very much like They Saved Hitler’s Brain.

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