Here’s your head, where’s your hurry?


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.

vlcsnap-210690Never 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.

vlcsnap-214515Say 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).

vlcsnap-214213Nostradamus 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.

vlcsnap-213979Yes, 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–



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.

vlcsnap-211837Doc 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.

21 Responses to “Here’s your head, where’s your hurry?”

  1. Another combination is the Brothers Wyler – William and Robert though that was amicable as Robert produced a lot of his bro’s films. Interestingly Edgar G. Ulmer considered Robert the more talented of the two.

    Your post has kept me laughing for a hour or so…

    My favourite sharing-brain film is THE REVENGE OF FRANKENSTEIN, especially the laboratory scenes. The brains look so..tiny.

  2. Brains do tend to look small, because we forget that a big chunk of our headspace is face and lower jaw and neck, and only a comparatively small part contains the grey matter. But the ones in Revenge of F probably came from sheep.

    Robert Wyler seems to have had some talent but didn’t have the breaks and didn’t have the angry drive that kept William going, so it made sense for him to become a part of the organisation. I would have though that’d be frustrating though.

    Glad you laughed!

  3. dr lew nostradamus looks like a parsnip rasputin

  4. The human body seems to be the first instance of nanotechnology. Immesely complex cognitive ability in such tiny particles.

  5. Oh how I love Mr. Thatcher! He was quite young when he did “Citizen Kane.” But as you can see from “The Final Programme” (aka. “The Last Days of Man on Earth”) he grew to resemble himself.

    Now THAT’s science fiction!

  6. Ah, this is one of the Saturday Afternoon Creature Feature films that all the neighborhood kids watched in the late ’60s, and our neighborhood children’s film society’s critical discussions were on the level of whether we liked X-The Unknown or The H-Man better (we did like our creeping goo). The real horror was many of the films we watched were dross like this.

    I dimly remember this as one of the stupider movies run and like the other dumb sci-fi/horror films did much to poison the whole genre to me for many years. Even today, I generally stay away from sci-fi. For some reason, as kids we might laugh at the film afterward, but I at least felt cheated as well. As soon as I got my own TV (19″ black and white Zenith, 1970), I started watching better movies.

  7. What’s usually offensive in these movies is the parsimony of ideas and imagery, although they’re working in a genre where both should be startling and unlimited. What raises this one above the worst is that it has TWO ideas and TWO central images. Both are really, really stupid, it’s true, but it serves to make the film more watchable than many sf flicks that are content to play out one bog-standard trope without any variations.

    I love “parsnip rasputin”!

  8. What does an 8-year-old know from nuances? I freely admit that stupid and lunatic make a much more watchable combination than plain stupid. That I remembered this movie at all says something about that, and I’d probably laugh heartily if I saw it again. I don’t know that I want to, though. Going back to movies that affected me as a child (whether I liked or hated them) has been mostly an embarrassing process. Usually I found less than I remembered, sometimes nothing at all.

  9. Christopher Says:

    Monkey Heads!Monkey Heads!..get ’em while they’re hot!..Monkey Heads!2 for nickle!..

  10. A lot of the things that seemed cool when I was a kid look fairly lame now. On the plus side, movies that would have bored me then are now accessible and exciting. Just saw Pixar’s UP with an audience including very small kids, and they evidently didn’t understand ANYTHING. But fortunately the movie doesn’t dumb down to their level, it just makes sure there’s plenty going on.

    When I worked in kids’ TV I would argue that it was OK to have jokes that kids might not get, since kids are used to not getting stuff. Most of life is inscrutable when you’re small. A good joke that kids might not get is better than a bad joke, or no joke.

  11. David Boxwell Says:

    If you think that’s bad, you should see KILLERS FROM SPACE (54). One grade above, and only one grade, PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE.

    Coulouris: from the greatest film ever made (CITIZEN KANE) to one of the worst, in just a decade and a half. An almost tragic descent.

    Still, Wilder’s THE PRETENDER (47) isn’t half bad, thanks to Alton and a supremely creepy Dekker.

  12. The point about kids TV also holds well about kids films. So many in my day were grounded on cheap sentiments or bad jokes or both (thanks, Disney!). Those are really the most embarrassing to rewatch now. It’s probably why most of us went for horror and sci-fi, it was a step up in sophistication. The better films they showed on TV, like the story of Peter Lorre’s creeping madness in The Beast with Five Fingers we would completely whiff on, just loving instead that skittering disembodied hand. The really lowbrow shock-your-date-for-a-cheap-feel drive-in fare was a lot more our speed.

  13. George Coulouris made a lot of bad films. Have you ever seen THE WOMAN EATER?

  14. No, but I intend to someday! It looks hysterical.

    I’m glad he managed to fit in some more dignified work — like The Final Programme and The Ritz.

    The Pretender sounds pretty good — Alton’s films are always enjoyable, no matter who directs, and Dekker is quite a presence.

  15. It’s a pity that W. Lee Wilder’s sci-fi work overshadows his other, far more rewarding films (not that it takes much). Perhaps his true talent lay in refereeing. He really needed experienced actors he could turn loose and a capable DP as in the case of THE PRETENDER, but when he had those, he was able to shine, even though it may have amounted to a candle seen from two miles away.

    Like everyone else, I first saw his sci-fi stuff which really does have the dangerous ability to turn one off science fiction for life. Consequently, I had him pegged as completely inept until I saw his transference-of-guilt-fest THE VICIOUS CIRCLE (1948) where he had Fritz Kortner, Reinhold Schünzel and Conrad Nagel at his disposal, as well as the services of DP George Robinson and composer Paul Dessau. What a delightful surprise!

    Even his most worthwhile films had weak screenplays, but as long as he stayed away from monsters and aliens the films worked in spite of the script. Regrettably, he never learned from Ulmer how to make a cheap film look just a little less cheap.

    With only slight hesitation, I’d recommend seeking out THE GLASS ALIBI (1946) and THE BIG BLUFF (1955) as well; the latter is a remake of the former. Both are pretty confused in their logic but work up a nice head of hysteria, and if you combine their respective plot holes you end up having a rather surreal experience.

    Would love to see THE PRETENDER again, is it out anywhere?

  16. I think I can get The Pretender and The Glass Alibi, but I’m not sure about The Vicious Circle. That cast is indeed alluring.

    WLW had some kind of eye for talent, it seems — I just ran The Snow Creature, which is entirely unmemorable even while it’s on, but is shot by Floyd Crosby of Tabu fame. The climax with a yeti in the LA storm drains (watch out for giant ants!) has some nice shots, at least.

    I think most of the guys who did B-movie SF had no interest in it except as a market. All they could see is that sf movies were mostly stupid so that’s what they made. A guy like Ulmer, who’d been around Metropolis, at least had some appreciation for the genre.


    The Vicious Circle aka Woman in Brown

  18. Thanks! I also got my hands on The Pretender, which I’m looking forward to. We’ll see if there’s more to Wilder than lamebrained scifi horrors…

  19. […] on the other hand, by Wilder’s directing partner Charles Saunders, is an unmitigated howler. George Coulouris (frequent victim of the hit-and-run Z-movie crowd) is a […]

  20. […] bit better than his sci-fi/horror work, and even in that genre he’s surprisingly variable. THE MAN WITHOUT A BODY is consistently hilarious, whereas THE SNOW CREATURE is so dull, if you start watching it at 7 […]

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