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.
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.
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.
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.