DfoD!: Quadruple-Header Pt 2
By: M.G. Marshall
The Thing with Two Heads. Like its predecessor, this movie probably isn’t all that good, but I kinda love it. I had a lot of fun with this one.
The film opens with elderly, dying surgeon Dr. Maxwell Kirshner (Ray Milland), who’s developed his own version of the head transplant surgery in the hopes that he can have his own head transplanted onto a young, healthy body. He’s already had some success performing the surgery on a pair of a gorillas (The surprisingly impressive two-headed gorilla suit was designed by a young Rick Baker). We also learn early on that Dr. Kirshner is a racist when we see him rudely react to meeting the newest employee at his private clinic, Dr. Williams (Don Marshall), who happens to be black. When Kirshner’s condition worsens, the clinic frantically searches for a donor body, turning in desperation to death row inmates. Unfortunately for the bigoted Kirshner, the only inmate to volunteer is Jack Moss (Rosey Grier), a black man who claims to have been wrongly convicted. So, as the film’s trailer puts it, they graft the “white bigot’s” head onto the “black soul brother’s” body. (I’m dead serious, by the way. 70’s trailers are a trip…) When Moss awakens, he’s horrified to find Kirshner’s head on his body and almost immediately breaks loose and escapes. Taking Dr. Williams as a hostage, Moss sets off with Kirshner’s head in tow to try to prove his innocence.
This movie is a pretty vast improvement on The Incredible Two-Headed Transplant. To begin with, it’s better-acted. In Ray Milland, the movie has a pretty solid villainous performance. Milland had previously worked with AIP in the 60’s, starring in Roger Corman’s The Premature Burial and X: The Man with X-Ray Eyes, and also headlined the lousy killer animal flick Frogs the same year as The Thing with Two Heads. Here, as in Frogs, he’s kind of sleepwalking through it, and you can definitely envision that the Oscar-winning actor is a little bit embarrassed to be spending the majority of a movie poking his head over Rosey Grier’s shoulder; but unlike Bruce Dern’s disinterested performance in The Incredible Two-Headed Transplant, Milland’s crabby acting here adds to the character’s bigoted frustration at being stuck to a disobedient body.
Rosey Grier, on the other hand, isn’t the strongest actor I’ve ever seen, but like many an athlete-turned-actor before him, Grier possesses a kind of loopy, off-kilter sincerity to his performance that gives it a certain sense of charisma. He’s genuinely likeable in this, and his back-and-forth with Milland becomes pretty funny as the film goes on. Another movie might make the mistake of trying to turn this into a bizarro buddy picture, but that’s not the case here. Milland and Grier start off hating each other and only grow more hateful as the story goes on, both of them vying for the control of Grier’s body and bickering with each other constantly. It’s a more interesting dynamic than the standard monster-run-amok approach The Incredible Two-Headed Transplant took. It’s like The Defiant Ones, except with surgical scars instead of handcuffs.
And that’s really where this movie succeeds in comparison to the first one. The Incredible Two-Headed Transplant just took itself way too damned seriously for its own good. This movie, however, knows exactly how stupid it is, and it’s not afraid to let the viewer in on that fact, either. This is evident early on, when the two-headed gorilla breaks loose and runs amok through L.A., finally stopping in a supermarket, where it steals a banana for each of its heads before it’s recaptured. This is such a spectacularly dumb scene that I can’t help but applaud it. It’s just the same sort of goofy sensibility that permeates the whole movie, especially in the scenes immediately following Moss’ escape with Kirshner’s head. This leads to an immensely protracted car chase/foot chase/helicopter chase/motorbike chase/car chase again which lasts for- I kid you not- twenty-eight freaking minutes and in which there are no less than eighteen different police cars that get wrecked. This goes on for so long that it goes from being mildly funny, to kind of annoying, to unbelievable, then finally circling back around to funny again. I was practically in hysterics by the end of it. (Also, I can’t help but wonder- between the early Rick Baker monkey suit and the inordinate amount of totaled cop cars- is John Landis secretly a big fan of this movie…?)
In addition to Baker’s gorilla suit, there’s also a really impressive animatronic Ray Milland head used for the surgery scene. Granted, the movie sort of pisses away the goodwill I give it for that by sticking with the tried-and-true lame effect methods of just having Milland poke his head over Grier’s shoulder in close-ups and using some really unimpressive prop heads for the long shots. Also, near the film’s climax when Milland briefly exerts control over Grier’s body, they choose to illustrate this turn of events by switching it up and putting a prop head of Grier on Milland’s shoulder and painting Milland’s hands in blackface. Never mind the fact that Milland’s body is about a full foot-and-a-half shorter than Grier’s. So yeah, the movie’s not a special effects extravaganza by any means, but the two good effects it has are pretty solid. And it’s definitely more than The Amazing Two-Headed Transplant had to offer. Plus, the movie has a super funky soundtrack. I award bonus points for that.
I can’t honestly sit here and tell you that these are two good movies, nor can I tell you that there even needed to be two of these things, but I will say this: if The Incredible Two-Headed Transplant is the price we have to pay for the existence of The Thing with Two Heads, I can live with that. I’m a little bit happier living in a world where it does exist as the crazed, campy artifact of 70’s schlock that it is.