Tuesday Two-Fer Pt. 1: The Thing with Two Heads (1972)
Updated: Apr 20, 2019
A dying surgeon develops a way to keep himself alive when his body fails him: he plans to simply transplant his head onto the body of another man. After a month-long acclimation process, the other head will be removed. It’s a solid B-movie concept, although I’m not sure why Maxwell Kirshner (Ray Milland) can’t accomplish the same thing with a mere brain transplant. Perhaps it’s because he looks like an Oscar-winning actor and prefers to keep his handsome, 65-year old face.
The Twilight Zone twist in The Thing with Two Heads is that Kirshner is a bigot and, while he’s unconscious and taking his final breaths, a last-minute donor is found in Jack Moss (Roosevelt “Rosey” Grier), who, if you don’t know, is a black man. As outrageous as the idea may be, it could be an irony interesting to examine in a movie. This is not that movie. It would be awfully difficult to make such a crazy story dramatic, so you’d have to attempt satire. The Thing with Two Heads takes the low road, failing even at the broad comedy it prefers.
We have an opening that’s seriously invested in horror/sci-fi and an ending that’s not seriously invested in anything. In between, we have the added treat of a little blaxploitation. When we meet Moss, the camera slowly moves down death row, occupied cells on either side, accompanied by the funky twang of the soundtrack. He’s been wrongly convicted, of course, and accepts the warden’s offer to participate in a medical experiment because he thinks it will give him the extra time he needs to locate the witness that can exonerate him.
Again, it’s a silly concept; but, under the right conditions, it could have worked. I’m not convinced it didn’t almost work, had it not been for the extended chase scene that, I swear, makes up at least one-third of the 91-minute running time. I knew at some point “the thing with two heads” would hop on a dirt bike; that image is on the movie poster. However, I didn’t know Kirshner/Moss would finish a race, sending the other bikers one-by-one off the road, and then evade an unlimited number of police cars during a slapstick chase.
A news report claims that 14 cars crashed as a result of the shenanigans, but it seemed like an exponentially greater number than that. All that’s missing is Jackie Gleason’s Sheriff Buford T. Justice of Portague County to call what citizens call this “monster,” a “sumbitch.” This was made five years before Smokey & the Bandit, making it… wait for it… a-head of its time. Two heads aren’t always better than one, though. What begins as amusing quickly turns into a senses-deadening example of automobile pornography.
The Thing with Two Heads is notorious for its bad special effects, but I didn’t find them to be all that offensive. Scenes of the operation(s), removing and moving the heads, are actually quite good. In close-ups, it’s easy to see how Milland and Grier were “attached;” but, surprisingly, it works. It’s only long shots, when Grier is sporting a fake head of Milland, that caused me to grimace. Plus, the two-headed gorilla, one of Rick Baker’s early efforts, is fun, particularly when it storms into a grocery store and eats two bananas at the same time.
A disclaimer about the political incorrectness of The Thing with Two Heads seems obligatory, but I feared it would make me more uncomfortable than it actually did. The movie isn’t racist; its main character is. Considering the time in which it was made, I’ve seen worse. What’s more insulting to me is that of the three tones (horror, blaxploitation, comedy) the filmmakers chose to emphasize the comedy. It’s clear that writers Lee Frost (who also directed), Wes Bishop and James Gordon White couldn’t wrangle the monster they created.
For part two of the Tuesday Two-Fer, click below to read Richard Chamberlain's (the Monster Movie Kid) thoughts on another two-headed monster movie, The Manster:
Written by Lee Frost & Wes Bishop and James Gordon White Directed by Lee Frost Starring Ray Milland, Roosevelt Grier, Don Marshall, Roger Perry Released July 19, 1972 RT 91 min. Home Video Olive Films (Blu-ray)