The Thing with Two Heads (1972) ***
Director: Lee Frost
Runtime: 1h 31m
This review contains spoilers for Get Out (2017).
The Blaxploitation Horror films of the 1970s were generally modern twists on classic horror stories. Blacula (1972), Blackenstein (1974), and Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde (1976) for instance, were adapted from the three most famous horror novels of the 19th century. Abby (1974) the black sheep of subgenre was at least basing itself on a film widely hailed as a contemporary classic. The Thing with Two Heads then really is a bizarre addition to their ranks, being earlier than all of them except for Blacula and basing itself on a film that no one really cared about. Sure, I love The Incredible 2-Headed Transplant (1971), and I’m hardly alone in my enjoyment (the film did turn a profit, after all) but for the most part nobody particularly cared about that weird movie with the laid-back, mellowed-out, hippie Frankenstein. That said, the formula of The Incredible 2-Headed Transplant works uncannily well as a Blaxploitation movie. Indeed, it gets rather close to the heart of the whole sordid story of Africans in the Americas. It flirts with being an alarmingly effective horror film, only to sabotage itself with an oafish comic undercurrent that undermines any attempt at political significance.
Blacks were forcibly taken to the New World for one reason: So that their physical labor could provide wealth for the colonists. They were then denied citizenship, and even humanity at the founding of the United States; for if they were really human then there would be no way that the enlightened founding fathers could square their belief in universal human rights with the economic need to keep their fellow men in chains. The story of Africans in early America is one of being reduced to a physical commodity, a mere body. Consequently, when Body Snatching emerged as a horror trope it had special resonance with the African American community. Indeed, on the most paranoid corners of the web you can find theories of a cabal of white people who abduct and murder black children only to harvest the melanin in their skin.
While most rational people see this as nonsense, the fear of once again having their bodies reduced to mere commodities has resonance outside the world of loony conspiracy theorists. The commercial and critical success of Get Out (2017) proves as much. As in The Thing with Two Heads, Get Out tells the story of affluent white people stealing black bodies in the most literal possible sense: Straight up brain transplants. The biggest difference is that the whites doing the stealing in Get Out are stereotypical liberals, who fetishize blacks as cooler, stronger and just generally better than their pasty selves. It’s an odd sort of cock-eyed white supremacist, but one that my time in liberal academia has convinced me is more common than is general suspected. Given that The Thing with Two Heads was an AIP production, and consequently had white liberals footing most of the bills, the social commentary is naturally bound to target a less controversial figure: in this case a real douche-bag white supremacist by the name of Dr. Maxwell Kirshner.
Krishner has built up one of the leading transplant clinics in the nation, and is consequently incredibly wealthy and power. He’s also incredibly racist, even by the standards of the 1970s captains of industry, refusing to hire any black doctors at his clinic, regardless of the candidate’s relative skill. He pitches a real fit once he realizes that his latest employee, a brilliant doctor named Fred Williams, who he has hired sight unseen, turns out to be black. Krishner tries to worm his way out of the deal, but he’s already signed Williams contract and if he doesn’t want a mess of a legal battle he’s going to have to put up with a black man on his staff for six months. Though Kirshner assures Williams that as soon as day 181 rolls around he’ll be out of a job. On the plus side, Kirshner is dying and probably won’t last much more than a month himself.
Krishner is not about to go quietly into that good night, he’s got his hopes fixed on one last whacky scheme to stay alive: A full body transplant. The only complication is that it only works if you leave the original head on the body for a month of so while the new head is adjusting. What’s more, Krishner has perfected the technique and has already successfully created a two-headed gorilla. I bet he wishes he used a smaller or more docile primate as the test subject though, because as soon as the ape is on the mend it bursts out of it’s confinement and begins a short-lived and very mild-mannered rampage. The beast even knows enough to stick to the sidewalks so as not to inconvenience local motorists. Pretty much the only property damage the ape causes is the theft of an inordinate number of bananas. Krishner ‘s aides have no trouble apprehending the gorilla and bringing it back to the lab. In short order, Krishner is ready for the next step: human trials with himself as the test subject. For once, a mad scientist using himself as the test subject for a dangerous experiment makes perfect sense; with only a few weeks left to live Krishner has nothing to lose. Only problem is finding a suitable body in time, as there aren’t very many brain dead but otherwise perfectly healthy bodies lying around.
Krishner’s condition takes a turn for the worse before an adequate body can be found, and he lapses into a coma. With his patient unconscious, Dr. Desmond, the head surgeon working on Krishner’s transplant, reaches out to his last option: Death Row at the local penitentiary. With the blessing of the governor Desmond makes the following offer to the inmates: in lieu of execution they donate their body to science, undergo a 30-day test that will kill them at the end. It sounds like a much more miserable way to go out than electrocution if you ask me, so it’s not surprising that the only inmate willing to take the deal is the wrongfully convicted Jack Moss. Moss’ girlfriend is well on the way to finding conclusive proof of his innocence and he figures that the experiment will buy him the time she needs. He obviously doesn’t know that the experiment entails grafting the head of an elderly white bigot onto his shoulders.
Obviously, when Krishner wakes up he’s not exactly pleased about the situation. Unlike the black fetishists in Get Out (2017) the thought of waking up inside the body of the black man is a prospect only slightly preferable to death. However, since those are the choices he’s facing he quits his gripping pretty quick. It is still not a sure thing that Krishner will survive the transplant; full-body transplants are subject to the same tissue rejections as their more mundane counterparts. So, unbeknownst to Krishner, Desmond brings in Williams to help with suppressing the immune system. Even with the extra help the situation is looking pretty dire for Krishner, so Desmond decides their only hope is to wake up Moss’ head that they have been keeping sedated since the procedure. When Moss wakes up he reacts to the situation far better than I could ever hope too; the sudden addition of an extra cranium hardly slows him down. In short order he’s overpowered his gaurds, stolen a pistol and shanghais Williams to act as his driver. The trio/duo (depending on how you score it) flees with the police in hot pursuit.
Thus begins a car chase (and later motorcycle chase) that will consume most of the film’s remaining runtime. I can only assume that the extended chase sequence was a response from AIP to the relative success of Vanishing Point (1971) and Duel (1971) both of which came out in the previous year. Yet the tone of these chases is much closer to the whacky chase movies that came along a few years later: Smokey and the Bandit (1977), The Blues Brothers (1980) and Cannonball Run (1981). The car chases, and particularly the dirt bike scenes, are made much more absurd by the fact that the chief participant is a bulky man (and I mean bulky, the actor playing Moss was first made famous by a career in the NFL) with a second head strapped to his shoulder. Speaking as someone who doesn’t understand the appeal of car chases, the sequence stretches on way to long. I suspect that even aficionados will find it rather more than they would like, and rather tedious towards the end.
Once Williams and Moss have managed to slip out of the police dragnet, Krishner realizes that if he’s going to have any chance of escaping he’ll have to make his peace with Williams. So, swallowing his pride, Krishner begins to lay on some exceedingly unconvincing sweet talk. Williams unsurprisingly doesn’t buy it for a second, moreover he’s becoming convinced that Moss really is as innocent as he says he is. There’s little chance that the two heads will be able to learn to live together, so one of them is going to have to be lopped off. If Williams has to choose, he’s definitely going to side against the bigoted doctor who tried to have him fired on his first day. There’s something that neither Williams nor Moss knows though, and that’s that Krishner’s head is getting stronger. It’s only a matter of time before he’s able to seize complete control of Moss’ body. So Krishner bides his time, waiting for the opportunity to strike.
As a concept, The Thing with Two Heads is more chilling and effective than it has any right to be. It strikes at a very primal fear. Yet, the execution of the film is extremely goofy, almost absurd right from the very title card. We see “The Thing with Two Heads” appear on the screen in yellow text, and then with a zany musical cue a second “Heads” drops out from beneath the first. It sets the tone for the rest of the movie. Mostly, this humorous undercurrent is annoying, occasionally it rises to the level of amusing. However, I cannot help but think the film would be more powerful, more traumatizing, and more effective if it were to drop this wacky premise and go for a more serious approach. Enough about what might have been though, what’s actually present in The Thing with Two Heads is plenty entertaining. Even I’m not joyless and somber enough to derive no pleasure from such a gleefully absurd movie.