The Incredible 2-Headed Transplant (1971) -***
In retrospect, The Incredible 2-Heaed Transplant has been mostly overshadowed by its blaxoploitation companion piece from the following year, The Thing with Two Heads. This is, to some extent, understandable; I myself admit to a slight preference for the latter movie, and the blaxploitation angle certainly makes The Thing with Two Heads stand out from the two-headed-guy movie crowd in a way that The Incredible 2-Headed Transplant does not. But there really ought to be room in the hearts and minds of schlock-lovers for both films, and in that light, the eclipse of the earlier flick is unfortunate. For not only is The Incredible 2-Headed Transplant the prototype, it also has an entertainment advantage its younger brother lacks: The Thing with Two Heads has a certain cockeyed logic to it, while the underlying premise of this movie makes no damn sense at all.
A short prologue establishes the character of serial rapist-murderer Manuel Cass (Albert Cole, from Angels’ Wild Women and the legendarily bad Al Adamson western The Female Bunch)— his crimes and his subsequent confinement to a hospital for the criminally insane. Then, we turn our attention to a man who probably isn’t a whole lot less crazy than Cass. Linda Girard (Pat Priest, best known for playing Marilyn on “The Munsters”) has just about had it with her husband, Dr. Roger Girard (Bruce Dern, from Silent Running and The Trip). Ever since he was drummed out of the hospital where he worked over some unexplained controversy regarding his private line of medical research, Roger has scarcely left the windowless confines of his basement laboratory, where he toils day and night with his assistant, Max (Barry Kroeger, of Nightmare in Wax and The Time Travelers), on some secret project or other. When the Girards’ friend, Dr. Ken Anderson (Casey Kasem, from The Dark and The Cycle Savages), drops by for a visit, Linda tells him she’s strongly considering leaving her reclusive, obsessed husband. She still loves the man, but she’s sick of trying to compete for his attention with his mysterious research. When Anderson offers to talk to Roger about Linda’s dissatisfaction, she thinks that would be a wonderful idea, and she immediately shows him downstairs to the lab. Once we (and Anderson) get a look inside, it becomes instantly comprehensible why Girard has been so hush-hush about everything. Girard’s lab is full of animals with two heads. Two-headed monkeys, two-headed rabbits, two-headed dogs— even a two-headed snake. Why? I don’t really know; Girard spends most of the next scene explaining it, but it didn’t make any sense to me. (I do know— or at least strongly suspect— that this scene was the inspiration for the mad scientist on “South Park” with all his four-assed critters.) In any event, Anderson gives his friend the heads-up that his wife might very well skip out on him if he doesn’t get out of the lab and start spending some time with her, and after getting Roger’s word that he’ll try to do better by Linda in the future, he heads off to work— at the very hospital from which Girard had been fired, incidentally.
Meanwhile, we meet the other two members of the Girard household, caretaker Andrew Norton (Larry Vincent, from The Witchmaker and Dr. Death: Stealer of Souls) and his gigantic, retarded son, Danny (John Bloom, who played monsters for Al Adamson in Brain of Blood and Dracula vs. Frankenstein). When Girard was giving Anderson his nonsensical spiel about the purpose of his work, he said something about people with irreparable brain damage, so once we hear that Danny’s retardation stems from an incident in his childhood, when he was trapped by a cave-in in an abandoned mineshaft for long enough for his brain to be wrecked by oxygen starvation, it’s hard to escape the feeling that Danny is going to end up with somebody else’s head grafted onto his shoulder before this movie is through.
And if you’ve guessed that that extra head is going to come from Manuel Cass, give yourself a gold star for the day. Cass breaks out of the asylum, steals a car, and drives out into the California countryside, down a road that will ultimately take him right to the Girard place. Max is in town for some reason, and Roger is predictably down in his lab, so when Cass arrives at the house, Linda is forced at first to confront him alone. When Roger and Andrew try to come to Linda’s rescue, Cass makes short work of them, tying Roger up and murdering Andrew before abducting Linda and driving off with her. Danny comes in soon thereafter, but he proves to be of little use, as he immediately collapses into shock upon seeing his father’s body. Thus, Linda’s rescue will have to wait for Max’s return from town. The two doctors grab a shotgun each, go driving off after Cass’s stolen ‘61 Comet, and eventually corner the psychopath not far from the entrance to the old mine. Roger shoots Cass in the back, then he and Max pack him and Linda up, and return home.
The question now is, what to do with Danny? The big man is practically catatonic when the rest of the Girard household gets back, and neither Roger nor Max has much hope of him ever recovering. Now as it happens, Max has been getting itchy to try the head-graft technique out on a human subject— evidently, this research holds the key to him regaining the full use of his hands, which haven’t worked right in about ten years for reasons that are never explained. Sure, you and I might ask how Max thinks his gimp hands are going to profit from the successful grafting of a second head onto a high-grade moron, but you and I are not accomplished surgeons or medical researchers, and in any event, who the hell would pay good money to see a movie called The Incredible 4-Handed Transplant? Okay— I would, but still... Max points out that Cass isn’t quite dead yet, and that a catatonic retard and a homicidal maniac are of no real use to society as they are. But if Danny and Cass were used to further medical science for the benefit of all mankind (‘cause we all know how much mankind will benefit from having a bunch of two-headed guys running around), then their lives would finally be given some meaning. Evidently it never occurs to Roger that putting a psycho’s head on a colossal, superhumanly strong body probably isn’t a very good idea, because he sees Max’s point, and the next scene has the two men in the basement, performing the titular transplant. Roger explains Danny’s disappearance to Linda by claiming the distraught man-boy ran away during the night.
So do you think Cass is going to be the first of our monster’s two heads to wake up? And do you think he’ll then use Danny’s immense strength to further his interrupted criminal career? Of course you do. And that is indeed exactly what happens. Danny’s feeble will is no match for the murderer’s, and he is forced to stand by as a traumatized spectator to his own killing spree as Cass has him attack Lovers’ Lane, a biker gang’s campsite, and finally the Girard household. Meanwhile, Ken Anderson has become suspicious of Roger’s increasing reclusiveness, especially once he hears that witnesses to the attack on Lovers’ Lane describe the perpetrator as a giant with two heads. Anderson teams up with the Sheriff (Jack Chester, of Die, Sister, Die!), and leads the police to Girard, whom he confronts with the information that the most recent product of his experiments has killed five people, in addition to kidnapping Linda once again. After the cops go off to follow the bloodhounds trailing the monster, Roger, Max, and Ken form their own posse, and head straight for what Roger thinks is the creature’s most likely hideout— the mine where Danny was trapped as a child. As a special bonus, the climax treats us not only to the expected monster fight, but also to one of the cheapest, most unconvincing cave-ins in cinema history.
The most conspicuous difference between The Incredible 2-Headed Transplant and The Thing with Two Heads (apart, obviously, from the race of the “monster”) is in the way the two movies approach their common subject matter. There’s no comedy in The Incredible 2-Headed Transplant— at least, none that’s supposed to be there— and in general, the movie has a very old-fashioned, almost 1950’s feel. Whereas much of the point of The Thing with Two Heads is the ongoing struggle between Rosey Grier and Ray Milland for control of their shared body, with special emphasis on the relationship between the two rival heads, this movie plays as a totally straight monster rampage flick. Cass is in more or less total control of Danny’s body from the moment he awakens (though the limbs on Danny’s side respond only slowly and reluctantly to their orders from Cass’s brain), and all Danny ever does in response to this neuromuscular hijacking is blubber and sob while Cass strangles and stabs. This has the effect of making the monster himself far less interesting than his counterpart in the later film, but this shortcoming is compensated for by the inherent craziness of the story, and by Bruce Dern’s whacked-out performance. Watching him in movies like this and Silent Running, it’s almost impossible to imagine how he ever managed to break out of the exploitation ghetto; it isn’t just that he’s playing a complete nut— you get the feeling he’s just doing what comes naturally. Furthermore, he does all of his acting here, even his most outrageous hamming, through what looks for all the world like the fog of psychoactive chemicals, and who knows? Considering his background, it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to imagine that he was higher than a kite throughout the whole of 1971. Casey Kasem’s contribution to the movie’s air of lunacy should not be overlooked, either. For the most part, the man has always been just a voice to me— on the radio, as Shaggy on “Scooby Doo, Where Are You?”, as Cliffjumper on “The Transformers”, etc.— and seeing what he really looks like is somehow profoundly jarring, even though he looks exactly the way his voice sounds. Some part of my brain kept expecting him to drop whatever he was doing, and introduce some horrible pop song or disappear into the kitchen with an enormous talking dog. If you insist on making it an either/or proposition, I’d still say stick with The Thing with Two Heads but I’d also say you’d be doing yourself a disservice by not making the time for both of AIP’s two-headed-guy disasterpieces. Besides, I’m pretty sure this is the only time you’ll ever get to see John Bloom acting in his real face.