The Thing with Two Heads (1972) -***
A lot of people rag on the popular culture of the 1970’s. I do it too, and for the most part, I think I’ve got good and compelling reasons— Freddie Mercury and Studio 54 spring instantly to mind. But there is one major respect in which those bygone days have ours beat, hands down. In the 1970’s, nothing in the world was too bizarre or outlandish to be given a fair try. True, it was precisely this fact that produced the most obnoxious, embarrassing crap to be foisted on the unsuspecting public in those days, but for someone like me, who has a pronounced affinity for the bizarre and outlandish, this is a major selling point, and it should come as no surprise that many of my favorite things can at least trace their lineage back to the 70’s. Most of the music I listen to (and no, damn you, I do not mean disco) was either recorded in the late 70’s, or was inspired, directly or indirectly, by music that was. My guitar (a Univox hollowbody electric that seems to have been designed expressly to produce the most jarring feedback you’ll ever hear) was made in the 70’s. My last car (may it rest in peace) was a 1973 Cadillac Calais. And most relevant to my present purposes, the 1970’s saw the creation of the most demented movies ever made. Cannibal gut-munchers, lesbian vampires, horny computers, man-eating bunnies, singing vaginas, blaxploitation, the women’s prison genre, the kung fu movie as we know it— the list goes on and on. And I dare say that no other era in human history could possibly have spawned The Thing with Two Heads.
This movie admirably wastes no time at all in presenting us with a Thing with Two Heads— in the very first scene, accomplished transplant surgeon (now semi-retired because his severe arthritis) Dr. Max Kirshner (Ray Milland, from Frogs and X!) goes down into the basement of his mansion to have a look at one which some of his assistants have thrown together on the basis of his detailed instructions. But you’d be mistaken in assuming the two-headed gorilla of which Kirshner’s flunkies are so proud is the Thing with Two Heads from which the movie takes its title, for as it happens, the two-headed ape is just a trial run. You see, Dr. Kirshner isn’t just crippled with arthritis; he’s also dying of inoperable cancer, and the ape is part of his grand scheme for saving his own ass. What he ultimately means to do is to graft his own head onto the body of an otherwise healthy man who is dying of some incurable brain disease. Then, when the “donor” dies, Kirshner will have his new body’s original head amputated, and return to a normal life. Sounds like a plan to me.
This is where Dr. Philip Desmond (Roger Perry, from The Return of Count Yorga and Conspiracy of Terror) and Dr. Fred Williams (Terminal Island’s Don Marshall) come in. Desmond is the number-2 doctor at the Kirshner transplant foundation, and is probably the world’s greatest transplant surgeon, now that Kirshner’s infirmity prevents him from performing operations personally. Williams is a world-renowned authority on transplant rejection, and Kirshner has just hired him to work at the foundation. The roles that Dr. K. wants these men to play in his own personal project should be fairly obvious, but there is one contingency that Kirshner hasn’t prepared for. Dr. Williams happens to be black, while Kirshner happens to be a bigot. When he meets his new rejection specialist for the first time and realizes he’s hired a black man, the older doctor tries to rescind Williams’s contract, but it’s too late for that— the papers are already signed— and Williams begins his first day at work after a very ugly scene with the boss.
Meanwhile, Kirshner’s cancer is getting worse, and knowing the end is near, he finally lets Dr. Desmond in on the secret of his big project. As is so often the case in these movies, the thorny ethical issues raised by the scheme don’t seem to bother Desmond at all, and he’s outright eager to sign on. The disease is moving so fast now, though, that Desmond doesn’t have time to find a “donor” before his boss has to go on full life support, and that means that somewhat more aggressive recruiting measures are going to be necessary. In abject desperation, Desmond gets on the phone to an old buddy of his, who just happens to be the district attorney, and convinces him to circulate an offer to all the death row inmates in his jurisdiction to the effect that they’ll be able to get an extra 30 days of life by “donating their bodies to science” on the eve of their executions (Kirshner’s research indicates that it will take about a month before his head is sufficiently acclimated to the new body for the original head to be removed). I think you may have some idea where this is going...
After all, black men have always been ridiculously over-represented, statistically speaking, on American death rows, and let’s face it— it would serve Max Kirshner fucking well right if he were to wake up from his coma only to discover that he’d been turned into (gasp!) a Negro. So of course, that’s exactly what happens to him. The donor of his new body is a man named Jack Moss (Rosey Grier, from The Glove and Skyjacked), and the reason he signed on to participate in the experiment (without knowing just what it would entail, of course) is that he was falsely convicted of the crime that was to send him to the electric chair, and he figures an extra 30 days is all he and his girlfriend, Lila (Chelsea Brown), will need to track down the evidence to clear his name. Of course, that means Jack is just as horrified as Kirshner when he awakens from the anesthesia and sees what’s been done to him. In fact, Jack is so upset that Desmond decides to keep him sedated around the clock until such time as Kirshner is ready to assume control of his body.
Then more problems arise. First, indications surface that Jack’s body might be rejecting the transplant. That means Desmond has to call in Williams to assist him. Then, head nurse Patricia (Kathrine Bauman, from Chrome and Hot Leather) is late giving Moss his narcotic injection, and the big man comes out from under the sedatives. He sticks Patricia with her own needle when she finally does come in to administer the drug. Finally, to Kirshner’s helpless horror, Jack charges upstairs, knocks out the policemen who were assigned to guard him, and steals one of their guns to aid him in his escape. His big break coincides with Williams’s arrival at the Kirshner mansion (the operation naturally took place in the doctor’s secret home lab), and Moss presses Williams into service driving the getaway car.
And so begins The Chase. And it deserves those capital letters, believe me. It takes practically the entire midsection of the movie for Moss-Kirshner and Williams to reach Lila’s house, and most of that time is spent with them riding some form of motorized conveyance while entire fleets of police cars pursue them. First they’re in Williams’s car, then they’re on foot, then they steal a dirt bike from a participant in the motocross race that the pursuit leads them past. Finally, after more wrecked police cars than any other movie save The Blues Brothers (the anchorman who reports the story for the TV news puts the tally at fourteen cruisers destroyed, by I counted fifteen myself), the two and a half fugitives reach Lila’s apartment. The girl’s first words upon seeing her now-two-headed boyfriend make for the perfect summation of this movie’s plot: “You get into more shit!”
From this point on, the driving force of The Thing with Two Heads is Jack and Lila’s efforts to convince Williams of the convict’s innocence so that he will help Moss get quit of Kirshner’s cantankerous, abusive, bigoted head. Kirshner, meanwhile, will be busy trying to assert his control over Jack’s body in the hope of linking up with Desmond, who will presumably help Kirshner get quit of Jack’s head. The police and the D.A., for their part, just want Moss apprehended. Only the district attorney knows what Desmond wanted Moss for, and even he doesn’t realize that the escaped convict is already running around with the surgeon’s head grafted onto his left shoulder. Inevitably (because The Thing with Two Heads is really a blaxploitation movie at heart), Jack and Lila prevail, and Williams agrees to help get rid of Kirshner. But Kirshner, too, is successful in seizing control of Moss’s body, and only some quick thinking on Williams’s part saves Jack from having to appear in a blaxploitation take on The Brain that Wouldn’t Die. But don’t you go expecting the ending to tie up the real story in any way. Screenwriters James Gordon Wright, Lee Frost, and Wes Bishop seem not to have noticed this, but Moss is still a fugitive as the closing credits roll, and now Lila and Williams have opened themselves up to being charged as accomplices to his escape in the event that the authorities ever catch up to them.
I’ve always loved two-headed guy movies, especially the ones in which the guy’s two heads have noticeably different personalities. And in this respect at least, The Thing with Two Heads is the ultimate two-headed guy movie. The constant bickering between Dr. Kirshner and Jack Moss really makes the film; I like to imagine that in some parallel universe where justice is not so rare a commodity as it is in ours, Ray Milland and Rosey Grier went on to become a popular and successful comedy team on the strength of their performances here. They both have terrific comic instincts, and each actor always knows when and how to play straight-man to the other. The scene in which Williams, Lila, and Moss-Kirshner have dinner together at Lila’s apartment is an especially good example of Milland and Grier’s teamwork, as is the scene in which Kirshner finally figures out how to work Jack’s arms while their original owner is awake. The movie’s script never really lives up to its potential, and some of Lee Frost’s directorial decisions are outright baffling, but Grier and Milland completely dominate the film every time they take the screen, and when they’re in the driver’s seat, The Thing with Two Heads really shines.