The Thing With Two Heads Blu-ray|DVD Directed by Lee Frost Starring Ray Milland, Roosevelt Grier, and Don Marshall Olive Films Release Date: June 23, 2015
It’s been called one of the worst movies ever made. The late Roger Ebert gave it a resoundingly low one out of four stars in his review and deemed it to be a real snooze of a flick. Make no mistake, ladies and gentlemen, the 1972 American-International Pictures release The Thing with Two Heads has a premise that is absurd even for a cheap, sleazy exploitation feature you might have found on the lower half of a double or triple bill at your neighborhood drive-in back when most of the young men in town were being shipped off to fight and die in Vietnam.
Movies like The Thing with Two Heads aren’t designed to stand the test of time; they’re made with the express purpose of raking in the cash at the ticket counters and providing bored audiences fiending for a blast of cinematic insanity with a quick and affordable fix. Does this one deliver on its carnival funhouse promises, or do those promises go as unfulfilled as the campaign platform of your average Republican politician?
Ray Milland, the Oscar-winning star of the 1945 Billy Wilder drama The Lost Weekend, stars as Dr. Maxwell Kirshner, an esteemed surgeon who has developed a revolutionary procedure that allows for a human head to be successfully grafted onto another body. To perfect this surgical technique, Kirshner permits for his colleague Dr. Desmond (Roger Perry) to attempt attaching a gorilla’s head to the body of another, which later escapes and goes on a rampage throughout the city. Making matters worse, Kirshner is dying and wants to extend his lifespan by having his withered head removed from its frail, arthritic body and grafted to a much younger new body. Time being of the essence, Desmond goes with the only suitable candidate willing to volunteer: Jack Moss, a wrongfully convicted murderer cooling his heels on Death Row before his date with the electric chair.
This creates even more complications for Kirshner’s plan to achieve immortality. Moss is a black man, and the doctor is very much a racist. Previously best known for his decade-long career in professional football and single-handedly capturing the assassin of Robert F. Kennedy, Roosevelt “Rosey” Grier has what is possibly the most notable role of his brief, unexceptional acting career as Jack Moss. Kirshner is none too happy when he wakes up with his head now attached to Moss’ body, and neither is Moss really. With less than a month before the graft takes effect and his head will no longer be of any use to the doctor, Moss escapes from the makeshift operating room in the basement of Kirshner’s mansion and goes on the run with the police in desperate pursuit and Kirshner constantly bitching and moaning in his ears. He takes Dr. Fred Williams (Don Marshall), a promising young surgeon in the employ of Kirshner (much to the doctor’s displeasure), hostage in the hope that he can remove the old man’s whiny noggin and help give Moss back his life.
Director Lee Frost, who co-wrote Two Heads with Wes Bishop (Race with the Devil) and James Gordon White (The Hellcats), takes his sweet time setting up the minimal plot. The first two acts are given over to establishing the characters, and Moss and Kirshner don’t make their big break out into the unprepared world until the movie is halfway through its 91-minute running time. I repeat, this happens when the movie is half over. So….something went wrong there. Obviously Frost had to stretch what had to be a meager budget to create a final product that could pass for a motion picture with the paying customers, but Two Heads suffers from padding so excessive that it easily commands attention to itself.
The central action set-piece is an extended chase that begins with Moss and Kirshner fleeing with Williams from the police by car, and then they are forced to flee on foot when the car is wrecked. While running from John and Jim Law, our intrepid trio comes across a dirt bike race in progress. Of course they steal one of the bikes just as the cops catch up with them and the chase gets way loonier than before. It also goes on for far longer than it should, and by the time I watched the twentieth police cruiser plunge off a cliff or into a ditch, I actually bellowed “SCREW IT” to the heavens (only they were not listening) and hit the fast forward button.
The strangest thing about this unnecessarily prolonged sequence is that this kind of action is typically where Frost delivers as a director. He has one of the wildest and most diverse backgrounds in exploitation cinema; Frost has called the shots on sexploitation (The Defilers), blaxploitation (The Black Gestapo), Nazisploitation (Love Camp 7), bikersploitation (Chrome and Hot Leather), and even the odd porn flick (A Climax of Blue Power). He’s a pro behind the camera, but he’s not a filmmaker. Much of The Thing with Two Heads looks flat and filmed (by cinematographer Jack Steely) like a toss-off TV movie of the week, with workmanlike performances from all involved to match.
Milland, who died on March 10, 1986 (my 7th birthday – holy sh*t), is the consummate actor here, but he was given a character with no interesting traits to play and the actor’s lack of enthusiasm for the material doesn’t help any when Kirshner is reduced to a griping pain in the ass for most of the second half of the movie. He’s fine, nothing more. As an actor, Grier was a remarkable football player. I’ll leave it at that. His irritated banter with the increasingly annoyed Milland gives the film what little comic spark it has.
Much better is Don Marshall as Dr. Williams, the empathetic young surgeon who gets taken captive by Moss and ultimately comes to support the man’s fight for justice. He more than holds his own with the more experienced Milland in early scenes and his performance never gets sidelined by the silly action of the last half-hour. Iconic film and television tough guy actor William Smith shows up briefly as one of Moss’ crazier fellow inmates, as does R&B great Jerry Butler as a prison guard, and exploitation producer/director Albert Zugsmith. Both Frost and Bishop have cameos as a cop and a doctor, respectively.
Last but certainly not least, the actor inside that two-headed gorilla suit is none other than practical effects legend Rick Baker. He worked on the special effects uncredited, possibly creating that wacky gorilla get-up as it would become his specialty throughout his career; Baker’s future primate creations – as special effects artist, actor, or both – would include John Landis’ directorial debut Schlock (re-released in the late ’70s as Banana Monster), the 1976 remake of King Kong, Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes, Gorillas in the Mist, and Tim Burton’s “reimagining” of Planet of the Apes.
Olive Films’ Blu-ray presentation of The Thing with Two Heads is taken from a high-definition transfer prepared by MGM and Deluxe Digital in full 1080p resolution, possibly to be aired on the studio’s HD cable movie channel, and is framed in the film’s correct 1.85:1 widescreen aspect ratio. The transfer is a noticeable step up from previous video and DVD presentations, but not by much. Picture quality is fine for the most part. Colors are as strong and vibrant as the flat visual compositions will allow. Sharpness in the details fluctuates from scene to scene. Grain and print damage are minimal but often make their presence known. No subtitles have been included.
Our solitary listening option is a lossless, 24-bit English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track. It’s a solid sound mix with clear dialogue that allows for the generic lo-fi music score composed by Robert O. Ragland (10 to Midnight), among others, adequate space to breathe without overwhelming the rest of the soundtrack. Manual volume adjustment is rarely required.
In the supplements department, Olive Films has delivered unto us cult film fanatics yet another Blu-ray as barren as a post-apocalyptic wasteland. MGM’s 2001 DVD (released under their beloved “Midnite Movies” banner) at least contained the original theatrical trailer as an extra. I took the liberty of embedding that trailer, in all of its scratchy grindhouse glory, at the end of this review.
The Thing with Two Heads is no B-movie classic, but it has plenty of goofy humor and well-executed action sequences to get it through its glacial first half and warrant at least a single viewing. Olive Films’ Blu-ray makes up for a lack of bonus features with improved picture and sound. This disc comes recommended if you find it used somewhere and are in the market for a solid ninety minutes of cheap, unpretentious thrills.