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Olive Films
Savant Blu-ray Review

The Thing With Two Heads
Olive Films
1972 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 91 min. / Street Date June 23, 2015 / available through the Olive Films website / 29.98
Starring Ray Milland, Roosevelt Grier, Don Marshall, Roger Perry, Chelsea Brown, Kathrine Baumann, John Dullaghan, Rick Baker.
Jack Steeley
Special Two Headed Gorilla wrangler Rick Baker
Original Music Robert O. Ragland
Written by Lee Frost, Wes Bishop, James Gordon White
Produced by Wes Bishop
Directed by Lee Frost

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Let me state right up front that when I saw ads back in the early 1970s for The Incredible 2-Headed Transplant and The Thing With Two Heads, they made me slightly depressed. Not only had I no interest in seeing the films, I felt sorry for actor Ray Milland, a terrific star that I loved from The Lost Weekend, Dial M for Murder and "X," the Man with the X-Ray Eyes. That Milland should be reduced to dreck like this show and the movie Frogs, seemed tragic. My estimation of American-International chief Samuel Z. Arkoff plunged.  1  

I expected to spend this review slamming the movie, its makers and the plight of '70s monster movies in general. Those were lean years for non-exploitative fantasy, and this title - I thought - would probably be one of the worst of the worst.

Knock me silly, but The Thing With Two Heads is nowhere near as dumb as it might seem. In fact, it's well made, rather clever, and fairly amusing. I'm not nominating it for anything, mind you, but I was very pleasantly surprised.

The maniac transplant theme is actually handled quite well, mainly because the script, the director and star Ray Milland take the whole thing seriously enough to give it a good shot. Co-star Rosey Grier is a positive surprise as well. The object is to make a statement about racism. I expected (biased me) that angle to be exhausted by having a white and a black head on the same body, trading racial insults in lousy taste. Nope, there's a lot more going on than just that. It's all actually well judged.

Dr. Maxwell Kirschner (Ray Milland) has his own clinic, but is conducting secret transplant experiments in his basement in secret. Why? He's got a bad heart, is wracked by arthritis, and would like to transfer his head to a healthier new body. He's already grafted a second head onto a Gorilla, and intends to cut the other one off. As his own body is quickly running out of steam, Kirschner lines up one of his surgeons and offers him inducements to perform the unethical surgery. For a 'donor' body they make a deceptive plea to the penal authorities, to line up a death-row inmate who would rather donate his body to science than just get gassed in the gas chamber. Condemned murderer Jack Moss (Rosey Grier) volunteers, but just to stall his execution date to give his girlfriend Lila (Chelsea Brown) more time to clear his name. Kirschner has already proven himself an unyielding bigot, by ducking a contract with his new medical associate Dr. Fred Williams (Don Marshall) because he's black. But when Kirschner suddenly collapses and is near death, the only choice is to accept Jack Moss as the recipient of an extra head.

After the operation, two heads control the one body. Neither head can 'kill' the other without killing himself. Kirschner is dumbfounded to discover that his hands are black, and hurls insults at his unhappy host. Jack Moss simply wants to escape and link up with Lila. He goes on the lam, carrying Kirschner with him. Both men are eager to get one of the staff surgeons to amputate the other head. Kirshner is horrified when Williams, the Doctor he so onerously dismissed, seems willing to help Jack Moss eliminate that unsightly extra noggin on his shoulder.

The Thing With Two Heads is logical and halfway intelligent; it's also produced at a level higher than we expect. The only cheapie surprise was seeing the old S.A.G. building at Sunset and Genessee, with its recognizable curved front entrance, used as the front of Kirschner's clinic.

The script is not bad, and Ray Milland applies himself to the role in a serious way. His scenes discriminating against Dr. Williams, right to the man's, are well acted, credible and done with finesse. The medical horror trappings are okay, with enough equipment to convince us that something like a real operating room is functioning. Kirschner's own basement lab is on the lean side, and so is the old-fashioned movie gorilla with two heads, performed by future makeup effects celebrity Rick Baker. But neither are insultingly cheap. On the other hand, dummy heads for Grier and especially Milland are excellently done by the Tom Burman staff, with convincing blinking eyes, etc. High marks, there.

Of course the film turns into a goofy comedy, but neither MIlland nor Grier behave like clowns in a farce. Grier is likeable and charming as Jack Moss, a guy with a crowded shoulder problem. He gives the character some nice shadings, in the circumstances. The movie actually manages a funny scene, when Moss/Kirschner and Dr. Williams come home for dinner with Lila. Everything is nicely underplayed, and it's hilarious when Lila treats her boyfriend's condition as, you know, a problem, but one that can be fixed if everybody keeps their head stays calm. When Kirshner comes out with a hateful remark, Grier, Marshall and Brown ignore it, and calmly discuss how to amputate him into silence.

The movie has nowhere really to go, and settles for a third-act comedy chase scene with cars and on a motorbike. This would be dumb exploitation filler, except that the stunt drivers wreck at least nine cop cars. Paul Nuckles, future Swamp Thing Dick Durock, Gary MacLarty and stunt legend Bud Ekins provide the car crashes. They're entertaining enough for small kids and folk that like to see cop cars smash up. In 1972 A.I.P. and Corman were proving that shoving a car crash into a trailer was enough to entice customers into movie houses. Believe it or not, the movie finds an appropriate ending for its silliness as well. I'm finally catching up with movies I skipped from this era, and discovering that too many of them are worse than I imagined they might be. The Thing With Two Heads is diverting and amusing. It's not anything to write home about, but if you saw it at an impressionable age and liked it, well, it ain't bad.

Even Ray Milland could do worse. I'd like that to be a compliment, but I doubt if it will be quoted.

Olive Films' Blu-ray of The Thing With Two Heads is from a scan done several years ago by MGM/Deluxe Digital. It's quite good, and shows that the movie is professionally shot and was given a good post production finish, with clear dialogue in a good mix.

The producers rounded up a few then-notables for bit parts in the cast, including the eccentric L.A. DJ Dick Whittington, blitzko producer Albert Zugsmith, up 'n' coming action star William Smith, and old-time actor Tommy Cook. I don't know much about director Lee Frost. A reviewer more acquainted with Psychotronic film history might make more sense of his credits, with less bias. Judging by The Thing With Two Heads, Frost was capable of competent work. Collaborating with the fairly scummy producer Bob Cresse, he can number among his pictures Love Camp 7, a Nazi torture and sex abomination 'roughie'. Directing Ray Milland is a definite step up in the cinema world.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Thing With Two Heads Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Good
Supplements: none
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? No; Subtitles: None
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: June 19, 2015


1. A note from correspondent Bill Oppenheim, 6.20.15:

Hi Glenn -- Milland was sort of "X, The Man with Two Heads." Various reports said that the actor was well off, and did these films to keep working, as well as having a real taste for the outré. He gleefully plugged The Thing With Two Heads on The Tonight Show, bringing along the fake Ray Milland head. -- Bill

Text © Copyright 2015 Glenn Erickson

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