The Incredible Two-Headed Transplant (1971) ****

There is no shortage of exploitation and horror movies made about American counter cultures. From the wonderfully titled beatsploitation movie Kitten With a Whip (1964); to the hippie exploitation films like the Love-Ins (1967); through the bikersploitation movies like The Cycle Savages (1969); and onto the punksploitation movies of the 1980s like Class of 1984 (1982). I haven’t conducted a complete survey, but there was probably no major counter culture group after the 1950s that didn’t get to play the bad guys in a low-rent exploitation movie at some point. Usually though the punks or beatniks or hippies were punks or hippies or beatniks first and foremost. Their individual identities merged with their counterculture group, and their villainy was derived from their belonging to that group. Today’s film, though very much a hippie exploitation film, follows a different, and much more enjoyable approach. Rather than making hippies the main villains, The Incredible Two-Headed Transplant (TITHT, because this is too much of a mouthful even for me to keep writing out) makes it’s villain a mad scientist who just happens to be played by Hollywood’s most visible hippie actor: Bruce Dern.

Dern’s Roger follows the classic pattern of mad scientists: he’s a brilliant doctor who, upon being disgraced during some unspecified mental breakdown, was widely mocked by his peers and expelled from the institutes of proper science (in his case the hospital he worked at). Now, he labors obsessively in a remote laboratory, assisted only by a lone henchman, an elderly surgeon named Max. The pair keeps busy by grafting extra heads onto a whole plethora of lab animals: snakes, foxes, rabbits, and their latest triumph a monkey. Roger is unlike older mad scientists though in one important respect: motivation. The Frankensteins and Munroes of yesteryear were motivated by a desire to advance science and human understanding, whatever the cost. Roger, on the other hand is motivated by a desire to not be like his father who’s only joy in life was amassing piles of money. Roger wants to do work that actually matters. It’s a vague, purposeless goal, the kind of which baby-boomers would harp on about, much to the annoyance of their elders. Add into this Dern’s unhinged, spaced out performance that gives the, probably correct, impression that the actor was constantly high on LSD while filming, you have the recipe for a chilling Hippie lunatic doctor.

Roger’s wife Linda is worried to the point of distraction about her husband. Roger is obviously unwell mentally, and his tendency to lock himself up in the lab for days at a time has her justifiably afraid that he’s nearing another mental breakdown. She calls Ken, Roger’s old friend and colleague from the hospital to check up on him. Ken incidentally, is played by Casey Kasem, the voice of Shaggy from Scooby Doo, and hearing him do a serious role in a horror movie is almost enough to catapult TITHT into surreal territory all on it’s own. I kept waiting for a “Zoinks!” and a “Scoob” that never came. Ken sees nothing to worry about after looking over the veritable zoo of two-headed animals; indeed he finds Roger’s work fascinating. However, questionable medical ethic aside, Ken doesn’t want Roger’s marriage to fall apart, so he coaxes the mad scientist out of his lab for dinner and drinks. Linda still isn’t happy about the insane hours her husband is putting in, but she’s somewhat mollified by his promise to go on a long vacation as soon as his work has reached it’s climax.

Roger isn’t the only lunatic stalking around this film though, Emmanuel Cass, a vicious killer who spends his time slicing up young women has just escaped from a nearby asylum. He finds a car parked outside the loony bin, which is not only unlocked and has the keys in the ignition, but also contains a whole bag of groceries sitting on the passenger’s seat. This begs the question: Who goes grocery shopping and then on their way home pops into the local maximum-security sanitarium for a few minutes? Cass proceeds to eat the groceries while making his escape in the stolen car. At this point the car radio announces the escape of a dangerous psychopath, and the radio announcer is none other than Casey Kasem. Kasem’s main gig at the time was announcing America’s top 40s but given his presence in this movie as a character, I have to wonder: is Dr. Ken moonlighting as a DJ to make ends meet?

Cass happens upon Roger’s home and catches sight of Linda sunbathing by the pool. As it has probably been a few months since his last homicide, Cass can’t help himself and attacks her. Linda is able to call for help, first from Roger, who Cass easily smacks around and ties up with a rope, and then the groundskeeper Andrew. Cass kills the poor man and then drags Linda back to his car. Roger is left alone with Danny, the Andrew’s mentally handicapped, gigantic son. Danny could easily free Roger, but the young man cannot process his father’s death and collapses helplessly to the ground. Roger is left tied up in the hall until Max returns from his errands. The pair grab shotguns and go after the crazed killer. They catch up to the creep in short order and blast him, saving the delirious Linda from certain death. However, Roger being a lunatic himself though sees an opportunity to advance his research. Just like Dr. Cory in Donovan’s Brain (1953), Roger cannot let a perfectly good experimental subject go to waste, I mean when is he gonna find a fresher cadaver than the one he just killed? Roger takes Cass’ head back to his lab and grafts it onto Danny’s body; right next to the boy’s own head. Then he lies to his wife and the police about the whole affair, because it’s always a good idea to deceive family and the proper authorities when conducting experimental medical research.

When Cass’ head wakes up on Danny’s body he takes the whole bizarre turn of events in better stride than I would. If I was in a similar situation I’d be helpless and crying for hours on end, but not Cass. Armed with a positive outlook and personality able to bully and frighten Danny into submission he has his body up and walking within minutes. Really shows you the power of a good attitude! After a few minutes of screwing around Danny/Cass breaks free of his restraints and heads out to continue his spree of horrific sex-crimes, now armed with a larger more powerful body. As the obligatory lovers parked by the side of the road and biker gang can attest, the Cass/Danny two-headed giant is not a force to be trifled with. Roger realizes that if the police find the god-forsaken abomination before he can they will be able to put two and two together and pin the crime on him and Max. I’m not sure what crime Roger has committed, but there has to be some law on the books somewhere that prevents you from grafting a man’s head onto another man’s shoulders without written permission. Roger and Max decide it’s in their best interest to go monster hunting, with a bit of luck they might be able to find the creature before the cops.

The practical effects used to create the two-headed giant are bound to elicit quite a bit of mirth from a careful viewer. Adding a second person into Danny’s clothes would tack on an incredible amount of bulk to the actor, so the best way to disguise it was make Danny look preternaturally bulky as a default. The filmmakers accomplished this by dressing the actor up in baggy overalls and seemingly every shirt they could get their hands on. The animals in Roger’s lab are somewhat less impressive, as they are all real animals with fairly obvious stuffed heads mounted next to their real ones. The stuff heads sit motionless while the real ones looks around normally; nobody is buying it except when the animals are asleep. The only exception is the two-headed snake, which was so convincing I suspect that it is a real mutant the filmmakers found. I don’t know how they went about getting their hands on such a aberration, but I secretly hope there was a “genetically abnormal” pet shop operating somewhere in Los Angleos in the early 1970s.

Dern’s performance may have been fueled by a mind-melting quantity of hallucinogens, but it is nonetheless stunning. His character is very much the classic mad scientist, a trustworthy trope but getting pretty stale in 1971. The character would have been utterly forgettable had the filmmakers gone with a more traditional actor for the role; hell without Dern’s performance there would be nothing aside a couple lines of dialogue to mark Roger out as a Boomer Frankenstein. Moreover, he seems genuinely crazy, capturing that illusive quality with his glassy stare and chilling monotone. He’s a good deal scarier than the goofy monster he’s unleashed on the world. Not only is he convincingly crazy, but Dern also perfectly captures that particular hippie burnt-out crazy so essential for the role he’s playingt. It’s a genuinely horrific performance, all the more so for people like me who only knew Dern as that crusty old guy from the last couple Tarantino movies.

Nothing in TITHT promotional material or plot synopsis prepared me just how jammed pack it was with sex fiends. A sex criminal or two is par for course in the early 1970s exploitation films, but usually they are contrasted the more or less normal sexual appetites of everyone around them. Not so here! Cass is a raving two-dimensional psycho, so the fact that he gets his jollies slashing up comely women is a given. No surprises there or when Roger decides the best way to keep his wife from squealing to the cops is to tie her to the bed; he’s spent the whole movie on the cusp of a mental breakdown after all. But you really have to wonder what kind of world you’re watching through the screen when the male half of the young lovers who make up Cass/Danny’s first victim is a sleazy date rapist. Ken, Max, Danny and Andrew don’t try to sexually assault anyone; so TITHT isn’t quite at the same level of sex fiend concentration as say The New York Ripper (1980) or Fantom Killer (1998) but we’re still dealing with a world were it’s a safe bet that any given man is a dangerous deviant.

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