When a severed head starts talking to you, you can bet your torso things are not going to go your way. It’s one thing to battle a giant evil Brain from Planet Arous (1957), or the invisible brains of a Fiend Without a Face (1958), or the ruthless mind control of Donavan’s Brain (1953) kept in a laboratory jar, but nothing compares to the horrifying powers of a detached cranium with the ability to talk smack.
Here are three examples of scientist boyfriends in search of a sexy body for the severed head they love, and one excellent example of Hell having no fury like a girlfriend's scorned skull. There are three examples of mad doctors who were surprised when their two heads on one body design wasn’t a hit with consumers. There are awkward examples of transplanting Nostradamus’ noggin at a five-fingered discount, and the problem with keeping a 400-year old telepathic head in a hatbox. And if that’s not enough chaos with a coconut, there’s The Third Reich lead by less than one-third of der Fuhrer.
These 10 films can be considered horror classics, if you can just get your head around the idea.
#1: THE HEAD (1959)
The Head seems like a good place to start this retrospective of head movies, if only for its title. Michel Simon plays the kindhearted and able Professor Abel who has invented the life-prolonging Serum X. With his magic elixir, Professor Abel is able to keep the head of a dog alive. Maybe that’s not so kindhearted, but Professor Abel’s heart is on borrowed time. When he dies, his creepy assistant with the odd name of Dr. Ood (Horst Frank) uses Serum X to keep the professor’s head alive. Ood lives up to his odd name and creepy behavior with a perverted ulterior motive. You see, Dr. Odd is attracted to the beautiful face of Abel’s nurse played by Karin Kernke, but he’s not too keen on her hunchback body. Ood wants to transplant her head onto the curvy torso of a stripper and he needs Professor Abel’s guidance to help him with the operation. Sadly, it’s not the only time in cinema history or human history for that matter that a dude has wanted to put his girlfriend’s head on a stripper’s body. More on that later. For now, let’s just say dudes beware of what your hormones wish for.
The Head remains one of the better entries in the decapitated body genre. The Germanic influence makes this film most entertaining and the image of Michel Simon’s disembodied head begging to be disconnected from its life-giving fluids is a guilty pleasure worth reliving from time to time.”
-Drive-in DVD review
#2: THE BRAIN THAT WOULDN’T DIE (1962)
The Brain That Wouldn’t Die is hands down, or shall we say heads down, the best of the girlfriend’s beautiful cranium transplanted to a stripper’s body by a sexually obsessed mad scientist boyfriend.
Hotshot up and coming young arrogant Dr. Bill Cortner (Jason Evers) has been fooling around with a bunch of dead human tissue at his weekend retreat. When he gets an emergency phone call at the hospital from his disturbed and deformed assistant telling him some of that dead human tissue has started to raise hell, Bill and his beautiful fiancée Jan Compton (Virginia Leith) jump into their flashy new car and go ripping down the highway toward the weekend retreat. Poor sweet Jan has no idea her dear hubby-to-be has been stitching together human body parts on the weekend and when Bill misses a turn at high speeds and rolls the car, Jan become just a head ornament sitting in the plush passenger seat of the couple's fully loaded 1959 Plymouth Sport Fury Convertible.
Bill saves Jan’s head and keeps it alive in his basement laboratory while he goes lurking for the hottest body in town to fix his fiancée. Since Jan’s head has no place to go and no legs to get her there, she uses her time in a lab tray to hone her telepathic skills to communicate with the monster in the closet. Yeah, you ain’t a real mad doctor if you ain’t got a monster in your closet. So that sets up the storyline, and the rest of the movie is pure wacky stripper catfights, arms ripped off and juggler vain chewing B-movie gold.
“It was produced by a guy named Rex Carlton who mostly did porn. It really is an extraordinary, tawdry film. It’s really gory. I’ve never forgotten it.”
-John Landis, director of Animal House (1978) and American Werewolf in London (1981)
#3: FRANKENHOOKER (1990)
Frankenhooker is no classic film by any stretch of the imagination, but it deserves a mention only because it is a comedy mix of The Brain That Wouldn’t Die and Frankenstein.
James Lorinz plays a New Jersey amateur mad scientist who builds a robot lawn mower that runs over his girlfriend played by Penthouse Pet Patty Mullen in a fatsuit. She is diced into a million pieces, but her whiz kid boyfriend saves her head and puts it in the stand-alone freezer chest in his garage-slash-laboratory. He then invents Super Crack, which causes New York City hookers to explode when they smoke it, and he just collects the body parts to construct a sexy new body for his beloved’s ice cube head in the freezer.
The operation is a success, but turns the once virtuous girlfriend into a monstrous prostitute rampaging in search of clients who will later explode during their “business transaction.”
The film does have a wonderful creepy crawly climax and a fitting end.
“This film is primary a comedy, but there’s enough severed limbs and meaty creatures to satisfy any gorehead. Supposedly, the plot was improvised during a pitch meeting and Frank Henelotter (director) wrote the script after investors were already on board.”
-Mike Mendez, producer of Masters of Horror (2002 documentary)
#4: TORMENTED (1960)
Tormented falls in the category of detached head revenge. In this ghostly jazz inspired melodrama, Richard Carlson plays Tom Stewart, a struggling musician who’s planning to score a hit with the financial backing of his virginal future wife. The only snag in his plan is his other girlfriend, the uber-sexy Vi who’s having no part of it. During a hoochie coochie lighthouse liaison, Vi tells Tom there’s no way she will allow him to get married. She threatens to blackmail him, but fails to notice the loose railing she’s seductively leaning on at the top of the lighthouse. The railing breaks, she’s holding on by her fingertips, and Tom seizes the opportunity to rid himself of Vi. He does nothing to help and she plummets to her death on the Cape Cod shoreline, but that is just the beginning for ol’ Vi.
Vi’s ghost begins to haunt Tom and when that doesn’t break him, her disembodied ghost head begins to taunt him during his piano practice. Added to Tom’s increasing paranormal paranoia is a groove-talking beatnik boat driver played by the wonderful Joe Turkel who played the god-like head of the Tyrell Corporation in Blade Runner (1982). Tom now has Vi’s ghost head needling him for a murder confession and hipster Joe Turkel needling him for the “five skins” ($5) Vi owes him for the boat ride to the island. Both needler will have their revenge.
Tormented is one of those films where you live the feeling with a character. It’s very easy to step into the shoes of Tom with this lingering problem hanging over his head. He just can’t get away from it. I found this a rather intense experience.
-Geno McGahee, Scared Stiff Reviews (2015)
#5: THE MAN WITHOUT A BODY (1957)
The Man Without a Body is one of four examples on this list of dead or dying powerful, evil men trying to maintain their power without their torso. George Coulouris plays that man in this film. 16 years earlier, Coulouris co-starred in arguably the greatest American film ever made, Citizen Kane (1941). The Man Without a Body is not Citizen Kane.
Coulouris plays Karl Brussard, a super wealth wheeler dealer with a brain tumor. In order to save his empire from his decline, Brussard hires a drunk doctor and flies to France where they break into Nostradamus’ crypt and abscond with his noggin. Brussard takes the head to a brilliant head doctor in London who unaware of who’s head it is and brings Nostradamus back to life. Brussard then tries to educate Nostradamus’ noggin on the day-to-day operations of his company, so Nostradamus can assume Brussard’s identity and keep his financial empire turning out huge profits after his demise. Spoiler alert…that plan never works.
“The highpoint of the film is an extended debate between Coulouris and Nostradamus' head in which the pair harangue each other, Nostradamus finding the purpose for which he's been re-animated too petty”
-Phil Hardy, British film critic
#6: THE THING THAT COULDN’T DIE (1958)
The Thing That Couldn’t Die is an example of an evil, powerful man trying to regain his evil dominion by using only his head and a little hypnotism.
This hostile takeover attempt begins when a young woman who’s handy with a divining rod is helping her aunt find water on their farm.
What they discover instead is a treasure chest containing the 400-year old head of Gideon Drew which was separated from its body when ol’ Gideon was caught practicing sorcery. In order for Gideon to recapture his evil ways, he must find his body and have a reunion. He uses his telepathic powers to control the folks down on the farm and have them search for his buried 400-year old torso. The reunion does happen, but to Gideon’s dismay he doesn’t stay long at the celebration.
“Pulling no punches to achieve the maximum in shock value, this newest venture into the unknown is a thrilling tale well calculated to keep even the most hard-as-steel-nerved clinching to the edge of his seat.”
-The Thing That Could Die Movie Pressbook (1958)
#7: THEY SAVED HITLER’S BRAIN (1968)
They Saved Hitler’s Brain is an example of the ultimate evil, powerful man trying to regain his empire on a tight budget, but many it is an example of how much fashion, hairstyles and cars can change in five years. Most of this movie was originally released in 1963 as Mad Men of Mandoras, but when it came time to sell it to television stations, distributors said its length was too short. So, in 1968 the owners of the film hired some UCLA film students to produce an extra 20 minutes and added it to the movie. What you end up with are news scenes that look like they were from the future compared to the original scenes. The 1968 actors playing detectives look like hippies compared to the 1963 cast. The male detective has the haircut and mustache of a 1970s porn star and the female detective chases the bad guy’s 1963 Lincoln Continental in her 1968 Volkswagen Beetle.
Those are the things that standout about the movie, but the plot is fairly simple. Nazis have kept Hitler’s brain alive for all these years and now they have invented a deadly toxin called “G Gas” and plan to use it to resurrect The Third Reich. All they manage to do however is give the world one of the worst films ever made and a cult classic.
“Madmen of Mandoras and They Saved Hitler's Brain teach important lessons in low-budget filmmaking: Don't make an epic on a dime store budget, and don't think that an elevated cinematic taste will prevent you from making one of the worst films of all time!”
-DVD SAVANT REVIEW (2006)
#8: THE MANSTER (1959)
The Manster (1959) now takes us into the world of double trouble. In fact, its Japanese title is The Two-Headed Killer.
Peter Dyneley plays an American reporter working in Japan. He’s a nice enough guy who’s loving and loyal to his wife back in the States. That’s until he interviews a Japanese mad scientist who slips him a mickey and injects him with an experimental drug while he is unconscious. The mad scientist is trying to produce a drug that will reverse the evolution of man. So far, his attempts have only produced a deformed wife who he keeps in a cage, and an uncontrollable caveman brother who he has to kill and toss into his giant laboratory furnace.
However, the drug slowly starts to have the desired effect on the American reporter. The mad scientist uses his voluptuous female assistant to turn the foreign correspondent into a sex-craved philandering drunk who kills Buddhist monks and unsuspecting women. He’s also cheating and mistreating his loyal wife, who has arrived in Japan from the States. The next thing he knows, an eye pops out of his shoulder, then a few days later a whole second head grows out of his shoulder. Now as a two-headed killer, he goes on a very angry rampages because there’s a whole caveman growing inside him trying to rip out of their shared body. Eventually, the conjoined twins split like an amoeba and fight each other to the death…winner take all.
"Manster is a favorite among campy horror aficionados and for good reason as it is both unintentionally funny and genuinely creepy...Wait till you see the climax, with the hero battling himself on the edge of a live volcano".
Hal Erickson, AllMovie film critic,
#9: THE INCREDIBLE 2-HEADED TRANSPLANT (1971)
The Incredible 2-Headed Transplant is another two-headed tale of good verses evil. Bruce Dern plays a doctor with too much money and too much time on his hands who’s obsessed with the idea of transplanting heads, much to the dismay of his best doctor friend played by Casey Kasem.
The head-swapping doctor gets the opportunity of a lifetime when a serial killer from a nearby mental institution escapes and kills the doctor’s landscaper. The landscaper has an enormous adult son who suffered brain damage in a mining accident several years back. Since the serial killer was mortally wounded during the landscaper attack, the doc figures why not attach the crazy man’s head to the giant body of the man with the mind of a child. Hence ensues a murderous rampage by the serial killer’s evil head now with a huge powerful body and the head of the good man-child dangling on his shoulder begging for the killing to stop. Oh yeah, the evil head is also attracted to the doctor’s wife, so we’ve got that going on too.
“If the film had focused more on the conflict of the two heads with, say, some extended conversations in close-up, it could have been one of the great bad movies. Instead, we get repetitive shots of the killer drooling while the giant whines 'no, no.”
-Gene Siskel, film critic, The Chicago Tribune
#10: THE THING WITH TWO HEAD (1972)
The Thing with Two Heads is a two-headed tail of redemption and racism. Academy Award winner Ray Milland earned no Oscar nomination for this film playing a wealthy white bigot who’s dying, but plans to use his millions to cheat death. Rosey Grier plays an African-American on death row for a murder he didn’t commit, so he decided to donate his body to science to avoid dying in the electric chair. Wouldn’t you know it, science has decided to use Rosey’s body to save the life of the bigot. The racist’s head is attached to the black man’s body which doesn’t please him when he awakes from the operation and sees the color of his skin.
Luckily for Rosey, he’s able to escape the operating room before the doctors can remove his head. He then goes on a motorcycle and car chase hunt for person who committed the murder he was convicted of and prove his innocence one and for all. The rich racist’s head unwillingly has to go along for the ride.
“I think the idea for this film must have come from The Defiant Ones (1958) with Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis shackled together, but this is one of the most hilarious films I think that has ever been made. My brother once wanted to make a musical out of it and have Rosey Grier’s character sing Soul music and Ray Milland’s character do Andrew Lloyd Webber tunes.”
-Stuart Gordon, director of Re-Animator (1985)
Stuart Gordon certain knows what he’s talking about when it comes to head movies. His 1985 gory cult cranium classic Re-Animator gave re-birth to Horror heads and turned into a trilogy with Bride of the Re-Animator (1990) and Beyond Re-Animator (2003). However, herein ends our tales of heads wreaking havoc in Horror. What lies ahead in Hollywood for loose cranium catastrophes is as unknown as the stranger’s face next to you.