Precursor to Get Out? The Thing With Two Heads
The Thing With Two Heads
I have been contemplating going out to the movies to see Nope. I attempted to see it when my date made the cardinal sin and suggested we see Top Gun 2. So I was forced to spend my hard-earned money on Tom Cruise, and you know how I feel about that. Though the flying scenes were pretty exciting, I was happy to see my old pal, Val Kilmer. I vow, with God as my witness, I will rebuild Tara, err, sorry. I will see Nope in the theaters where movies should be seen!
Speaking of Nope, I was impressed by Jordan Peele's Academy Award best picture-nominated feature film Get Out a few years back. But something was bothering me a little. What was it? Why was I struggling? It's a great script, a great cast, and the direction was flawless, yet something still bothered me. If you are anything like me, and I'm sure some of you are embarrassed to admit it. I have seen more movies than I can shake a stick at. I have probably seen more movies than there are sticks. Finally, I got it.
The clouds parted, and the sunlight streaked down from the heavens to reveal, The Thing with Two Heads. For those who haven't been paying attention, this is a classic film of sorts. A hybrid idea from 1972. A Blaxploitation - science fiction - comedy with a dirt bike chase thrown in for good measure! Directed by Lee Frost and compared to some of his other films, Chrome and Hot Leather, Black Gestapo, and in keeping with a theme, the Nazi sex comedy - Love Camp 7! Yeesh! When you line them up in that order, you can see why The Thing with Two Heads is his magnum opus. (I'm not sure Love Camp 7 was supposed to be a comedy, but there it is.)
Before I tell you about the film, the part of the racist scientist is played by Oscar winner Ray Milland. The film was Lost Weekend, and it's about an alcoholic and the zany shenanigans he gets into. No, I'm sorry, there are shenanigans, but none are of zany variety. Lost Weekend is a sensitive portrayal of a man who loses himself at the bottom of a bottle. And it was worthy of its acclaim and worth viewing as long as you are on anti-depressants. Ray Milland was not an alcoholic, nor if history is correct, much of a drinker himself. However, many later roles beg the question, "Was he drunk when he took that?" The Thing with Two Heads is one of those choices.
To paraphrase the great Roger Ebert, The Thing with Two Heads asks the eternal question: is it better to be alive with Ray Milland's head plugged into your neck or dead?
Dr. Maxwell Kirshner, Ray Milland, arrives at his mansion, being pushed in a wheelchair. Kirshner asks if his experiment has been successful, and the orderly replies that it was. The Doctor is wheeled down to the basement lab, where the experiment is... Dun, dun, daaa! A two-headed gorilla! (This gorilla of two heads is the early work by eventual Oscar winner Rick Baker, who is himself in the gorilla suit!) Dr. Kirshner has created the impossible. The experiment has proven that two heads can survive on a single body. This arcane medical experiment is inspired by the fact that Dr. K. hasn't much time to live and wants to transplant his still-living head from his soon-to-be lifeless body onto that of a living donor. All this so that he may continue living and his significant work as the world's most successful surgeon. The Doctor is so humble it makes my heart swell with pride.
Dr. Kirshner returns to his hospital institute to oversee an operation performed by his close friend and associate, Dr. Phillip Desmond. Dr. D. deftly performed by Roger Perry. He doesn't need to prove his B-movie bona fides as he appeared in Count Yorga, Vampire, and The Return of Count Yorga, as two different yet eerily similar characters. Dr. Kirshner returns to the basement and his two-headed gorilla. The plan is to remove one of the heads from its body. Plans go nutzo when the creature is upset about the upcoming procedure. "They," -I'm not sure if one head is male or female- knocks Dr. Kirshner out of his wheelchair, and escapes. Eventually, the gorilla and both heads get caught checking out at a nearby supermarket. (There was a sale on bananas, sorry folks - that was low-hanging fruit. Nyuck, nyuck!) (Also this is not the only time Rick Baker makes a monkey of himself. He played the title character in Dino ("My Konk will be the greatest Konk!") De Laurentiis' 1976 King Kong.)
From his stellar resume, Kirshner hires a new doctor, Fred Williams. Trailblazing actor Don Marshall, cool, debonair, and good-looking, was one of the first and only African-American actors to work regularly on television in the 1960s. (The others were legendary Star Trek and NASA spokes-model Nichelle Nichols and Greg Morris from Mission Impossible - Believe it or not!) When Dr. K. takes a gander at Dr. Williams in the flesh, "gasp!" he tells Williams he is no longer needed. Racist much? Don't go away mad, Dr. Williams. Just go away.
Dr. Kirshner tells Desmond that he is ready for his head to get transplanted onto the body of a healthy donor. The gorilla freak-out wounded Dr. K, and his health has taken a turn. Desmond is doubtful until Kirshner tells him that the head that is now on the gorilla is, in fact, the second head he put on. He had successfully removed the original gorilla's head and replaced it with the second transplanted one. "Oh my God!" Such verisimilitude!
Pseudo-science never looked this good!
Meanwhile, on death row, we meet the cousin of the woman I lost my virginity to, Pam Grier. I was alone in a movie theater at the time. Beyond that, a gentleman never tells. Enter Roosevelt (Rosey) Grier, Football great, American Hero, Needle Point expert, and Protestant Minister. As a side hustle, Mr. Grier acted in feature films and television and cut a few albums as a singer. During such a side hustle, he got cast as the unjustly convicted Jack Moss. The prison offers a way to escape death via an electric chair. You could give yourself to science—the science of Dr. Maxwell Kirshner!
Before I continue, the only scene in the entire 90 minutes of the film is the sequence of Rosey Grier's POV approach through the halls toward the electric chair. There is a lot to learn in the twenty seconds of the film.
As one would expect, Dr. K. is not happy by awakened post-op on Jack's body. Even though Dr. Desmond tells him an African American man was the best choice. (Jack: "I'm right here, man!") The two heads fight over the same body. There is an attempt to keep Jack's half of the body sedated, but this goes down the drain. Dr. Desmond reaches out to Dr. Williams, who is not only African-American but one of the world's experts on organ rejection. Dr. D. tells him that he is not a racist like Dr. K and was very impressed with how far he has gotten, you know, for a black guy.
Anyway, somehow Rosey gets control of his body and gets his hands on a gun, mere hours after what has to be serious surgery. Talk about a quick recovery! He forces Dr. Williams into a car, and they drive off. He pleads with Dr. Williams to remove Dr. K's head from his strong, otherwise perfect body. Williams says that if he doesn't do the surgery soon, both heads and one body will die!
After a minor car accident, look, it's hard to drive with a two-headed footfall star pointing a gun at you! They end up at Rosey's wife's house. Lila, the wife, is ably embodied by actress Chelsea Brown, a dancer on TV's Laugh-in. She immigrated to Australia, where she appeared on television regularly. Lila is unhappy to see him because he has an old white man's head on his body. This meeting gives us this juicy couplet of dialogue:
Jack: "It's all right, honey. I'm not gonna hurt you."
Lila: "You get into more shit."
Jack, Kirshner, Williams, and Lila sit down for dinner. Lila asks what it will take to take Kirshner's head off of Jack's body. Kirshner tells her that without a specially crafted surgical team of top doctors, it is impossible to do the operation, and both of them will die. Williams disagrees and tells Kirshner that he is dead wrong about that. He thought about it, over maybe six minutes of screen time, and felt the removal procedure was easy, even without the aid of an ace surgical team. Perhaps with just a can opener?
What follows is pure cinema craziness, and I don't want to spoil it for you, but remember, earlier, I mentioned dirt bikes.
Eventually, Williams calls Dr. Desmond to get over to Kirshner's house as soon as possible. Desmond arrives with a nurse and an associate, who find Kirshner's detached head lying on the utensil table. His head (and neck) are hooked up to a heart and lung machine. His blood is gurgling and pumping through the plastic tubes keeping him alive. Dr. Kirshner furtively calls to Dr. Desmond and begs, "Bring me another body." He gasps, "White this time, dipshit!" (Okay, maybe that's not a direct quote.)
Before the credits roll, we find Lila, Jack (With a small bandage where Dr. K had been), and Dr. Williams driving down the highway singing "Oh Happy Day." Oh, I kid you not.
Not a better film than, Get Out, for sure, but a kind of heavy-handed ancestor. Here is another excellent couplet of dialogue that I feel contributes to the subtext of the best picture nom. The following exchange between the white and stereotyped racist doctor Maxwell Kirshner and the super cool black doctor Fred Williams:
Dr. K: "I don't understand you."
Dr. W: " The reason you don't understand, Doctor, is because you're a bigot. A bigot of the highest caliber. And because of that, you have underestimated me and my intelligence."
In Get Out, the white people are just so darn nice and liberal. They are like a TV family, but it is all pretense. They hide a dark secret—a means of prolonging their lives by using healthy and fit black people's bodies. I'm unsure of the specifics, but they take over their bodies. Surgery is involved. Just like in the Thing with Two Heads! Except that Dr. K is an in-your-face racist. He's not hiding it. Also, his plan is just plain screwy. He wants to put his old ass head on a new body. That has gotta suck? You got Ian McKellan's head on the Rock's body. Not really well thought out. (Apologies to Sir Ian, I'm sure you could pull it off, I just needed someone of the right age.) Dr. K is repulsed at being stuck on Rosey's shoulder. But he is willing to do anything, even if it means he has to use that black body forever to stay there.
That's kind of the difference between the two movies. In Get Out, the racism is sneaky, and in the other, it's overt. But they both get to the same place, white people in black people's bodies! And not in a porno way, so calm down. This mind-transference thing is not new for Hollywood. John Frankenheimer did it best in Seconds. An old guy, an upper middle-aged guy, played by John Randolf, gets turned into a prime mid-1960s Rock Hudson! How's that for a setup? But that's a Movie I Like if ever there was one.
Perhaps all this nonsense says something about me. I don't know. But I do know these things to wrap up. Get Out won the Best Original Screen Play Oscar©. The Thing With Two Heads won nothing. Speaking of Oscars©, Makeup artist and ape actor Rick Baker has been nominated for best makeup a whopping eleven times! He only won it seven times. Talk about an overachiever. Finally, Rosey Grier. The man should be in the NFL Hall of Fame, and he is in contention for the upcoming year. He is a real hero. He and Olympic gold medal-winning Decathlete Rafer Johnson were volunteers on Robert Kennedy's security detail during his ill-fated 1968 campaign. He protected Ethel Kennedy but managed to take the gun from Sirhan Sirhan before more people were killed. The guilt of Robert Kennedy's assassination continues to this day. Rosey is an actual expert on needlepoint, writing a 1973 best seller, Rosie Grier's Needle Point for Men. An early advocate of macramé as well, he is rumored to be responsible for the macramé bikini.
Some notes :
Lee Frost and starring Ray Milland, Rosey Grier, Don Marshall, Roger Perry, Kathy Baumann, and Chelsea Brown.