Schlock Corridor: THE THING WITH TWO HEADS
The Thing With Two Heads is essentially a longform version of a racist joke I once heard:
An old racist man was dying and needed a blood transfusion. He told his family ‘I’d rather die than get blood from a Negro!’ But soon he was in a coma and the family had no option - they had to get blood from a black man to save their dying grandfather. A couple of days later he awoke and the doctor said to him ‘I have good news and I have bad news.’ The old man said, ‘I want the bad news first.’ The doctor said, ‘Well, the good news is that now your dick is nine inches long.’
Ray Milland plays the film’s version of the racist old man. In 1946 Milland won an Oscar for The Long Weekend, giving what is still one of the most intense and searing performances in cinema history. In 1972 he was acting opposite a two-headed gorilla in The Thing With Two Heads and dealing with killer frogs in Frogs; there’s a cautionary tale in here somewhere. Anyway, Milland is playing Dr. Kirshner, a legendary transplant doctor who also happens to be a bigot. To be fair, he’s not that much of a bigot by movie standards; he doesn’t want to hire a black guy as a doctor in his hospital and he keeps referring to co-star Rosie Greer as a ‘black bastard,’ but you’d hear more bigoted stuff coming out of Archie Bunker’s mouth on any given episode of All in the Family, which was on the air at the same time. The Thing With Two Heads was a PG picture, but you’d think they could find something more hardcore for their bigoted lead to say beyond ‘black bastard.’
Kirshner is dying, and so he’s been putting his efforts towards a new kind of research: head transplants. In one of the greatest moments in motion picture history a wheelchair bound Milland is briefly menaced by a two headed gorilla (played by Rick Baker!), which then escapes and briefly terrorizes a bodega. Kirshner’s assistants, clad in lab coats and wielding rifles, come on in and take the thing down. It’s actually a pretty good gorilla suit, as is the rest of the effects in the shoddy film. As far as I can tell this was Baker’s first work, although he may have worked on 1971’s The Incredible 2 Headed Transplant - yes, The Thing With Two Heads is essentially the blaxploitation version of that film; both were released by American International Pictures.
Anyway, they get the ape back and the transplant is a success. The original ape head is removed and the new head is put into position on the spine, and a gorilla with a new head is created. Meanwhile, Kirshner shows off some of his racist cred by hassling Land of the Giants star (and one time Star Trek guest star) Don Marshall. Marshall’s playing Dr. Fred Williams (surely a play on Fred ‘The Hammer’ Williamson!), who has gotten a job at Kirshner’s transplant institute, but nobody knew he was black. Kirshner throws a hissy fit - but it’s all seeped in irony, because you know this dude is coming back into the picture.
Things get worse for Kirshner, and knowing the head transplant scheme works, he starts looking for a new body. The film does something interesting here - instead of having the doctor rob graves or commit murder, it has him using his wealth and fame to get the government to hand over a death row inmate. There’s something approaching social commentary here.
The death row inmates are told that they will be giving their bodies to science, but the experiment will result in their death in 30 days (that’s how long it takes the new head to get fully acclimated to the body). Nobody wants to do it, until Rosey Grier is getting taken to the death chamber (there’s an amazing sequence, shot from Grier’s POV as he’s taken to the electric chair. One of the other prisoners is fucking FREAKING out about Rosie going to the chamber, and as the camera passes by his cell - where he’s trying to just squeeze himself through the bars - we see this poster on his wall:
Nice touch! That inmate, by the way, is character actor William Smith, who would work with Frost on other films. He plays an amazing karate instructor in Policewomen, and he starred alongside Ray Milland in the TV miniseries Rich Man, Poor Man.
At the last minute, seated on the electric chair, Rosey donates his body to science. See, he’s innocent of the crime for which he was convicted, and he thinks his girlfriend and his lawyer could prove it. The experiment gives him 30 more days, and that could be all he needs.
Grier has taken some heat over the years for his performance in The Thing With Two Heads, but I find him to be endearing and charming. Grier, a former football player and the man who subdued Sirhan Sirhan after he assassinated Robert Kennedy, has a big wide head that holds big wide, warm features. He’s got a great smile. Also, he spends most of the movie with a decayed old Hollywood actor strapped to his back. Under these circumstances, Grier is delivering a fine, fine performance.
So Grier’s off to Kirshner’s house (the whole operation and recovery will take place there. I’m assuming because Frost and company couldn’t afford a hospital). One of the film’s great moments comes here as the cops escort him to the front of the house, where Kirshner’s assistants wait. Kirshner’s now in a coma, about to die, and they have to make the call whether or not to take the body. They see a huge hulking black man and just slowly lower their heads. It’s hilarious.
The transplant is a success! As it had to be, otherwise there would be no film. There are some complications, and Kirshner’s assistant needs to call in Dr. Williams to help; working night and day the young black doctor saves the life of the old racist head. Then the two headed thing begins to awaken. Kirshner is, as you can imagine, chuffed that he’s suddenly attached to a black guy. Grier awakens horrified to discover that he’s sharing shoulder space with an old honkey head. Kirshner can control the body slightly while Rosey is out cold, but otherwise he’s a prisoner there, and will be for weeks, until his head asserts dominance.
The film achieves the two headed effect a number of ways. Most of the time it’s Rosey Grier in a big, padded suit with a dummy head on his shoulder (there is what appears to be a women’s belt around their necks, holding them together). The dummy head is actually quite good; during the transplant scene it moved its mouth and eyes and looked pretty real. Other times poor Ray Milland is strapped behind Grier; at one point he is obviously dug into the dirt while Grier lays on top of him. In one scene, during a car chase, Milland is leaning forward into the front seat and as the scene goes on his face is getting redder and redder from the strain. It’s the most tense moment in The Thing With Two Heads -will Ray Milland blow a blood vessel?
When Grier learns that the plan is to cut off his head and keep Kirshner atop his beautiful black defensive tackle body, he engineers an escape. In another great moment the two headed monster stops before escaping to put on a suit, as if wearing a hospital dressing gown would attract any more attention than a giant black guy with a white man’s head growing out of his shoulder. A white man’s snoring head, I should note, as Kirshner is asleep and sawing logs for the first half of the escape attempt.
This is the first in what I hope to be a series of Schlock Corridor entries where in I examine the work of Lee Frost (and maybe when it’s all said and done we can have a Lee Frostival!), and so I want to take a moment to address a couple of Lee Frost touches that will be appearing not just in The Thing With Two Heads but in many of the films we’ll be exploring.
1) Phil Hoover. This big, hulking dude - a former football player himself - appears in a number of movies in the Lee Frostverse. These include films that Frost directed, like The Thing With Two Heads (here he plays a cop who gets beat up by the thing) and Black Gestapo, films that Frost wrote like Race With the Devil and films that are sort of tangentially associated with Frost, like Garden of the Dead, which features Frost in an acting role. (Garden of the Dead is horrible)
2) Dirt bikes. Lee Frost loves dirt bikes. In Dixie Dynamite he actually managed to get Steve McQueen to ride a dirtbike uncredited. Dirt bikes also show up in Race With the Devil.
3) Lee Frost Hill. Like the great auteurs, Lee Frost had locations he liked to visit again and again. One of those is a hilly area somewhere in the SoCal scrub country; he staged many car chases there, and almost every single one of those chases would involve a car flipping down Lee Frost Hill, one specific hill to which he kept returning. I have not yet been able to pinpoint the location of Lee Frost Hill, and any information is welcome.
4) Brutal sexuality. Sadly, that is not to be found in The Thing With Two Heads, which is a PG movie.
So Phil Hoover gets beat up in the escape, and the thing takes Dr. Williams hostage. They get into a fairly anemic car chase, with Rosey and Kirshner bickering the whole time. Kirshner’s taunts are so lame though; they’re all in the vein of ‘You people always stick together!’ and ‘Criminal types think alike.’ So bland.
Pretty soon there’s a breakdown and the thing and Williams are on the run on foot. Frost really pads this section out with cop cars driving around a helicopter searching the landscape; the doctor talks to the convict, who tries to convince him that the gun which got him the death penalty for shooting a cop was in someone else’s hands when the crime was committed. Williams is intrigued, but before they can talk any more the police chopper shows up and a cop just starts shooting wildly at everybody. The way the cops handle this makes no sense - the fugitive has not one but TWO hostages, and they just keep opening fire on everybody.
This leads us to the amazing site of Rosey Grier trying to run up dusty Southland hillsides with a mannequin head strapped to his shoulder; ole Doc Kirshner’s noggin just flops and flaps about helplessly. When they crest a hill the duo/trio see that they’ve come upon… a dirtbike track!
And so begins a twenty minute chase scene, filled with lots and lots of extraneous shots of dirt bikes jumping and taking curves and wiping out in the mud. What’s amazing though is the footage of the thing on the bike, because Williams gets on and holds on for dear life. There’s a stuntdriver with a fake head on his shoulder AND a dummy attached to his back. The close ups are incredible, with Grier just turning his hands back and forth on the handlebars like a kid playing invisible dirtbikes.
The cops chase the dirtbiking thing through the whole track, and the thing wins the race! But the chase isn’t over; just when it looks like it’s all done 14 cop cars begin chasing the thing - and much of this next chase sequence happens directly on Lee Frost Hill.
The intended scope of this chase is admirable; the reality is less so. We see what appears to be a dozen cop cars getting totaled, but it soon becomes obvious that it’s the same car again and again - in one totaling the car STARTS the wreck without a hood and with a shattered windshield. The structure of the chase is really weird too, since the dirtbike doubles up on its own route, meaning a scene where cop cars wreck while trying to chase the bike over a small wooden bridge happens TWICE!
All throughout this Lee Frost plays a cop with a way too short tie who keeps getting screwed up and can’t quite make it into the chase. This sort of encapsulates the film’s odd tone; it knows that the proceedings are far too stupid to take seriously, but it seems to be unwilling to make any kind of commitment to humor. Or maybe Lee Frost isn’t that good at humor; after watching many of his films I think Frost liked silliness but wasn’t particularly adept at staging it.
The chase finally ends. It’s essentially all of act two, a never-ending drone of dirtbike engine. The visuals never cease to be hilarious, though, especially since close-ups of the stuntdriver reveal that his hands have been painted black to match Rosey Grier.
The two headed beast makes it to Grier’s girlfriend’s house. She has the best possible reaction to seeing her boyfriend with a white man’s head grafted on to him: “You get into more shit…”
Grier promptly tries to fuck her, despite having Ray Milland’s head surgically attached to him! Grier offers to put a pillowcase over Kirshner’s head, and his girlfriend is hopeful, saying she can maybe do it once she gets used to the aging cracka staring back at her. Kirshner, meanwhile, is horrified. “Is this all you people think about?” When she refuses to give up dat ass, Grier makes up his mind. Maybe he could have dealt with having an old man on his neck before, but if it’s going to get in the way of his fucking it needs to be dealt with. “You know this means you gots to go,” he warns.
That scene is one of the ones that feels most like Frost is really holding back. In his other films Frost wasn’t afraid to get sleazy, and the sleaze possibilities of that semi-threeway are enormous. The damn PG restrains the scene, though.
As the thing takes a nap the girlfriend convinces Dr. Williams that Rosey is in fact innocent. There’s another man who did the deed, and they have to find him. But as that’s happening Kirshner is waking up and practicing taking control of the body. Dr. Williams decides that he has to cut off Kirshner’s head, but at the last minute Kirshner takes control of the entire body. What then happens is an amazing sequence where Rosey Grier starts smooshing his own face, ostensibly under the control of Ray Milland.
There’s a scuffle, but Williams gets the beast into surgery. He leaves Kirshner’s head alive, attached to tubes; when Kirsh’s assistants come (they’ve been called into action by Williams), they find the head saying “Get me another body!” And Williams, Grier and the girlfriend are all in a car, driving somewhere, singing Oh Happy Day.
And that’s it! It’s a weird ending; back in the 70s you customarily gave more closure than that. You would expect that the very least the film would have ended with Grier finding the guy who killed the cop and getting his own name cleared, and either with Kirshner learning a lesson or being dead. Instead it’s just a set-up for a sequel. Which never came, of course.
This isn’t the best of Lee Frost’s work, although it does contain many of his great signatures. It is the Lee Frost film you’re most likely to have seen already, since it was briefly popular as one of those ‘so bad it’s good’ movies, and it played on TV often enough because the PG of the film is so soft. There are a lot of missed opportunities here - Grier and Milland share half their scenes together but rarely seem to bother communicating, for one thing - and the second act chase grinds on way too long. But as with all Lee Frost films there are moments of sublime weirdness; also nice about The Thing With Two Heads is the way the movie plays the silliest stuff completely straight and tries to milk laughs out of cop car crashes (there’s a wacky joke moment that comes from a cop breaking his arm in a horrible wreck). Frost was either brilliant or completely missing the mark - either way it’s hilarious.
I suspect that the next Schlock Corridor won’t be a Lee Frost film, but we’ll be returning to him soon enough. IMDB lists two other Lee Frost films for 1972, although I can’t find any information about Two For the Money. Some people claim that the other 72 production credited to Frost, Slaves In Cages, isn’t actually his; the film seems to be a 1971 production anyway, and may have been called The Captives. This is one of the problems of trying to follow the filmography of these sleaze merchants from the 70s - they worked under many names, and sometimes they get credit for films that aren’t even their own.
Until next time…