Thursday, October 12, 2006

THE HEAD (1959)

I ran across this budget DVD with a trashy, lurid cover at the library and chose it for a "low expectations" viewing night, but the movie turned out to be better than its title and cover would indicate, and much more interesting than the more well-known B-movie THE BRAIN THAT WOULDN'T DIE (made the same year as this movie but not released until '62). That one was rightfully skewered on MST3K, but this German film, despite having a few low-budget rough edges, isn't a bad movie at all. Prof. Abel (well-regarded French character actor Michel Simon) lives in an odd house, not quite art deco, but reminiscent of other sinister mad doctor houses (specifically from THE BLACK CAT and EYES WITOUT A FACE), surrounded by an ominous Grimm Brothers forest. Attended by Dr. Burke (Kurt Muller-Graf) and a strapping, somewhat slow-witted assistant named Burt (Helmut Schmid), Abel has been working on Serum X, a formula to keep dead tissue alive, and he's used it successfully on a dog's head. Irene, a young and lovely but hunchbacked nurse (Karen Kernke) visits often and seems to have a thing for Dr. Burke. The creepy Dr. Ood (Horst Frank) arrives one night, having applied to be an assistant to Abel, who is sick and is planning on having his doctors perform a heart transplant on him, but Ood has more grandiose ambitions, wanting to perfect Serum X for his own purposes. When Burke catches on to Ood's plans, Ood kills him, decapitates Abel, and keeps his head alive, resting in a tub of the serum, with wires attached all over the place. Ood's ultimate plan is to cut off Irene's head and attach it to the voluptuous body of Lilly (Christiane Maybach), a stripper at the Tam-Tam Club, on whom, years ago, Ood performed plastic surgery to help her beat a murder rap. The operation goes well and at first, all Irene knows is that her hunched back has been cured, but soon she suspects that something isn't quite right, and when she discovers that she has Lilly's purse, she winds up at the Tam-Tam Club where the stripper's boyfriend recognizes a beauty mark on Irene's back as belonging to Lilly. A somewhat rushed climax follows, resulting in death and destruction back at the Abel house.

The German title of this film is "Die Nackte und der Satan," which translates as "The Nude and the Devil," and indeed the print I saw shows much evidence of censoring snips. We see Lilly start her strip tease, but then there's an abrupt cut to another scene. Later, when Ood plies Lilly with liquor to get her into his lab, she starts writhing, fully clothed, on a couch, then after a jagged cut, she is seen passed out in just her underwear. I assume both scenes had some nudity or near-nudity removed for American audiences, and it would be nice to see a clean and restored version of the movie. It's not a timeless classic, but for God's sake, if Criterion can do a special edition disc of the B-flick FIEND WITHOUT A FACE, it wouldn't hurt for some company to at least dig around for a complete cut of this film. The sets, not quite expressionistic, are quite atmospheric, and even the bare-bones strip club has a weird, "Blue Velvet"-ish feel. The movie's biggest strength is Horst Frank, who looks and acts appropriately strange without going over the top. As far as I know, the only version of this available in the states is from Alpha Video, and though the print is far from perfect, the dubbing is surprisingly good and I was pleased to discover this little gem in any condition. [DVD]

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