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Sunday, June 30, 2024

Complete Head Transplantation - a Pop-Culture Odyssey of Mad Science


Mad science takes many forms, both in real-life and in fiction. The classic mad scientist is typified by Dr. Frankenstein, in particular the version of the character from Universal Studios' 1931 Frankenstein - so much so that the name has become archetypal in its application. In the 1931 movie, and notably absent from the 1818 novel by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, there is a well-known plot point about a stolen brain being implanted into the creature on Frankenstein's slab. This plays heavily into how things go awry for the young doctor, and from the horror of the monster's ensuing rampage through several sequels and adaptations comes many imitators. The brain transplantation trope occurs frequently, with many variations, over the decades in horror and science fiction stories, as does reanimation of the dead. Our focus for today, however, is that most niche of mad science properties- the complete transplantation of a human head.

The concept of full head transplantation precedes the fictional examples, even occurring prior to the aforementioned Frankenstein. In 1908, Dr. Charles Claude Guthrie successfully grafted the head of a dog onto the neck of another dog. Such an experiment was repeated in 1950s Russia by Dr. Vladimir Demikhov, and further such surgeries were attempted by Robert J. White on monkeys. Video can be found of Demikhov's experiments on YouTube, but as a word of warning they are not for the faint of heart. Getting too deeply into the specific implications of historical head transplantation is a bit grim for our purposes here, and it is perhaps enough to note that the over-the-top movie trope has some basis in fact. Modern respectable doctors scoff at the ethical and practical impediments inherent in such operations, while as recently as 2015 announced plans for attempts at human head transplantation made the news. It is worth bearing in mind that life-saving advances in medical procedure were the goal with many of these experiments, and have led to organ transplantation techniques which are commonplace now. Derided by the press and by "anti-vivisectionists", largely due to specious reporting that Guthrie had grafted the head of a cat onto a dog, he perhaps never received credit that was due to him. His 1908 success in creating a two-headed dog was in partnership with Dr. Alexis Carrel, with the goal of furthering our understanding of connecting arteries, nerves and tissue. Carrel would go on to receive a Nobel Prize, and author a book called L'Homme, cet inconnu (Man, the Unknown). There is much more to say regarding Carrel's association with supernatural beliefs, with eugenics, and the complicated history and ethics of medical experiments; but such is beyond the scope of this essay, and would only constitute dawdling on the shores of our proverbial Ithaca instead of charting the waters of our pop-culture Odyssey.

As a bonus mad science tidbit- Dr. Carrel is noted here for keeping a chicken heart alive in isolation. This inspired a horror story on the popular radio program Lights Out!

The experiments of Demikhov in particular likely inspired the late 1950s trend of head transplantation movies, but a much earlier such piece of fiction was published in Russia in 1925. Professor Dowell's Head, written by Alexander Belyaev, contains several plot elements that we will explore in movies such as The Head (1957). Not published in English until 1980, it's unclear whether it influenced American filmmakers prior to its translation. Described as a Kafkaesque version of Frankenstein, the plot involves a nefarious Dr. Kern removing the head of the titular character and secretly keeping it alive in order to force scientific knowledge from him. He goes on to transplant the head of one woman in place of another. Whether the story influenced the films in this post is unknown, and one wonders if Dr. Demikhov had read it in his native language. It did however inspire an adaptation for Japanese television in 1979, a Russian movie version called Professor Dowell's Testament in 1984, and a Chinese movie called The Head in the House in 1989.

As alluded to earlier, the Golden Age (as it were) of our incredibly niche focus today was in the late fifties. Beginning with a British film called The Man Without a Body in 1957, we are treated to a tale of an unscrupulous wealthy businessman who realizes he is dying from a brain tumor. His only chance for survival is to visit the lab of Dr. Phil Merrit, and possibly receive a brain transplant. Here we see a flaw already in the plot that never seems to be addressed- should Brussard the oil baron's brain be replaced how could it still be said to be him? The literally mind-bending proposal leads one to wonder where the Self is, what constitutes the person. The characters in the movie seem unperturbed by this foundational error. At any rate, Brussard visits Madame Tussod's Wax Museum and learns of the prophet Nostradamus. He decides that only the brain of the great prognosticator is worthy of his skull, and arranges to have the actual head of Nostradamus brought to Merrit's lab to be reanimated. Though the plot of the story hinges more on the (nonsensical) transplantation of a brain, more than a full head, it's included here for the amount of time the reanimated Nostramus's noggin spends on a plate, reanimated against his will. Merrit's lab is an impressive set for the time, with an array of isolated organs hooked up to machines, a lone monkey head kept alive by equipment, and a single living eye suspended in the background.

The pace of the movie is fairly slow, and the flaws in the story could have been more entertaining had they been more flamboyant in their presentation. For instance, Brussard is an old man dying of brain cancer, but still manages to bully the two young doctors and even murder a few people. There doesn't seem to be any reason for the doctor and his assistant to put up with him at all, and it's eventually the Head of Nostradamus that does him in by giving him bad financial advice.

A much more fun and very stylized head transplantation movie came from West Germany in 1959, and released in 1961 in the United States as The Head. (The original German title was Die Nackte und der Satan, or The Naked and Satan. At the risk of spoiling things the American title much more accurately describes the film.) Much like in Professor Dowell's Head, we have an interloping devious young scientist who keeps the head of another doctor alive. This doctor, named Dr. Abel, dies of a heart attack and in being kept conscious in a serum transfusion set-up as a disembodied head is forced by the sadistic Dr. Ood to bear witness to further transplantations. 

 Notably, the film features a dog's head being kept alive through this transfusion process, echoing the real life examples mentioned earlier. One hopes that Ood cleaned the equipment properly before attaching poor Dr. Abel's head to the same device. The sexuality of the original title arrives in the plot as Ood attempts to find a suitable body to transplant the head of his hunchbacked female assistant to- and leads him to find an unwitting donor in the form of a stripper he murders. He sets up his assistant's headless body to look like an accidental death on the railroad tracks. The Head is more horrific and menacing, and more stylized than The Man Without a Body. It is 1950s sci-fi schlock, but it has a certain charm and, for what it's worth, less plot holes than the aforementioned film. It also holds a lot of similarities to our next film, the first American entry- the iconic and well-known The Brain That Wouldn't Die. Finished in 1959, it wasn't released until 1962. Errors in the copyright notices led to it falling into public domain, which might explain why it is the only movie we're discussing today that got the Mystery Science Theater 3000 treatment. (The MST3k episode for The Brain That Wouldn't Die is notable as the first episode with Mike Nelson on the Satellite of Love in place of Joel.)

The mad doctor in this one, Dr. Bill Cortner, is an unlikeable upstart from his first scene where he badgers his father for not "playing the game" correctly. By this he means that ethics around experimentation in medicine only hinder the advancement of the science, and that he should be free to tinker as he wishes. He's almost too realistic as a sociopathic rich kid who only gets away with his behavior because of his tenured father. He never seems to emote in any way other than irritation, and is singularly focused on his new methods of grafting, transplanting, and growing flesh. His failures are evident with his lab assistant, for whom he has transplanted a hand which withered due to rejection- and also by the hulking monster in the closet, which he inadvertently created. Despite his many flaws, he has a fiancee named Jan who is eager to spend time with him.

He brings her along to his secret lab, and manages to crash their convertible on the way. Jan is decapitated, and, thinking quickly (unencumbered by human emotion) Cortner retrieves her head. Back at his country estate, and with the help of his disabled assistant, he stabilizes Jan's head and keeps it alive with the by-now-familiar transfusion process. The laboratory set in this film is perhaps the best of the bunch; Virginia Leith as Jan is magnetic as a disembodied head. Naturally, she isn't happy about this state of affairs, and pleads with Cortner to let her die. Never one to listen to reason or be bothered by moral quandary, Bill instead sets out to find a new body- and much like in The Head, he seeks out a dancer for his needed material. The Brain That Wouldn't Die hits the right notes of absurdity to be thoroughly entertaining as a B-Movie. The monster in the closet is a great bonus element that helps to achieve the ramped-up unreality of the film, and if that wasn't enough Jan's ability to telepathically communicate with it- which eventually secures her delivery from life in the pan- makes it a classic of the genre. Incidentally, our real-life Dr. Carrel promoted the idea of telepathy in his time as well...

About a decade would pass before our two final entries arrived. Often confused with each other, the trend in the early 70s tended toward two heads on one body. This mirrors our real-life examples of Guthrie and Demikhov, but can also happen naturally. It's not uncommon for reptiles to have more than one head; examples are often found of turtles or snakes with such a condition to live healthy lives with such a condition. In mammals, it usually leads to a very brief life- but there are exceptions. A cat named Frankenlouie (or Frank and Louie) lived a full fifteen years in Massachusetts, with the "janus face" condition of diprosopus. While one could argue this is really more a case of two faces, and not two heads, it was reported that each seemed to behave independently.

In human beings, conjoined twins can sometimes appear as a two-headed person, as is the case with reality TV twins Abby and Brittany Hensel. A very rare type of undeveloped conjoined twin known as craniopagus parasiticus involves twins attached at the head, for whom only one has developed a body. Each head having its own brain, which requires quite a bit of work from the heart pumping fluids, usually leads to death in these cases. One of the heads needs to be removed for survival to be possible, and the risks of such surgery on an infant increase the mortality rate. It is perhaps worthwhile to consider this as we venture into the seventies for our double feature of double-headed transplant movies.

As previously mentioned, these two movies often get confused- and for good reason. Both were released within a year of each other (and both from American International Pictures), and have similar titles. The major difference between the two movies is that one is really pretty entertaining and well-made, and the other is The Incredible Two-Headed Transplant. The latter features our most subdued mad scientist yet, played by a young Bruce Dern, who claims he was never paid for the role. To be fair, he did little to earn it. His wife, played by "Marylin Munster #2" Pat Price, is frustrated at the amount of time Dern's Dr. Girard spends in his lab with his many two-headed animals. The menagerie in his lab is a highlight, and gains the movie a few points for effort. That and the interesting casting choices, including also Casey Kasem, are bright points in a movie with terrible cinematography, editing, and sound design. The opening theme is laughably Bacharach-esque, and the rest of the score is unmastered psychedelic noise. The titular transplant comes as a result of an escaped, incredibly violent mental patient who kills Girard's caretaker and maims himself- leaving the hulking giant of the caretaker's grown but brain-damaged son an orphan. Saving the lunatic, Girard grafts his head to the giant Danny's bulk which for some reason doesn't go well.

In contrast, 1972's The Thing With Two Heads is full of action, dynamic performances from its lead actors Ray Milland and Rosey Grier, and a soundtrack that is funky as hell. Like The Brain That Wouldn't Die, it leans into the absurdity and faithfully executes it as a serious movie. Instead of having a monster or telepathy involved, it instead brings in the flavor of Blaxploitation cinema- with the head of a racist old surgeon grafted to the body of a black death row convict in a desperate bid to save his life. Milland, as the bigoted Dr. Kirshner, had previously appeared in the excellent The Man With the X-Ray Eyes, while Rosey Grier as an innocent man who goes from the frying pan of death row to the fire of an extra head has an incredibly interesting life and career. He was an athlete, actor, former bodyguard for Robert F. Kennedy (responsible for wrestling the gun away from Sirhan Sirhan after the assassination), and a promoter of hobbies not normally associated with men. 

Grier's character, Jack, agrees to be a test subject for a thirty-day period in a medical experiment that will ultimately kill him- but, as he sees it, it will buy him time to be pardoned as a wrongfully convicted murderer. He isn't told that the experiment involved the grafting of Milland's head onto his shoulder, with the eventual plan of removing his own. Milland simultaneously is unaware that his new body would be that of an African American, and is similarly displeased. The bulk of the movie is the chase scene in the middle, as Jack escapes and kidnaps the one black doctor who Kirshner unwittingly hired for the getaway. Riding around on a dirtbike with the police in hot pursuit, an impressive 14 cruisers are destroyed, bringing the chase action to near Blues Brothers heights of destruction. It might be the best movie of the bunch, or at least equal to The Brain That Wouldn't Die. In an admittedly bad genre of bad movie, it stands heads and shoulder above the rest.

While it doesn't have the same kind of monster-in-a-closet that ...Brain That Wouldn't Die did, it does feature a two-headed gorilla which also escapes early on. The actor for the fine man-in-a-monkey-suit action is credited as Rick Baker, who also did uncredited special effects and make-up for the movie. He is best known for his revolutionary practical effects in An American Werewolf in London.

Thus ends our catalogue of movies explicitly about complete head transplantation, but the impact of the idea has spread throughout culture. We find "honorable mentions" of transplanted heads in other movies, such as Re-Animator (1985)- an adaptation of the Lovecraft tale features the undying, isolated head of David Gale as Dr. Hill. Even the Martians of Tim Burton's 1996 movie Mars Attacks! get in on the action by switching the heads and bodies of Sarah Jessica Parker's character and her chihuahua. 

The trope has also been lampooned in modern cartoons, such as The Simpsons did in their second Treehouse of Horror Halloween special. Mr. Burns attempts to create the perfect worker by putting Homer's brain inside a giant robot; this fails, and through a comedy of errors he is crushed to death and his head is grafted to Homer in order to save him.

A similar fate befalls Fry and Amy on the show Futurama, making for an awkward Valentine's Day. Futurama also has a running joke of current day celebrities existing in the future as heads suspended in jars, furthering the theme.

Venture Brothers
 committed to the bit, as it were, by introducing (to our eyes, anyway) the elderly supervillain characters of Red Mantle and Dragoon who end up as a two-headed entity thanks to the botched kidnapping by the character Phantom Limb. In a show with a bewildering cast of characters, all of whom seem bafflingly memorable, Red Mantle and Dragoon are hilarious in adjusted to their late-in-life circumstances sharing a body. Their bickering explores some of the finer points of two brains operating from one body, whether that involves what alcoholic beverages to drink and in what order or whether they should be considered as one or two council members in their Guild. "We are two heads on one body, and that has never, ever been hip!" complains Dragoon in their inaugural episode as a stitched together pair. Much later, they pay homage to The Thing With Two Heads in a Halloween episode, with Dragoon applying blackface to be Rosey Grier.

And there we end our quest, for now. It is hoped that the above movies have been explained adequately enough that the reader doesn't have to watch them- but it is the considered opinion of the author that perhaps you should. Head transplantation is a very uncomfortable subject, and its uncanny context within the confines of cinema make it particularly poignant as a mirror to the potential horrors of materialist science. For every medical advancement, much trial and error must occur- or must it? Where do we draw the lines in such experimentation, and what level of good excuses measures of evil? It is beyond the purview of this article to answer such questions, and posing them- as, circuitously enough, these movies do- will have to be enough for now. We must, all of us, put our heads together to forge a new future with as little collateral damage as possible. The future, like an unwanted sewn-on head, rests on our collective shoulders, and it's up to us what kind of movie we make. 

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