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THE HEAD

Believe me when I tell you this 1959 German shocker is the best talking-head-in-a-dish movie ever (at least until RE-ANIMATOR).  The premise is a hopelessly goofy—and, needless to say, scientifically implausible—one, but the film is distinguished by stunning visuals and a superbly nightmarish atmosphere.  The result is a one-of-a-kind mixture of art and schlock. 

The Package 
     This film was originally released in its original language, German, under the rather ungainly title DIE NACKTE UND DER SATAN, but is nowadays best known in the English dubbed version retitled THE HEAD.  If nothing else, it certainly has an intriguing pedigree: writer/director Victor Trivas co-wrote the script for the Orson Welles film THE STRANGER (1946) and set designer Herman Warm had previously performed similar duties on THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI (1920) and DESTINY (1921).  THE HEAD isn’t in the same league as those classics, but remains an entertaining curiosity that makes for a good companion piece to the similarly themed (though far less artful) American production THE BRAIN THAT WOULDN’T DIE, which arrived in 1962, a full three years later. 

The Story
     The demented Dr. Ood works as an assistant to the distinguished Professor Abel, who has developed a serum that can keep a dog’s head alive while severed from its body.  Ood decides to do the same with a human head, and gets his chance when the professor suffers a heart attack; Ood wastes no time decapitating Abel so he can keep his head alive in a laboratory.  He’s got a much grander pan in mind: to cut the head off a hunchbacked nurse Ood has his eye on and graft it onto a stripper’s body, an operation he needs Abel’s help in carrying out. 
     In short order, Ood takes the desired stripper back to his apartment, drugs and beheads her.  Luring the nurse into his laboratory under false pretences, he completes the procedure, turning her into a beautiful woman over whom he exerts a near-hypnotic control.  Things don’t go the way he plans, however, as his “perfect” female specimen turns increasingly rebellious, the police grow suspicious and Ood inevitably goes mad. 

The Direction 
     The subject matter is the very essence of camp, but Victor Trivas treats it with all the seriousness and solemnity of a funeral march, which is a large part of what makes THE HEAD so appealing.  Unfortunately, this also makes for an oft-dull and monotonous film with a narrative that peters out in the third act.  The masterful black and white photography makes up for many of the shortcomings with its stunning mastery of light and shadow worthy of the legendary Greg Toland (who, for those who don’t know, shot CITIZEN KANE and THE GRAPES OF WRATH, among other classics).  The film is also quite atmospheric.  I don’t know that I agree with the blurb on the back of the DVD cover that “descending into the world of THE HEAD is a similar experience to that of a nightmare...silent, transfixed horror is the only possible reaction”, but I do heartily recommend this vintage oddity.


Vital Statistics 

THE HEAD (DIE NACKTE UND DER SATAN)
Rapid Film/Alpha Video 

Director: Victor Trivas
Producer: Wolfgang Hartwig
Screenplay: Victor Trivas
Cinematography: Otto Reinwald
Editor: Friedel Buckow
Cast: Horst Frank, Karin Kernke, Helmut Schmid, Pal Dahlke, Dietter Eppler, Kurt Muller Graf, Christiane Maybach, Michael Simon, Maria Stadler, Otto Storr
 


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