Ray gives Rosey head.
Brilliant scientist and surgeon Dr. Maxwell Kirshner (Ray Milland) is dying of cancer and hopes to transplant his still-healthy head onto another body. Enter death-row inmate Jack Moss (Roosevelt ‘Rosey’ Grier) who’s willing to provide the much-needed body because he’s certain that he’ll be exonerated shortly. Unfortunately, Maxwell is a raging racist, as we see in his poor treatment of talented young black doctor Dr. Fred Williams (Don Marshall), so now he’s got a chip on his shoulder, so to speak….
So the opening example of how this new, awesome surgery works shows a gorilla (Rick Baker) with two heads escaping into the streets to terrorize a corner market. Eventually, the gorilla is recaptured and the original head is severed to allow the new head to take over as head head. How the good doctor managed to attach a second head to a body in his basement lab is not clear, did he somehow split the various veins and arteries? He would also have had to somehow splice on new vertebrae and attach the spinal cord and all those nerves. Even the muscles would have to be attached to keep him from being a bobblehead. It can’t be too hard though, because surgeon Dr. Philip Desmond (Roger Perry), with a small team, manage to do it again… in Dr. Kirshner’s basement. Even so, each of these is a medical miracle in and of itself, something that this film overlooks a bit. I’m getting the feeling that the people responsible weren’t especially well-versed in biology.
Much of the film is an extended chase, first car versus car, then guys on foot – yeah, for some reason Dr. Williams decides to cooperate with Jack – versus a helicopter, then Jack and Dr. Williams on a dirt bike versus all the cop cars in Southern California. The chases lack all tension, but, really, much of this film is played for laughs, so that’s not surprising. I wonder if John Landis saw this before making The Blues Brothers and thought, “well, I can wreck more cop cars in a comic chase than that!”? This shows how entertaining the film is, I’m thinking about other films. When Jack / Max escapes by jabbing a nurse in the ass with a local anesthetic probably would not put her out, but would certainly put her ass to sleep, much like this film does to its audience.
Dr. Williams sides with Jack because he believes Jack’s story that he’s innocent of murder. Of course, the thing about convicted felons is that they’re all honest people. Even by the end of the film, there’s no real evidence presented that Jack is innocent other than his word and a statement by his girlfriend, Lila (Chelsea Brown), neither of which is likely to be unbiased. Perhaps the reason that Dr. Williams sides with Jack is also partly because Dr. Kirshner is such a racist asshole? This film is as much a chimera as the titular character. Here, as is common in blaxploitation, the hero is a guy abused by the system – well, maybe – because the system is inherently racist and the police seek out the simplest answer to a crime unless he actually did it in which case they’re seeking out the correct answer to the crime. Is racism just a red herring here – the color of the herring shouldn’t matter really, should it? – or is this another one of those black versus white films of the 1970s?
Personality-wise, none of the characters seems like anything special and the actors aren’t really good enough – or don’t bother – to drag this film out of the morass of silliness. Dr. Maxwell Kirshner is staring death in the face because of “chest cancer.” I’m assuming “chest cancer” is ‘lung cancer’, which is especially sad since that’s what eventually killed Ray Milland in real life. Anyway, Dr. Kirshner is supposed to be one of those super-genius scientists who can work miracles, and is in trouble, but he’s unable to drop his racism when it comes down to it. Sure, this could happen, but when it’s a matter of life and death, Dr. Kirshner would have to be more racist than the whole Klan to push aside a doctor who could, potentially, mean the difference between living and dying. Even when he’s attached to Jack’s ample shoulders, he’s not so racist that he would prefer to die rather than continue being part of a Manster. This is one of Ray Milland‘s end-of-career films when he seemed to accept anything to keep the money coming in. It’s a shame that the actor who won a well-deserved Oscar for his portrayal of a drunk in The Lost Weekend ended up making crap; I thought X:The Man With the X-Ray Eyes was awesome though and may well have been his last great role. Despite his Welsh background, he seems too classy for the dialog he’s forced to spew, which makes his character seem even less authentic than he would otherwise.
Why Dr. Williams would put himself in harm’s way – the stupid police shoot at him even though he’s a hostage – and risk his whole future? Even if Jack is later exonerated, Dr. Williams could still be charged with aiding a fugitive and would face discipline from the medical board. Even if nothing like that happened, he would be unemployable because of his ethics. The ending is messed up as, if the now-severed head of Dr. Max dies, then Dr. Williams will be a murderer. What really makes little sense is the way that Dr. Williams decides to support Jack – it’s a little early for Stockholm Syndrome to have kicked in – despite no real reason to. I would venture to guess that the writers assumed that it would be okay to have the black folks stick together, but, well, that’s not really how it works. Dr. Williams spent many years in medical school and presumably made many sacrifices to get where he is, but is now is throwing that all away to be a fugitive and possibly a murderer? How did anyone who’s such a dumbass make it through organic chemistry? Don Marshall does his best with a role that’s so ill-defined, but there’s so little there that he’s left with nothing.
Jack is supposed to be a nice guy that we can root for, but the problem is that we’re given no good reason to assume that he’s actually innocent. The only reason his character survives is because he volunteers for a medical experiment that will lead to his death – the details aren’t explained to him – and we’re supposed to feel bad that he’s got a racist head on his shoulder. The trouble is, our sympathy for the man is predicated on our acceptance of his word that he’s innocent, and that’s a bit of a stretch. Rosey Grier was never any kind of movie star – he mostly made cameos and guest appearances – and is better known – by older football fans – for his sports career. He’s an interesting guy as he wrote Needlepoint for Men in 1973 and later became a minister and community-service organizer. You know, I’d really enjoy seeing a documentary on this guy, he seems fun.
The rest of the cast is more or less forgettable with the exception of character actor William Smith overacting badly in the death-row scene.
The special effects are laughable. The two-headed ape looks about as convincing as Ro-Man from Robot Monster and that’s a lot better than the rest of the work. Most of the time it looks like Grier is giving Milland a piggy-back ride so that they can share a neck-brace. When there are scenes that call for a fake head, the effect is every bit as realistic as Zaphod Beeblebrox in the BBC-produced The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. However, while the poor effects in the BBC series are endearing in a cheesy Dr. Who sort of way, the effects here are simply laughably bad. There’s the main issue with the film, what Samuel Z. Arkoff and his American International Pictures made here isn’t scary in the slightest. Instead, the filmmakers try to keep it light and put in some humor here and there, but the humor is usually flat. Instead, the laughs come from the poor performances and bad effects and it’s not entertaining unless you have a fondness for bad films. Even then, the pacing of this film is piss-poor. It feels like an episode of The Twilight Zone stretched out to 93 minutes through a lot of pointless dialog and a seemingly-endless motorcycle chase.
Yeah, it’s not so good.
Trailer on YouTube.