Let’s talk about The Head. No, not the oddball 1990s MTV cartoon about the dude with the friendly alien living inside his now-oversized cranium; I’m referring to the 1959 German horror film The Head, also known as Die Nackte und der Satan. Call me crazy, but I’m a sucker for any movie with a talking head on a table.
The titular head belongs to Professor Dr. Abel, a mad scientist in a film that has more than its share of mad scientists. The good “Professor Doctor” is played by Michel Simon, the lumpy-faced character actor familiar to cineastes as Boudu from Jean Renoir’s comedy Boudu Saved from Drowning (1932), later remade as the forgettable Nick Nolte vehicle Down and Out in Beverly Hills (1986) and more recently as a Gérard Depardieu flick simply titled Boudu (2005). Wow, that’s quite a lot of irrelevant film history I laid on you just to introduce a talking head on a table. Sorry.
The point is, the talking head is being played by a fairly high-profile international film star of the calibre you wouldn’t normally expect to see pushing his misshapen noggin through a gimmicked laboratory table in a cheesy low-budget horror flick. It seems that Michel Simon was suffering from temporary paralysis at the time, brought on by some toxic makeup he was exposed to in a prior film. Unable to move or speak precisely, Simon accepted the largely motionless role of the decapitated Dr. Abel, believing that this cruddy little movie would remain largely unseen, and therefore not sully his reputation too much. The joke was on him when The Head became an international hit.
Dr. Abel has perfected “Serum Z,” a chemical solution that can keep severed limbs alive while they await transplant. The trouble is, Abel has an evil assistant named “Dr. Ood” (Horst Frank) who botches a heart transplant on Dr. Abel, and tries to salvage the situation by keeping Abel’s severed head alive with the new serum. Then, as a presumably malicious gesture, Ood wheels in a mirror so that the severed head can see itself and scream.
That Dr. Ood! We knew he was evil the minute we saw his eyebrows! In his very first scene, Ood walks into a sinister courtyard, picks up a turtle (?!) and grins maniacally at it. He then carries the turtle off-camera, and we never see it again! What the hell? Did he eat it?!
Then we meet Irene (Karin Kernke), a hunchbacked nurse. We can tell she’s a nurse because of her Red Cross brooch, and we can tell that she has a hunchback because she… er… stoops over slightly. It’s not a very convincing handicap, but it’s only temporary, because in no time flat, Dr. Ood has transplanted her head onto the body of a stripper. Yowsa! Now Irene’s getting a lot more attention from men, including Ood, who puts the moves on her. Irene also meets a smitten artist who asks her to pose for him, only to receive a shock when he recognizes a birthmark on Irene’s new body. (The stripper had modelled for him in the past, and had the same mark.)
There are plenty of clunky splices and ragged edits in The Head, particularly during scenes that take place at the strip club. Did some prudish yet incompetent editor remove some exotic dancing from this flick? I’d be curious to see any stripper routine that would be considered more damaging to young eyes than the sight of a severed head screaming on a table. Another peculiarity of the film is Michel Simon’s earlier scenes as a full-bodied Dr. Abel, in which the paralyzed actor’s back is turned to the camera whenever he speaks, presumably to help disguise the fact that his voice is being dubbed. Oddly enough, his performance improves dramatically once he loses his body.
Fans of The Brain that Wouldn’t Die (1962) will be curious about checking out this similarly themed little shocker, which isn’t as deliriously entertaining as Brain, but has a weird charm of its own. And remember — scientists with triangular eyebrows are not to be trusted.