Retro-Musings: “The Thing With Two Heads” (1972) is a silly exploitation flick with something on its mind(s)…


1972’s blaxploitation horror-comedy “The Thing With Two Heads” followed the release of earlier double-headed transplant/monster movies, including 1959’s “The Manster,” and 1971’s “The Incredible 2-Headed Transplant.” “Thing…” was created at the 1970s height of the blaxploitation-horror subgenre, which yielded such cult classics as the “Blacula” movies (1972/1973), 1973’s “Blackenstein,” and 1974’s “Abby” (a knockoff of “The Exorcist”).

Rosey Grier and Ray Milland really get ahead of themselves…

I remember watching this particular movie on TV well past my bedtime on the late, late, late show as a kid.  As a young monster movie fan, I appreciated the movie’s bizarre makeups (which were great for the time), and the body horror aspect was believable enough for a nine-year old kid.  Of course, as I got older, I’d watch the movie mainly for laughs, particularly when it got Elvira’s “Movie Macabre” treatment in 1981. 

Finding a copy of it on YouTube recently, I decided to take another look at this admittedly silly flick from my warped childhood, with the benefit of (ironically) worse-yet-better vision that comes with age…

“The Thing With Two Heads” (1972)

The movie opens with aging, wheelchair-bound Dr. Maxwell Kirshner (Ray Milland) arriving at his mansion and being helped out of his car by his assistant surgeon, Dr. Desmond (Roger Perry).

Note: Ray Milland (1907-1986) won an Oscar for “The Lost Weekend” (1945) before his once-promising career descended into exploitation flicks, including Roger Corman’s “The Man With X-Ray Eyes” (1963).  Milland would also play many memorable TV roles, including zombie cult leader ‘Varrick’ in “The Dead Don’t Die” (1975), a recast ‘Roman Castavet’ in “Look What’s Happened to Rosemary’s Baby” (1976) and decadent politician ‘Sire Uri’ in the three-hour pilot of 1978’s “Battlestar Galactica,” which was later reedited into a feature film.

That Gorilla o’ Mine.
Dr. Max Kirshner (Ray Milland) and his assistant check in with their two-headed abomination (Rick Baker) in the basement lab.

Desmond takes Kirshner to the mansion’s basement lab, where they see the progress of their latest experiment; a two-headed gorilla (Rick Baker) whose second head came courtesy of Kirshner’s new transplantation techniques.  Kirshner, who’s dying of cancer, hopes to use his own techniques on himself; transplanting his aged, dying head onto a younger, cancer-free body. 

Note: The ape is both created and played by future Oscar-winning makeup legend Rick Baker (“Star Wars,” “American Werewolf in London,” “Ed Wood”). Baker’s makeups for this otherwise schlocky film were groundbreaking for their day, even if they don’t stand the test of time. The animatronic heads of this film arguably surpass the severed head-effects seen in later horror films, such as 1985’s “Re-Animator.” I once had the pleasure of meeting Baker six years ago at the IMATS Makeup Trade Show in Pasadena (see the photo near the bottom of this column). Very nice guy.

Bananas Split?
Rick Baker’s two-headed gorilla gets a bit hangry.

While transferring the two-headed gorilla from one cage to another in preparation for surgery, the apes goes…well, apes#It, and breaks free from the basement lab. Dr. Kirshner’s incompetent staff give chase with tranquilizer guns, but to no avail. We then see civilians fleeing in terror, as the ape runs free into the surrounding suburbs before it’s eventually cornered in a nearby grocery store, where the creature is found eating two bananas simultaneously (as you do with two heads, of course).  The gorilla is later tranquilized, and returned to the lab.

Note: It’s hard to believe that Rick Baker was only 20 or so years old at the time, given the caliber of his work.  A few years later, he would create and play the titular “King Kong” for the 1976 remake. Apes would play a huge role in Baker’s career, as he also did makeup effects for “Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes” (1984), “Harry and the Hendersons” (1986), “Gorillas in the Mist” (1988) and Tim Burton’s ill-conceived 2001 reimagining of “Planet of the Apes,” for which Baker’s work remains the only redeeming aspect.  

“You can take this job and…”
Dr. Fred Williams (Don Marshall) learns that his potential new boss isn’t exactly the most progressive guy.

Realizing his own failing health dictates an acceleration of plans, Kirshner informs Desmond that he’s already hired a well-reputed expert in the transplant field to assist them both.  On the day of the interview, the bigoted Kirshner is visibly shocked to learn that his new hire, Dr. Fred Williams (Don Marshall) is Black. Unable to contain his racism, Kirshner attempts to retract his job offer, saying he wouldn’t be able to pay Williams well, and other assorted ‘white lies.’ Williams cuts the crap, telling Kirshner that he already quit his lucrative practice in Minneapolis for this research post.  With an ironclad contract already in place, a reluctant Kirshner agrees to keep Williams on a trial basis.

Note: The late Don Marshall (1936-2016) gives a sincere performance, playing the ridiculous material absolutely straight, with no camp whatsoever. Marshall was best known for his regular role as the Spindrift’s supersonic pilot Dan Erickson (a quietly groundbreaking role) in Irwin Allen’s “Land of the Giants” (1968-1970) and for his memorable guest role as astrophysicist “Mr. Boma” in the original “Star Trek” (1966) episode, “The Galileo Seven,” where Boma came into direct conflict with Spock after they (and five others) were marooned on a hostile planet.

Head & Shoulders.
Dr. Desmond (Roger Perry) listens as the dying Kirshner outlines his plan to latch onto a new pair of shoulders.

With his cancer rapidly metastasizing, an ailing Kirshner is pleased to see progress, as the gorilla’s original head is removed, leaving only the transplanted head as the ruler of its new body.  Hoping to do the same for himself, he tells Desmond of his plan, giving Desmond the task of finding a healthy volunteer body with either a terminal brain disease, or some other imminent prospect of death.  Desmond, increasingly at odds with his boss’s racism and lack of ethics, still recognizes the need to preserve Kirshner’s brilliant surgical talents, and agrees to help.

Note: Actor Roger Perry (1933-2018), the ex-husband of famed “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In” comedian JoAnne Worley, was a staple of 1960s TV and movies; with roles in “Count Yorga Vampire” (1970) and its sequel “The Return of Count Yorga” (1971), as well as memorable parts in “The Invaders” (“The Prophet,” 1967) and the original “Star Trek” (“Tomorrow Is Yesterday,” 1967).

Death Row Rosey…
Jack Moss (Rosey Grier) is given a choice of death or becoming a guinea pig.

With Desmond’s list of potential body donors coming up unsurprisingly short, he finds a soon-to-be-executed death row inmate named Jack Moss (Rosey Grier). “Big Jack” is a wrongfully convicted cop killer awaiting execution when he’s offered the chance for a 30-day reprieve in order to volunteer for Desmond’s undisclosed ‘medical experiment.’  Secretly hoping that 30 days on the outside might be just enough time to prove his innocence, Jack agrees to the experiment. Desmond then gets the state governor to issue a last-minute reprieve.  With no other options, Desmond chooses not to mention to his dying racist boss that the body donor for his life-saving operation is Black

Note: With his imposing 6’ 5” frame, Roosevelt “Rosey” Grier enjoyed a long career in American football with the New York Giants and the Los Angeles Rams before becoming an actor and a minister. Grier was in feature films such as 1975’s “Treasure of Jamaica Reef” and 1972’s “Skyjacked,” along with TV roles in “The Love Boat,” “Roots: The Next Generation,” “Quincy” “Kojak” and “CHiPs.”  Grier was also famed for bringing the craft of needlepoint into the realm of ‘manly’ hobbies. The former football star has since retired from show business. Given the silly premise of the movie, Grier does a credible job.

“Is this some kind of a joke??”

We then see the sedated, severed head of Kirshner with tubes of blood and air keeping it alive while it prepares to be surgically attached to the unconscious Jack’s broad shoulders.  After the surgery, Kirshner’s head is the first of the two to regain consciousness.  With Desmond at his side reporting on the success of the operation, Kirshner says he can feel his left arm move.  As his new darker hand moves into his field of vision, the angered bigot growls, “Is this some kind of a joke?!?”  Desmond tries to relate how desperate they were for a donor, as Kirshner realizes he doesn’t yet have full control of the body.  With no choice but to accept his new situation, the elderly racist is left to stew atop his new shoulders for the time being…

Note: The movie employs a number of strategic ‘cheats’ to hide actor Ray Milland behind Rosey Grier’s generous frame by placing Milland below a fake bed under Grier’s resting body, or over Grier’s shoulder with the two of them draped in an oversized sports jacket. A foam rubber surgical collar both joins and hides the separate necks of the two actors. In long shots, a Rick Baker-crafted Ray Milland prop head is rigged atop actor Grier’s (or Grier’s stuntman’s) shoulders. Such cheats don’t work very well, but for the time (long before CGI), they were the best that could be done; today, they only add to the movie’s camp charm.

“You want me to do what now…?”
Dr. Williams reluctantly agrees to work with Dr. Desmond’s team to make medical history, not to help Desmond’s racist boss

Realizing they need his help, Desmond goes behind Kirshner’s now-discarded back to make Dr. Williams’ position permanent. Desmond also apologizes for Kirshner’s racist behavior, assuring him he doesn’t share those views. When Williams makes inquiries about the offer, Desmond tells him that he’ll be living on Kirshner’s vast estate, in his own room. A reluctant and justifiably peeved Williams swallows a bit of pride and accepts the offer. After getting himself situated, Williams dives into his research. Asking when he can actually see the patient, Desmond tells Williams that’s presently classified, but he’ll soon gain the necessary clearance.

Note: The name of character “Fred Williams” is possibly a nod to famed NFL star and popular blaxploitation actor, Fred Williamson, who starred in such films as “Black Caesar” (1973) and “Hell Up in Harlem” (1973).  Williamson also had small but significant roles in “Star Trek” (1969’s “The Cloud Minders”) and the 1970 feature film version of “M.A.S.H” as Dr. Oliver Wendell “Spearchucker” Jones.  To horror fans, he’s also well known for his role as the vampire-killing Vietnam war veteran “Frost” in 1996’s “From Dusk Till Dawn.”

Dr. Williams and Dr. Desmond learn that they work for a monstrous, ungodly abomination–and that was before it was attached to Rosey Grier’s body.

Meanwhile, a nurse arrives to give a sedative to the squabbling two-headed creation, which I’ll refer to as Jack-Max for convenience sake. With the Max head sound asleep—and snoring loudly—Jack is fully awake, but feigns grogginess. As the nurse bends over to give the shot, Jack-Max grabs the needle and plunges it into her buttocks.  Jack-Max then jumps off the hospital bed, and looks for clothes. Somehow managing to fit their now massive two-headed frame into a sports coat and slacks, Jack-Max busts out of the hospital room, making short work of the armed guards assigned to look after the death row parolee.  Grabbing a gun from an unconscious guard, Jack-Max makes their way into an open room near the exit of the house, where they force a shocked Dr. Williams to be their unwilling chauffeur…

Note: Granted, this film is hardly based on any actual medical science (or scientific theories), but there’s no way Jack-Max could fit in either man’s clothes with a second head on their shoulders, let alone ignore the intense post-operative pain and grogginess that would occur after delicate spinal surgery (!). I’ve had a good dozen or so surgeries myself, and I can vouch that even if I were as robust as former NFL star Rosey Grier, I wouldn’t be able to simply jump out of bed and commit an armed carjacking.

Jumpin’ Jack Flash…
Dr. Williams agrees to help Jack with his embarrassing little ‘whitehead’ problem.

On the lam from the police in Dr. Williams’ car, a frustrated Jack-Max is annoyed by the car’s sluggishness.  Meanwhile, the racist Max-head is angry with Williams for “siding” with another Black man instead of just surrendering to the all-white squad of policemen currently on their tail. Temporarily outrunning the cops in their now wrecked car, Williams and Jack-Max find a vacant field in which to rest a moment.  Williams asks the Jack-head of Jack-Max about the crime which sent him to death row.  Jack says an ex-associate once used his gun to kill a cop, and then fled—never to be found. Jack was arrested for the crime, found guilty, and sentenced to death. Becoming convinced of Jack’s innocence (to the cynical scoffing of bigoted Max), Williams reluctantly agrees to help Jack in his quest to prove his innocence, but on one condition; that Jack-Max keep their gun pointed away from him.

“Eat my dust!”
Jack-Max and Dr. Williams steal a dirt bike.

After a few moments, the fugitives are fired upon a helicopter and a fresh group of pursuing squad cars. Jumping to their feet, they managed to outrun gun fire and stumble into a dirt bike race.  After one of the racers takes a tumble, Jack-Max and Williams walk onto the muddy racetrack—to the shock and horror of the spectators—and steal the racer’s motorcycle. They then use the dirt bike’s greater agility to lose the pursuing cops through a variety of narrow escapes, turns and a few strategic jumps.  Terrified passenger Williams asks Jack-Max where they’re headed.  Jack-Max answers that they’re going to see Jack’s woman.  Worried that the cops will meet them there, Jack-Max assures the doctor that no one knows where she lives (because…?). 

Note: It’s not every movie that features an NFL star and an Oscar-winning actor sharing a body and stealing a dirt bike while performing jumps during an escape from police. For sheer balls-out audacity, this movie deserves some props…

Smokey and the Bandaids.
A slew of racist redneck cops routinely crash during their Keystone Cops-like pursuit of Jack-Max and Fred.

The chase leads to a patience-taxing segment with bumbling white cops accidentally crashing squad cars into ditches—and each other—for what seems like an eternity. It’s every other car chase from TV’s “The Dukes of Hazzard” blurred together, as each numb-nuts deputy somehow manages to crash in pursuit of just one motorcycle. The moronic deputies then report that their overkill methods have failed to stop Jack-Max, forcing Dr. Desmond to call the governor who granted Jack his medical reprieve. In an unsubtle bit of political commentary, the governor is less concerned with public safety and more irked that he won’t get reelected, following the fiasco of the two-headed abomination’s escape.

Note: The overlong chase sequence (even for a 90 minute movie) was padded with as much absurd action as possible, for the sake of the movie’s trailers and to keep bored kids in drive-in theaters awake. To the movie’s credit, the actual car/motorcycle stunt work is modestly impressive, especially considering it was all done without the aid of miniatures or CGI. 

No one understands him but his woman…”
Chelsea Brown as Lila.

The fugitives then arrive at the apartment of Jack’s loyal girlfriend, Lila (Chelsea Brown). Lila is shocked at the sight of Jack with an old white man’s head now parked atop his broad shoulders. When Jack asks Lila for a kiss, she’s understandably a bit freaked out at the prospect.  She then asks if Jack-Max now has two of… (gulp)…everything, to which they assure her they don’t. Lila then takes Jack-Max to the bedroom to lie down, unwilling to take Jack up on his offer to join them. Needless to say, a period of adjustment might be needed in order to get used to an old racist’s head suddenly sharing in one’s most intimate moments. In fact, I’d say coolheaded Lila deserves recognition for not screaming in terror, as would most female leads in other horror movies of this era.

Note: Like costar Roger Perry’s wife JoAnne Worley, the late Chelsea Brown (1942-2017) was a featured regular on “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In” (23 episodes, 1968-9).  With only a handful of movie credits, Brown has a list of TV credits longer than my arm, with roles in popular 1970s series such as “Marcus Welby MD,” “Love American Style” and “Police Story.” 

“It takes diff’rent strokes…”
Jack tolerates Max’s smoking while Max tries some fried chicken.

Lila then serves up a dinner of hearty soul food—something Max refuses to eat, forcing Jack to do the eating for both of them. Lila offers Max a cigarette instead, since damn near everyone in the 1970s smoked—even doctors.  When Lila asks if the Jack-Max operation can be reversed, Max interjects that without his trained staff, it’d be impossible. This prompts Williams to call Max out on another ‘white lie.’  Williams tells Lila—and Max—that the operation is relatively easy to reverse, requiring little more skill than an amputation. This means Max’s days as an extra head are numbered. Later, after Jack-Max goes to bed, an awake Max slowly begins to exert dominance over their body, making their hands move while Jack remains blissfully asleep. A devious, Grinch-like grin forms on Max’s face as he makes a somnambulist Jack lace their fingers…

Dr. Williams and Lila come up with a plan to help Jack lose a few pounds of unwanted fat atop his shoulders.

With Jack-Max in the bedroom, Lila presses Williams about whether or not he can help remove Max’s head from Jack’s body (all said with a straight face). Williams says he can, so long as he has the necessary supplies to perform the amputation, which can be performed almost anywhere. Williams plans to borrow Lila’s car and steal the necessary surgical supplies from a nearby medical warehouse.

Note: Kudos to the late actors Don Marshall and Chelsea Brown for playing this utterly ridiculous scene as seriously as humanly possible. It takes really good actors to really sell bad material. 

Max exerts more influence on his ‘borrowed’ body.
A bizarre predecessor to the kind of body-hijacking horror we’d later see in the far more effective “Get Out” (2017).

Jack-Max and the good doctor arrive at the warehouse. Williams carefully and quietly gathers gauze, anesthetic and other needed materials, while the imposing Jack-Max remains on lookout for security guards. With the fugitives temporarily separated, Max hatches his plan to hijack his shared body and remove Jack’s head (his original plan). As Jack suddenly realizes he no longer controls his own body, he screams for the doctor’s help. Punching the Jack-head unconscious, Max then calls ahead to Desmond and steals Lila’s car—stranding Williams at the warehouse—while he drives to his mansion to perform the Jack-ectomy

Note: As silly as this movie is, its idea of wealthy white racists hijacking healthy Black bodies is an idea later brought to nightmarish fruition with filmmaker Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” (2017). Such body-horror personification of white dominance harkens directly back to the United States’ long, brutal history of slavery.  One can only imagine how much more authentic this material might’ve been in the hands of Black filmmakers of the time, such as Gordon Parks (“Shaft”), or Melvin Van Peebles (“Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song”). Even as is, “The Thing With Two Heads” offers a crude, exploitative predecessor to Jordan Peele’s later masterpiece. 

What to do with this bit of hazardous bio-waste?

Just as Max is about to anesthetize Jack’s head for surgery, Williams bursts in to the basement to stop him. Foiling Max’s plans, Williams then calls Desmond over to the mansion immediately. Shortly after, Desmond arrives with a medical team, only to find Max’s detached head lying on a nearby table, hooked up to a heart/blood machine to keeps the head alive for short time (Williams is no murderer).  Doing his best Mr. Burns impression, Max’s weakened head then calls for Desmond to bring him a new body…

Note: It’s interesting that not a single drop of blood appears to have spilled in the tissue surrounding Max’s severed neck. I had surgery on my left index fingertip two years ago, and it looked like a ‘Jack the Ripper’ crime scene under my bandages for at least two months. 

“Oh Happy Day!”
The abrupt ending of this movie sees Jack and Lila reunited as Dr. Williams ignores the road…

The movie then abruptly cuts to Lila, a Max-free Jack and Dr. Williams driving away, singing “Oh Happy Day.”

The End. 
(No, I’m not kidding—that is exactly how it ends). 

Summing It Up

Cowritten by director Lee Frost, along with Wes Bishop (who cameos) and James Gordon White (all caucasian—no pun intended on Mr. White), the movie might’ve benefitted from the input of a Black writer/director, who could’ve offered some much-needed authenticity to the characters of the movie.  While cranked out as another drive-in blaxploitation flick (with the requisite police car chases, soul food jokes, etc) there’s potential for a really good horror-satire in this movie, somewhere.  

The late Don Marshall (1936-2016) gives a surprisingly sincere performance.

That idea would be brought to fruition some 45 years later with Jordan Peele’s brilliant body horror-satire “Get Out” (2017), one of the greatest horror films of the 21st century.  Peele’s brain-body swaps are no more scientifically credible than two-headed transplants. The differences lie mainly with the caliber of Peele’s writing and execution. Giving credit where it’s due, the marriage of body horror and dark-humored social satire were established, however crudely, with this 1972 film.  Points for trying, anyway.

Left to right: My own photo of makeup artists Norman Cabrera (“Star Trek Beyond”), the legendary Rick Baker (“American Werewolf in London” “Star Wars” “King Kong” [1976] ) and KNB cofounder Howard Berger (“From Dusk Till Dawn” “Buffy” “The Orville”).

There’s some genuine talent in front of and behind the camera with this movie, as well.  The late Don Marshall (“Land of the Giants”) gives an engaging performance. I could easily imagine Marshall in the sorts of roles written for Bill Bixby, if given half a chance. Pioneering (and future Oscar-winning) makeup legend Rick Baker’s makeups were bleeding edge for the time, with his creation of the two-headed gorilla, as well as Ray Milland’s severed head with animatronic eyes, mouths, etc. 

I wonder what a more authentic filmmaking perspective and better writing might’ve brought to this admittedly ridiculous idea.

Where To Watch

“The Thing With Two Heads” is available (as of this writing) to stream for free on YouTube. The DVD and BluRay can also be purchased via Amazon and eBay (prices vary by seller) .

All Images: American International, MGM/UA, Olive Films, Author

3 Comments Add yours

  1. scifimike70 says:

    As daringly silly as such film premises have quite often been, their premises can be understandable opportunities for filmmakers who love to take chances. But I prefer the more serious takes on such ideas, certainly thanks to Jordan Peele’s wisdom with Get Out. Thank you for your review.

  2. David says:

    I watched this movie on Channel 5 local LA station KTLA as a kid- absolutely loved the premise! Yesterday I shared your post with my mom, who’s a long-time Rams football fan and once even drove into LA to sit in the audience of the post-Monday Night Football local TV sports show because Rosie Grier and the other members of the Fearsome Foursome were reunited that night.

    1. Shared memories like yours are why I love doing this. 😊

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