Friday, May 11, 2007
189. The Friday Club 8: Head
I've written elsewhere--and too often, I know--about the vague inquietude of low-budget horror films, with their leaden admissions of pain and disconcerting acceptance of lurching impulses, their dim stroll along cardboard storefronts and blank walls, all in enervating medium shots that last so long I begin to wonder if everyone behind the camera has just wandered off, leaving the audience to decide the fate of the characters as they shuffle in the gloom.
One of the lasting emblems of this feeling is the severed head--not to mention the wounded trunk with its black wet space between the shoulders. But it's the head itself that marks the line between sane and not, light and rolling along the grey floor, papier-mâché cheeks flat, tousled hair bristling at the temples--and of course the doll's eyes wide, and the last small rocking motion as the violence ends. And at the movies, the lower the budget the more unsettling was this image, for I was not seeing merely a head cut off, but, given the obvious, inept FX, catching a glimpse of the fervid little imaginations of the filmmakers toiling away, tawdry but grim. Somehow, the thought of them--in black and white, like their movies, grainy images in poor lighting, pasting together the head, squishing wet stuff into the neck wound--seemed worse than the finished product. This may be why I took to building Aurora plastic models of monsters: so that I, too, could indulge in the nasty pleasures of prosthetic psychosis, dabbing on the heady Testor's paint--gore-green and blood-red--and touching ever so finely the center of blind-witch eyes, the silver pupil wet. It was like an arachnophobe trying to cure himself by lying all night in a dirt-floor crawlspace.
Once again, let us pause and recall the halcyon days of childhood.
Well. As a little kid among the worst things I could imagine happening was having my head chopped off--and I know it sounds obvious: "decapitation is awful" does not seem much of a revelation; and kids often sit around amusing/scaring each other by contemplating various demises--after reading Jack London, we agreed freezing to death would probably be best; a little bit of shivery pain, then the drowsy descent. But there is something particularly traumatic about a beheading, stirring up some of the more mucid separation anxieties. The pain, of course, was always a terrible thing to consider, but it was the cause of it that really dismayed me; not just death but fundamental loss--and of course a loss observed, since every child hears and never forgets the notion that a severed head remains conscious for a while, watching the world spin as it rolls helplessly along the grimy floor or into the underbrush, momentarily glimpsing its own body standing or lying there, witness to its ragged-flesh death. It is the final act of voyeurism, and its final punishment.
As boy and man I have often returned to that image, daring myself to watch and at last get over it. And there were plenty of opportunities, even without the matinee. Just a few years before we'd all get--if not over, at least used to it--via Stephen King's best-selling gross-outs, I read Dickens' assertion of the universal dread of decapitation in A Tale of Two Cities: "Above all, one hideous figure grew as familiar as if it had been before the general gaze from the foundations of the world--the figure of the sharp female called La Guillotine." Now there's phrasing for you; Dickens understood that some sights, no matter how new, hearken to the dimmest beginnings, fraught with mortality. And throughout his book blood drips and heads roll: "It sheared off heads so many, that it, and the ground it most polluted, were a rotten red." Dickens understood something else, that such horrors were like children (of the damned) at play: "It was taken to pieces, like a toy-puzzle for a young Devil, and was put together again when the occasion wanted it."
I too, reluctantly, have put together this infernal model kit--and do so once again, for this week's Friday Club. All hats off, and you-know-what as well, to these daily ruminations on the ridiculous but awful notion that, when things go terribly wrong and you lose your head, you become a monster, at least for a while. 
Monday The Thing with Two Heads (1972)
I'd like to think I saw this at the drive-in, but by 1972 I was a sophomore in high school, and I'm afraid my family's days of dusk-til-dawn excursions were over. So why, if I saw this on TV, maybe when I was out of high school, does the memory of this movie make me a little queasy? Was it the thought of the procedure, the wounds and extreme separation necessary to graft Ray Milland's head onto Rosey Grier’s body—OK, just writing that last part of the sentence was enough to exact my own separation from discomfort. I'll admit it is a silly movie--and an obvious attempt at horror-comedy--the stuff that jokey monster trading cards were made of. And then there's the clunky social parable: Ray Milland is a racist millionaire, and his head's attached to a Black man! So again, why the unease? Maybe it was Milland himself, always so serious--unlike Vincent Price, he never seemed to let slip that he was doing low camp--Milland's perpetual squint particularly evocative of his pain as he wobbled on Rosey’s shoulder, a grotesque ventriloquist's dummy. In any case, we begin with a lighter offering.
Tuesday They Saved Hitler’s Brain (1963)
Yes, still goofy, but it exists in a purebred B&W netherworld of awkward silences and surreal turns. I believe there's a high-speed chase, in which Hitler's brain is jostled around in the back seat, where he looks appropriately miffed, just as one would assume from Hitler. Also, he may not have spoken throughout the film. Silence is one of the tropes of the living head,  and this engenders in me a transference, in which I recall dreams where I could not speak, no matter how imperative the need. Unable to move, to shield itself from harm, the living severed head, as unappealing as it may be--and if it's Hitler's ... well, 'nuff said--still manages to draw from us reluctant sympathy, as inert as it is horrendous.
Wednesday The Brain/Head That Wouldn't Die (1962)
I've written about this movie before; its particular attraction is the strange combination of sexual need--the husband, in trying to find a new body for his wife's head (severed in an auto accident and kept alive by his skill as a, um, mad scientist, I suppose), visits a burlesque house; say, as long as you're looking, why not shop uptown?--and physical repugnance, as another of his experiments, a deformed Thing, becomes the yearning-for-death head's accomplice and only ally.
Thursday Re-Animator (1985)
If you've seen this movie, feel free to supply your own double entendres for "head." Suffice it to say--in as delicate a manner as possible--that of all the head movies I would like to give you, this is the one I want least to give you. Head movies, that is. Oh, I give up: A re-animated severed head fellates a young woman. Please don't kill the messenger, it's simply that the director, Stuart Gordon, understands the dreadful implications of the severed living head, its appetites unabated but its capabilities literally truncated--and decides it's all so horrible all the only response left is a sick laugh. The result is one of the dirtiest rolls in the muck managed by late-'70s-early-'80s horror cinema, a (literal) orgy of the (no-longer) dead. Its star, Jeffrey Combs, reminds me of Welles in Citizen Kane: a dedicated ham who transcends his own impulses--and the soggy weight of the material--to produce an unequaled performance. So, while You Have Been Warned, I cannot help but play Crypt-Keeper, wring together with glee my sweaty hands and encourage you to see this one--if only to relieve yourself of the burden of ever having to see it again.
Friday Sleepy Hollow (1999)
While Tim Burton's clinically accurate digital-realism exercise in decapitation-from-beyond seems to turn its nose away from the mephitic core of the classic severed head movie--whose potency lies in amateurish but well-meaning attempts at verisimilitude--he gives us Johnny Depp as our surrogate, a Keaton-esque forensic investigator with a weak stomach, to nudge us toward the telling stink. The result is a less dreamlike, more direct confrontation with the staring face of headlessness. A toned-down Beetlejuice, Sleepy Hollow maintains comic distance from its foul subject, but understands the repulsion that makes the hand not only hesitate but eventually descend to the wound.
Saturday Barton Fink (1991)
As you may have noticed, as the week goes on the heads become less lively, but, at least with Barton Fink, more menacing. The Coen brothers have it both ways: a "well-made" film with a low-budget locale: the Hotel Earle, a near-portmanteau of "hell" and "hurl." The package wrapped in twine, all but steaming in its solid portent, sits next to Fink like an accusation—better yet, a comeuppance. If it does not actually contain a head, that parcel does have its own "specific gravity," especially as it accompanies Fink to the seaside, where the open spaces and fresh air are mitigated by the wrinkled lump from the Earle, in true severed-head fashion somehow still alive, but mute in its accusation--of what crime, only the bearer knows.
Sunday Stop Making Sense (1984)
My congratulations to those of you who saw this one coming. After all that silent menace and icky kitsch, I thought you could use some Talking Heads. Besides, the lighting and staging, not to mention David Byrne’s persona, retain enough off-center strangeness to make this concert film a fitting coda for the present Friday Club, as Byrne propels himself round and round the burning house, as he run-run-run-run-runs away, his Big Suit bobbing, his tiny head almost not even there. And while we all "hate people when they're not polite," if we finish with a song we may not lose our--aw, skip it.
 For an interesting overview of the allure of severed heads, read Fred Bush's essay, "Guillotines and Body Transplants: the Severed Head in Fact and Fiction."
 And I can't go on without mentioning Futurama's plethora of living heads in jars, including long-dead US Presidents and, of course, contemporary celebs, all infinitely chatty--especially Nixon's head, scarier than Hitler's and a lot bossier.
Posted by Paul J. Marasa at 1:51 PM
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