Tuesday, May 5, 2009

The Thing with Two Heads (1972)

After electing our first black president, many people forgot that racism once existed in America. In the distant past, Hollywood tackled prejudice with films like The Defiant Ones, Do the Right Thing, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, Mississippi Burning, and To Kill a Mockingbird.

Of course, race wasn't addressed so potently as in 1972's The Thing with Two Heads, which begs the question: What would happen if an old white bigot grafted his head onto the body of a black convict? If you answered "medical pseudo-science and dirt bike chases," you would pretty much be right.
Dr. Maxwell Kirshner (Ray Milland) is a brilliant transplant surgeon and founder of the world-renowned Kirshner Institute. But when his body decides to throw in the proverbial towel, he needs to act quickly in order to survive. This, like most forays into groundbreaking medical science, involves a two-headed gorilla.
Though Kirshner must face strange medical abominations and realizations of his own mortality on a daily basis, he still has time to bring new prospects into the institute. He hires Dr. Fred Williams (Don Marshall), a talented young doctor specializing in anti-rejection research. Little does he know that Dr. Williams is actually a hip and attractive Negro!
Kirshner attempts to renege on their six-month contract, but it doesn't take. He reluctantly decides to relegate Williams to the lab and shoot him dirty looks as they pass in the hallway.

The bigoted doctor seeks the help of his Aryan colleague Dr. Philip Desmond (Roger Perry) to replicate the gorilla experiment that will save his life. The procedure requires a healthy human subject, a difficult task if you aren't Josef Mengele. They settle on the help of the California prison system, which allows any inmate on death row to participate in the fatal experiment in lieu of execution.

Hoping to prove his innocence and reunite with his girlfriend Lila (Chelsea Brown), Jack Moss (Rosey Grier) gladly volunteers. Moss is a strong, commanding black specimen of manhood with a gentle heart. This is, of course, perfect for Rosey Grier, who is one of the greatest men ever to live. Don't believe me? Here is a list of his accomplishments:
  • Member of the Rams' "Fearsome Foursome"
  • Two Pro Bowl appearances
  • Present during O.J. Simpson's jailhouse confession
  • Broke Sirhan Sirhan's arm
  • Wrote Rosey Grier's Needlepoint for Men
Once Moss wakes up from surgery and discovers his predicament, he overpowers a nurse and escapes, taking "soul brother" Dr. Williams as his hostage. At this point, a vast majority of the second act consists of an elaborate police chase. The movie's poster features Moss and Kirshner on a dirt bike. This is an extremely accurate representation of the film.
The Thing with Two Heads is exploitation masquerading as science fiction masquerading as social commentary. Much of the first act devotes itself to explaining the pseudo-science in fine detail, complete with X-rays, blood tubes, and large machines that go "bleep bloop." It comes to the point where grafting a second head onto someone's shoulder not only makes perfect sense, but I wonder why people don't do it more often.

The film also takes pains to establish Dr. Williams's character, suggesting the possibility of a racial resolution. Maybe Kirshner will learn a lesson. Maybe they'll all work together to find him a body. Maybe they will herald a new age of post-racial harmony and enlighteningly bizarre medical science.

Nope. The movie hits the 90 minute mark, realizes it spent too much time on the dirt bike chase, and ends abruptly and hilariously.

What to drink:

Rosey's Delight (gin martini with a splash of malt liquor, stirred with an embroidery needle)

Quotable quotes:
Moss: I got what's called a "no pain limit." I don't like to get hurt.

Kirshner: What the hell's the matter with you, Moss? Get back to bed!
Moss: You jive.

Kirshner: You mean you're actually considering helping this escaped murderer?
Moss: Murderer? You the murderer, trying to cut off my head!
Kirshner: That's different.

Moss: You gonna stay with me, doc?
Williams: Do I have a choice?
Moss: Nope.

Lila: Honey, I was wondering... do you have two of anything else?

Moss: Is he bothering you? I'll cover his head with a pillowcase.

Lila: Whatsa matter baby? Don't you dig soul food?
Kirshner: What do you have for dessert? Watermelon?
Lila: What do y'all think about having fried possum and chitlins for supper tomorrow?
Arbitrary ranking system:

2 heads out of 1.

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