The Head

by Charlie Largent Apr 18, 2020

The Head 
DVD – Region 2 Only – No English Audio or Subtitles
Delta Music & Entert. GmbH & Co. KG
1959 / 1.33:1 / 97 min.
Starring Michel Simon, Horst Frank, Karin Kernke
Cinematography by Georg Krause
Directed by Victor Trivas

A scientist who operates out of a starkly Modernist laboratory of glass and steel, Dr. Ood comes from a long line of German crackpots with a flair for the theatrical. Rotwang, the bug-eyed inventor of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, springs to mind along with Dr. Gogol, the lovelorn psychopath of Karl Freund’s Mad Love. And not to forget the omniscient Dr. Mabuse. Each man had style to burn and was obsessed with possessing desirableand controllable—women. Ood, the protagonist of Victor Trivas’s The Head, was the most hands-on of the bunch, satisfying his lust by transplanting the head of a beautiful but misshapen doctor’s assistant to the body of a burlesque queen. Trivas’s 1959 melodrama had an American cousin in that same year’s The Brain that Wouldn’t Die: Joseph Green’s sordid thriller featured a hot-to-trot medico scouting strip joints in search of a torso for his fiancée whose head rests in a tray back at the lab. The Head is not nearly so crass but it is equally regressive in its view of women – in Ood’s world, they’re either nurses or strippers.

Michel Simon, the film’s titular star, was partially paralyzed during this period (a freak accident involving makeup dye) and was looking for work that didn’t demand any physical movement. He found it. Simon plays Dr. Abel, a man who spends his days transplanting dog’s heads until a heart attack fells him. Enter Dr. Ood who discards Abel’s lifeless body and puts his head above a fish tank, kept alive by a tangle of tubes and wires. Simon sits stock still while his overwrought co-stars threaten to chew through his life support along with the scenery. It’s difficult to think of a sadder looking actor.

Karin Kernke plays Irene, the beautiful nurse with a bowed back not unlike the doomed Nina played by Jane Adams in 1944’s House of Dracula (Nina’s dream of a new and beautiful physique literally goes out the window thanks to the Frankenstein monster). Irene is blessed with a better fate but not without some push-back from the man who transformed her, Dr. Ood. Played by a frenetic Horst Frank, Ood resembles none other than Christoph Waltz doing a wry impersonation of a mad scientist (Waltz would make a great Mabuse). Frank had a long list of films to his credit though most never made it across the water. Those that did have a good deal of cachet among certain film fans including Umberto Lenzi’s So Sweet… So Perverse, Giancarlo Santi’s The Grand Duel and Dario Argento’s The Cat o’ Nine Tails.

Thanks to visuals that manage to be both poetic and outlandish, Trivas’s film can be compared to such lyrical horror as Eyes Without a Face and comic gore-fests like Re-Animator. But there the comparison ends – the lack of a body doesn’t keep The Head from tripping over its own two feet (Variety complained that Trivas’s direction was “heavy, choppy and disjointed”). Still, the film has undeniable visual sophistication thanks to two great craftsmen – production designer Hermann Warm and cinematographer Georg Krause.

Krause was the man behind the camera for Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory. Warm was art director for Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr, The Passion of Joan of Arc and Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. The two artists work wonders with their low budget – Krause’s darkly compelling lighting gives Warm’s stark glass and metallic settings an otherworldly science-fiction sheen. And not all its pleasures are pictorial; Willy Mattes’s minimalist score suggests a quiet dread even while all hell is breaking loose.

A German company called Delta Music & Entertainment GmbH & Co. KG (it just rolls off the tongue) has released The Head on a Region 2 DVD. The film’s peculiar attractions, in particular Krause’s photography, warrant the best possible presentation. This ain’t it. But given fan interest it’s not a bad stop-gap till Criterion takes up the cause. The disc’s cover art promotes Die Nackte und der Satan while the on-screen title is Des Satans Nackte Sklavin, (Satan’s Naked Slave Girl). The picture quality and extras in this “special edition” are equally scattershot. Thanks to Glenn Erickson for the information on the details of the transfer and extras:

UPDATE ABOUT SUBTITLES: The film is presented full frame but mattes off nicely to widescreen and contains English and German tracks and removable English subtitles. The German and English versions are definitely scored with different music.

This is surely an older transfer and the encoding is not the best (there are digital artifacts aplenty in the blacks) – overall clean but a little soft for DVD. The film clocks in at 91 minutes and 37 seconds at PAL speed but still looks as if it had some more little cuts in Germany – one topless stripteaser takes a quick spin across stage and onto a bed.

As for the extras the disc includes an inferior copy of The Brain that Wouldn’t Die in English with no subtitles and at 69 1/2 minutes long is the shortest cut I’ve seen; censored with no credits at the beginning or the end. There’s also about fifteen minutes of striptease short subjects, all of them silent: “A Sneak Peek at Strip Poker.”  “Strip Queen” and two more shorts, both untitled.

There are trailers for Die Erfindung des Verderbens – The Deadly Invention (The Fabulous World of Jules Verne), Ikarie XB 1 and Malevil. There’s also a newly edited promo for Des Satans Nackte Sklavin, an audio selection of striptease music and audio of two short stories in English, A Strange Tale of Cannibalism by Lafcadio Hearn and The Oval Portrait by Edgar Allan Poe.

Note from Glenn Erickson: I have been informed by a reader — whose comment is below — that the copy of this disk he ordered from Germany DOES NOT have an English track or English subs for the German audio version. We are changing the review and apologize. Charlie Largent did not do the disc evaluation, due to the lockdown. The disc I took the information on the details of the transfer and extras from is an older copy from a collector, and DID have the subtitles. Because of this confusion (?) we are removing the disc source information from the review.

And finally – disembodied head fans may want to find a copy of Alexander Belyaev’s science-fiction novel from 1925, Professor Dowell’s Head. It was filmed in 1984 as Professor Dowell’s Testament.

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