The Head [Die Nackte und der Satan] (1959)

As close as I can figure out, the original German title for this film translates as “The Nude and Satan.”  Which you have to admit is a pretty solid exploitation film title, except for the minor fact that there aren’t any nudes in this film.

Okay, there is a stripper, but we only see her in her underwear.  As that was what she was wearing when she came off the stage – and she only wrapped a few veils around her self for the next set, her act must have consisted of pulling off a few filmy veils.

Which really doesn’t sound all that exciting

This is a curious oddity, a slow, Krimi style German thriller, with the sort of utterly bizarre goings on we’d expect from, oh, something Spanish and Jess Franco.  There’s the dedicated scientist, Dr. Abel, played by the legendary French actor, Michel Simon (best remembered perhaps from Boudu Saved from Drowning, the film remade as Down and Out in Beverly Hills) who looks just awful.  Dr. Abel’s heart is failing and he plans to have his assistants replace it with the heart of a brain-dead patient.  He’s also developed a mysterious serum, which allowed him to keep a severed monkey head alive (probably the same treatment Dr.Merritt developed in The Man Without a BodyHe is helped by the mysterious (and  disquieting) Dr. Ood, who mysteriously showed up at his lab one night and who clearly shares some dark secrets with the Doctor.

So far its fairly routine.  So we can’t stop there.

So let’s throw in the appealing hunchbacked nurse (straight out of House of Dracula), who hopes that someday her body can be straightened out.  And the stripper with some sort of secret connection to Ood.  And an artist who may or not be in love with her.  And that moment when the heart surgery fails and Ood reduces Abel to the eponymous bodyless head.

It’s a pretty heady stew – living severed heads, bodyswapping, murder, and even secret brain surgery to increase the subject’s intelligence. 

I have to admit that I feel very sorry for Simon, who made this film because he was out of work thanks to a partial paralysis caused by bad makeup.  He figured that no one would ever see this low budget effort, and was more than a little shocked when it became a big hit.  As if having to play a head on a pedestal for most of the film wasn’t bad enough

In an odd little bit of serendipity, Joseph Green’s very similar The Brain That Wouldn’t Die filmed the same year (although it wouldn’t be seen for another three years).    

It never really builds up the energy a truly nutty film needs.  There are a lot of interesting ideas here — I particularly liked the computer controlled automated operating table — and Abel’s 60s modern house has a strong visual appeal (mind you, I wouldn’t want to live in it.  But that’s true of a lot of modern architecture), and yet the film never quite takes off, preferring instead a sedate stroll.  

Oh, well, there are worse midnight movies out there.  It may be slow, but never quite boring, and there are enough strange things going on to keep it interesting.  The Head deserves points for its unique vision and willingness to throw in anything that popped into the filmmakers’ heads.

Which is something you won’t find in your 100 million dollar blockbuster.

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