Zaveshchaniye professora Douelya [Professor Dowell’s Testament] (1984)

As I sat down to write this, I found myself thinking about all the best known films out there featuring a severed head kept alive in a lab, like The Head (1959), The Brain That Wouldn’t Die (1962), The Madmen of Mandoras (1963), and, of course, Reanimator (1985), and realized that Professor Dowell’s Testament isn’t much like any of them.  Instead, it more closely resembles a Chinese film which came out a few years later, Xiong zhai mei ren tou [Beauty Head of the Haunted House] (1989), than any other movie I’ve seen.

Now I’ll admit that my mental picture of the typical “Head-kept-alive-in-a-lab” film may be a bit unfair, as they aren’t as much alike as I think they are.  They don’t all feature labs filled to overflow capacity with horrible failed experiments, a monster in the closet, or an evil head ranting away on his tray.  However, it would be fair to say that most of them are a bit heavier on the mad science than this film, even if there is a quick shot of a young monkey with an old monkey’s head attached.

Instead, the film is set against the backdrop of a scientific institute, crammed full of computers and all sorts of medical technology, with a big staff to carry out all the research, where the doctor is a celebrity, surrounded by press and delegations of visiting scientists.

Professor Dowell, the founder of a major research institute, died in a mysterious car crash.  His son, a news photographer, returns to the institute which he now owns in time for a memorial service for his father.  But he is aware that something isn’t right and that there is something very suspicious about his father’s accident, so he starts asking questions.

Mind you, the film doesn’t make much of a secret of what’s going on.  Dowell’s assistant, Dr. Kern faked the accident after Dowell’s death, so he could secretly keep the Professor’s head alive in the lab.  His machines allow him to peer into some of the images in Dowell’s brain and he hopes he can pry out the secret formula for the serum Dowell developed to keep his head alive.

Now what makes this stand out from a lot of the other living head stories is that Kern is nowhere near as brilliant as Dowell was.  He is a talented surgeon — and later in the story displays this by grafting a woman’s head onto the dead body of a movie (who just happens to be the ex-girlfriend of Dowell’s son) — but his best efforts have failed to reproduce the formula that keeps Dowell alive.  He hopes to make a fortune with the formula, but Dowell is increasingly skeptical of his own discovery and its real value.

Even the girl given a new lease on life isn’t happy because her body doesn’t feel like her own and she is gradually picking up many of the traits of the dead girl.

I had assumed, as we see palm trees and beaches everywhere, not to mention chases through jungles, that they’d shot the film in Cuba as they did with Amphibian Man.  Instead, it turns out that they filmed Professor Dowell’s Testament on the Black Sea, which was a favorite resort region for the Soviet era elites.

A lot of people have given Professor Dowell’s Testament rather low marks, but I’ll confess my own opinion is far better this time around: it is a dark and complex film, about money, politics, science and people, one which is quite critical of the experiments it portrays.  There’s a bit of action and an attack by a drug gang, the unrequited love Dowell’s female assistant felt for him, and a lot of questions about morality and the dangers of the misuse of science.

It’s even based on a novel by a highly respected Soviet era Science Fiction writer, Aleksandr Belyaev, who also gave us Amphibian Man, one of the more highly regarded Soviet fantasy/SF films.

It is a slowburn movie, but it offers us police investigations, violence, mystery, unrequited love, tragedy, hints of corporate intrigue, and even a bit of mad science.

Best of all, it is even moderately intelligent and takes itself seriously.

But then, we do expect that from the Science Fiction films made in the dying days of the Soviet Union…

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