The Man with the Severed Head Review
The Man with the Severed Head, a 1976 piece of Eurocult cinema starring the prolific Paul Naschy, begins not as a horror film or as science fiction, but as a crime flick. Naschy is one of a gang of thieves to whom we’re introduced mid-jewellery heist. He’s the safecracker, but he’s unable to complete his job as the alarm is soon triggered and our collection of criminals are forced to screech their van’s tyres through the streets of France. Unsurprisingly the police put in an appearance and get a little trigger happy with their machine guns. The gang manage to make it to their hideout, but Naschy is shot and requires immediate emergency attention. It turns out he has a bullet lodged in his brain and so a traditional operation isn’t possible - the results would be fatal. However, the alcoholic doctor who attends to Naschy has an old friend from university who’s been experimenting with brain transplantation. If only our assortment of villains could find a possible donor…
I haven’t seen that many Naschy films - this is a man who appeared in well over a hundred - but those which I have share The Man with the Severed Head’s combination of ridiculous and ridiculously busy plotting. The above description covers only the first twenty minutes or so; there’s another hour to follow which maintains the crime thriller aspects even as it ups the horror and sf quotient. It is decided, for example, that the donor should be ‘the Sadist’, Naschy’s criminal nemesis and the owner of an exotic cabaret in which the dance routines harbour distasteful undertones of rape but somehow manage to counter such issues by being so wilfully bizarre. Furthermore, the Sadist shares an ex-girlfriend with Naschy which, of course, is only going to complicate matters by the time we reach the final act. Throw in a bit of kidnap, the moral questions surround organ transplantation and the entirely ignored fact that surely transplanting someone’s brain would also mean transplanting their personality (i.e. Naschy would entirely cease to be Naschy) and you have some idea of just how much is happening throughout The Man with the Severed Head’s scant running time. There are further details and developments, of course, but to reveal them would be to give too much away. Part of the fun is in discovering just where the film decides to head next.
And fun is exactly the point. The Man with the Severed Head may be sloppy in places or over-indulge itself in clichés, but that doesn’t prevent it from being hugely entertaining. Indeed, it is arguably the all-over-the-place construction and the combination of the familiar with the unexpected that contributes a great deal to all this. Naschy’s earlier Dr Jekyll versus the Werewolf performed a similar trick with its strange blend of Beauty and the Beast, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, various werewolf legends and Jack the Ripper - a mixture that was demented enough to position Dr Jekyll as the man who could potentially cure the wolfman of his curse. Admittedly The Man with the Severed Head isn’t quite so odd, yet it’s ability to mix-and-match the gangster film with the horror flick and ‘mad scientist’ science fiction - and throw in a musical number - at the very least prevents the boredom from setting in. In fact the effect is such that we barely notice how little Naschy is actually on-screen. Considering he’s the star of the film and gets his name above the title, it’s somewhat strange to find him out of action for a significant chunk of the picture; that bullet enters his brain quite early on, and it takes almost an hour until there are any signs of a properly regained consciousness.
Nonetheless Naschy’s co-stars cope with proceedings just as he normally would, that is with an entirely straight face and without any hint of knowingness or irony. It’s true that there are no great demonstrations of acting prowess on show, and that the fashions and facial hair may prompt the odd smile, but this doesn’t prevent there being a collection of perfectly acceptable performances that keep proceedings moving along quite nicely. There are no winks to camera and no tongues in cheek, simply a solid professionalism that’s endemic of the film itself. In other words The Man with the Severed Head is trash, but it’s honest trash with no pretensions towards anything else. It has its story - with all its clichés and craziness - and strives to tell that story as best it can within the remit of a low-budget piece of Eurohorror. Go along with the clichés and the craziness and it adds up to a perfectly enjoyable hour and a half.
The Man with the Severed Head is being released as part of Arrow’s ArrowDrome! line, a DVD-only series of budget releases that will include minor cult titles such as James Glickenhaus’ McBain and versions of the company’s ‘white box’ Blu-ray releases albeit with lighter extras content. This also happens to be the inaugural release (at time of writing it was released just over a week ago through Arrow’s website and HMV with a wider release due on the 10th of October) and, judging by the qualities it possesses, indicates a promising future for the line. The film itself is presented at a ratio of 1.78:1, anamorphically enhanced, and taken from a print that is in mostly fine condition. The penultimate reel demonstrates some prominent tramlining, but otherwise any signs of wear and tear over the years are minimal. In fact the overall shape is rather good, with strong colours and perfectly acceptable detail levels. The soundtrack comes in both original French mono and English dubbed form, with optional English subs available to accompany to former. Both are a little rough around the edges, especially the dub track, but neither demonstrates any flaws that weren’t inherent in their original production. The subtitles, meanwhile, are clear, idiomatic and translate the French as opposed to merely relying on the dub. Note that the opening title of the film is given as Crimson and comes with 1985 French copyright, which would suggest that the print used here is identical to Image’s old Region 1 disc. Arrow’s disc, however, is region free and comes at a cheaper price.
Extras amount to three on-disc additions plus a booklet containing a new interview with Sam Sherman, the man who distributed Naschy’s films in the US. The most substantial on-disc extra is the 24-minute featurette entitled ‘Naschy of the Full Moon’. This newly produced and exclusive addition sees various former friends and collaborators of the actor offering up their memories of the man, whether it be Tony Timpone of Fangoria magazine, co-stars Caroline Munro and Michelle Bauer, or directors Fred Olen Ray, Mick Garris and Brian Yuzna. (Yuzna’s Rottweiller, the 2004 film in which Naschy took a supporting role, is one of the very few Naschy titles currently available on disc in the UK.) Their reminiscences are interspersed with various clips and trailers of the actors films, both from his 70s heyday and more recent efforts. (Naschy died of cancer, aged 75, in 2009.) Elsewhere the disc also contains six and a half minutes of ‘erotic scenes’, which would have been added in some markets and make use of some very obvious body doubles, plus the original French trailer.