Posted by Richard Harland Smith on October 5, 2012
Because I’m a big weirdo, I get a particular thrill when a horror film (or any film really) pulls a prop head out of its kitbag. There’s just something about a fake severed head that says the magic of the movies to me.
Thanks to John the Baptist, the artistic representation of severed heads goes back to antiquity, to drawings, paintings, frescos, and murals by such disparate artists as Caravaggio, Alonso Berruguete, Andrea Solari, Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, Carlo Dolci, Guido Reni, Lucas Cranach the Elder and Lucas Cranach the Younger. (The runner up in this most unusual category was Holofernes, Nebuchadnezzar II’s man on the ground in Bethulia, who lost his head to Judith, a Jewish widow whose powers of seduction and decollation inspired among the Hebrews a literal coup de tête .) People back in the Renaissance never got tired of looking at a pretty girl holding a guy’s head, with or without the serving platter, and the tradition leeched into other arts, into sculpture and wordworking, and in the modern age things didn’t change much. Prop heads go way back to the theatre, and were a common sight in the Pigalle’s Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol, which specialized in the grotesque, in mutilation, in torture and terror and showing things that had been left, in generations past, to the imagination. You’d see the odd lopped noggin during the silent epoch, as here in this photograph by Edwin Hesser, featuring actress Kathryn Stanley posed as Oscar Wilde’s Salome (“I still live, but thou art dead, and thy head belongs to me.”). The story of Salome and John the Baptist gets a little bit of a restaging in Tod Browning’s THE SHOW (1927) but JTB surrogate John Gilbert uses his real head, which excludes it from consideration in this setting. Actor’s playing severed heads is a whole ‘nuther ball of brains.
In Ernest B. Schoedsack and Irving Pichel’s THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME (1932), heroine Fay Wray bumps into a jugged melon in the trophy room of Leslie Banks’ Cossak rotter Count Zaroff. The filmmakers keep the lighting soft, so as not to be too, too terribly lurid, but this must have been quite a sight on the big screen back during the Great Depression. You also see another head mounted on a plaque. A severed head in a hatbox is a key plot point (am I mixing my metaphors? Can a head be a point?) in NIGHT MUST FALL (1937) but you don’t get to see anything quite so juicy. By then, the Production Code was in full effect and things like disembodied heads were considered to be in poor taste. It took a while for the American moviegoing public to realize what they were missing.
A prop head-in-a-box that pops up in William Castle’s THE HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL (1959) and one is given prominent placement in THE MONSTER OF PIEDRAS BLANCAS (1959) but by and large severed heads were still considered taboo until the 1960s. In Robert Block’s novel 1959 Psycho, Norman Bates decapitates Mary Crane but when Alfred Hitchcock turned the lurid suspense novel into PSYCHO (1960) the following year, Marion Crane fell victim to multiple stab wounds with her head still firmly attached.
It took Robert Aldrich to make a hole in tastefulness’ defensive line, severing Bruce Dern’s cabeza in the first reel of HUSH… HUSH, SWEET CHARLOTTE (1964) and then sending it rolling through the mise en scène at the midpoint. If the head looks a bit fakey, take heart… it is. I’m sorry, I guess that’s a spoiler for HUSH… HUSH, SWEET CHARLOTTE. I should have warned. Welp, I guess the head’s out of the bag now!
In the United Kingdom, the Brits were a lot less squeamish. Hammer Films had its in-house Baron Frankenstein, Peter Cushing, handling all manner of gnarly gourds, beginning with THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1957) and continuing in the sequels FRANKENSTEIN CREATED WOMAN (1967) — in which the severed head of a barmaid’s guillotined boyfriend compels her to wreak vengeance upon his (effective) killers — and FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED (1969), which opens with a beheading and gets progressively nastier from there. In Hammer’s THE GORGON (1964), the mythical creature lives in the supple flesh of Barbara Shelley with Prudence Hyman standing in for the snake-headed Magera. Both actresses get prop heads for the big climax, in which secondary hero Christopher Lee puts paid to the stony jiggerypokery with a single swipe from his secondary hero cutlass. There’s a cute prop head as well in THE PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES (1966)…
… during a nightmare sequence in which the severed head of briefly revived zombie (Hammer was always doing this, making a monster out of a pretty girl and then killing her right away) Jacqueline Pearce acts as a sort of seed pod, inspiring a full-scale revenant uprising. Ads for Mario Bava’s BLACK SABBATH (I TRE VOLTI DELLA PAURA, 1963) rocked the image of Boris Karloff’s severed head but in the film’s “Wurdulak” vignette it’s Boris who does the cutting and heavy lifting, bringing the home of nut of an old enemy… oh, and the vampire’s curse. There’s the head, up at the top. Not as nice as wind chimes but good, I suppose, for scaring off the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
In retrospect, 1963-1969 represented a boom for prop heads. After the tease of THE HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL (where the noodle in question didn’t belong to anyone in particular and was a cheap scare device), William Castle structured an entire movie around the severing of human heads in STRAIT-JACKET (1964), with Joan Crawford playing an institutionalized ax murderess whose attempt to reenter the free world and reclaim her former life is complicated by the ubiquity of, you know, severed heads.
The head of Connie Stevens bounces around the set of William Conrad’s TWO ON A GUILLOTINE (1965), too, as the daughter (Stevens) of a famed illusionist who once accidentally (or not) beheaded his perfidious wife (Stevens) takes possession of the family mansion and sees all kinds of headache-inducing sights. It all turns out to be a bit of a bait and switch in the end but is good fun for most of its running time.
If prop heads fell into a latency period during the New Hollywood of the 1970s, where they were no doubt considered déclassé, old fashioned, and even quaint (I know what you’re thinking — a severed head quaint? You have to understand, these people did a lot of cocaine), it fell to a handful of cinematic anarchists to break with the vogue for verisimilitude. Hollywood apostate Sam Peckinpah (who also did a lot of cocaine, it bears mentioning) made an entire film turn on a severed head. In BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA (1974), star Warren Oates spends half the movie looking for the head of Alfredo Garcia and then the second half carrying it around in a flour sack, while friends, enemies, and innocent bystanders drop like flies around him. You see more sack than head in the film, but here’s an angle on Al Garcia, who looks a bit like Robert Goulet.
One of the best jump scares of the decade involved the loose-floating head of the character Ben Gardner in Steven Spielberg’s JAWS (1975), which is not so much severed in the clinical sense as shark-bitten-off. It’s one of the better prop heads in moviedom, retaining its power to disturb even upon close inspection. Not quite in the same league…
… is the pinballing conk of David Warner in Richard Donner’s THE OMEN (1976), perhaps the most popular prop head in modern horror movie history. It’s just a standout scene, a show-stopper, even if the details are not quite as fine (or the camerawork nearly as forgiving) as JAWS. Also worth mentioning…
… is the liberated dome of Ken James in Peter Carter’s underrated wilderness survival tale RITUALS (aka THE CREEPER, 1977), which is used as a rather rude wake-up call for terrorized campers Hal Holbrook and Lawrence Dane. Severed heads became all the rage again during the 80s, rolling about like cabbages loose in the carriage in AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON (1981), WOLFEN (1981), FRIDAY THE 13TH: PART II (1981), EYES OF A STRANGER (1981), and ROAD GAMES (1981 — watch it on TCM Underground tonight!) while David Cronenberg blew up a prop head, blew it up good in SCANNERS (1981) — Jeez, what was with 1981?! In MACABRO (MACABRE, 1980), the directorial debut of Mario Bava’s son, Lamberto Bava, a woman keeps the head of her dead lover in her fridge while in William Lustig’s MANIAC (1980), serial killer Joe Spinell has his head pulled right off his body, and yet another head goes missing only to turn up unexpectedly in HE KNOWS YOU’RE ALONE (1980). But for some reason, for me anyway, the magic was gone. The allure. The juxtaposition of order and propriety with a harbinger of total chaos, total terror. I guess my issue is that the slashers were so over the top, so wall to wall with carnage, that a single disarticulated head seemed lost in the smorgasbord of excess. With the advent of CGI, severed heads were packed away, for the most part, with such antiques as retractable knives and gorilla assistants. Actors began playing their own severed heads again, most notably David Gale in Stuart Gordon’s RE-ANIMATOR (1985). Ever more, I had to look backwards for my pleasures.
Imagine my surprise — and my unbridled and unapologetically geeky joy — when my friend and fellow HorrorDad Nicholas McCarthy included a prop head in his recent ghost movie THE PACT (2012). He did this entirely on his own initiative, I might add, without consultation or specific encouragement fr0m me. (Nick and I have gotten together for lunch several times and severed heads have made their way into none of those conversations. Just saying.) Clearly, Nick favors these kinds of things, too, and believes in the primacy of practical effects, of wires and prosthetics, of Latex and mortician’s wax, and things that are palpable, even at their most illusory. It is my firm belief that the best, most enduring, movie nightmares are not made up of pixels but of things crafted by the human hand — things that we can, even if we acknowledge that they look fake (though I’ve seen real severed heads in my life time and, guess what, they look fake, too), things we can imagine that we can feel and smell and that, if we were to tear our eyes from the screen, might find to our everlasting horror sitting right there next to us in the dark. While the triumphant return of prosthetic prop heads to contemporary horror movies may be way low down on your cinematic wish list, think about what we’ve discussed today and see if any of it makes sense to you. Maybe this is the very thing we need to save us from the ghetto of “found footage” horror movies and the cruelties of the torture porn school. I’m just saying maybe. I’m just saying, “what if?” I’m just talking off the top of my head.
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