Now how’s about this for a premise: during a heist gone wrong, gangster Jack Surnett (Paul Naschy) takes a bullet in the head. Obviously he can’t go to a regular hospital, so his fellow gangsters take him to one of those disgraced doctors who can only find work doing dodgy operations for the mafia. Alas, this problem goes beyond the expertise of said doctor, so they take him to the only people who may be able to help: a husband and wife duo, doing pioneering work in neurosurgery. Naturally such respectable doctors are loathe to do such dirty work, but when the gangsters threaten the life of their daughter they have no choice but to comply. And what is the only way to save Surnett? Drum roll please… a brain transplant. And in a curious twist of fate, it seems the most suitable candidate for a brain donor is none other than Surnett’s arch nemesis, a ruthless criminal popularly known as the Sadist. But of course, such a procedure cannot be carried out without messing up the patient’s head somewhat.
Yes, it’s a hell of a premise. And oh, how I wish the film was half as fun as it sounds, for while The Man With The Severed Head may have Euro-eccentrivity in spades, good grief is it boring.
I should perhaps first confess that, much to my shame, I remain uneducated in all matters relating to Paul Naschy. Indeed, I must further confess I didn’t know of him at all until his death almost two years ago (which was commerated here at Brutal As Hell in this touching obituary). I do intend to rectify this, though in my defence his films are not widely available in Britain so far as I can tell. Regardless, I wish I’d had a better starting point than this painfully slow, utterly uninvolving dilly-dally between gangland crime tale and mad scientist horror.
The Man With The Severed Head seems a somewhat less than auspicious title to mark the first release from Arrowdrome, the new imprint from Arrow Films oriented specifically toward cult cinema. Cult is a notoriously tricky label to pin down, generally referring less to what a film is, than what it is not; films of diverse style, tone and content unfied due to a common distance from what is deemed mainstream. (Phew, maybe some of that MA rubbed off on me after all.) So it is that the films we regard cult tend to go to relative extremes: excessive violence and sex, and/or just plain weirdness. The Man With The Severed Head delivers plenty of the latter, but not so much of the former two. That said, the DVD extras do boast several extended ‘erotic scenes,’ as they are credited; in truth they’re very poorly staged soft porn sequences that are about as erotic as a sumo wrestler kneading dough in your grandmother’s kitchen. (Yeah, not sure where that one came from.) Quite why they’re missing from the feature I don’t know, but they wouldn’t have saved it.
I suppose it’s possible I’m missing something here; that there’s some unique artistic sensibility at work within what I perceive to be 70s European filmmaking at its laziest; that what I take to be the complete absence of tension, pace and atmosphere is in fact a distinct aesthetic. If so, the devotees are welcome to it. I’m quite happy to remain ignorant, thank you very much. Yes, I’ll be sure to see some more Naschy movies, but I’ll be sorely disappointed if they’re anything like this one.
Arrowdrome will release The Man With The Severed Head to DVD on 12th September.