TEN PLACES YOU WOULDN’T EXPECT TO FIND A SEVERED HEAD

Look behind you! Return to Oz.

Salome and John the Baptist, Perseus and the Medusa, Isabella and her Pot of Basil… Severed heads have always been with us in classical art, literature and opera, but for a long time the cinema fought shy of depicting the ultimate bodily violation – Nazimova’s Salome didn’t even show the post-decapitation Baptist, though unattached heads could occasionally be glimpsed in early versions of Dante’s Inferno or Ben-Hur. But those were the decadent days of the uninhibited silent epic. Hollywood quickly pulled itself together and kept its heads firmly glued to its actors’ necks. When I was growing up, the idea that I might go to the cinema and see a severed head was unthinkable.

And then, in the early 1970s, one of the last great taboos – the unspoken rule that explicit beheadings were off limits – began to crumble. At first it was a slow trickle – a head continued to count even after it had been chopped off in Herzog’s Aguirre: Wrath of God, while David Warner’s close encounter with a sheet of glass in The Omen was the first graphic decapitation I’d seen in a major Hollywood release. I was suitably shocked. But thrilled. And only a little disappointed that one of the most notorious severed heads of the 1970s, in The Godfather, was not that of a human but a horse.

But from then on, decapitated heads started popping up all over the place: in fridges (Macabre, Friday the 13th Part 2), in toilets (The House on Sorority Row, Curtains), in children’s films (Return to Oz). In 1999, Tim Burton depicted no less than seventeen decapitations in Sleepy Hollow (eighteen if you count a witch sawing the head off a bat), while in the same year the blockbuster flop Wild Wild West not only opened with a pre-credits decapitation, but later brought back the severed head for use as a slide projector. Relaxed censorship, improved special effects and increasing gore tolerance of film-makers and their audiences have nowadays made severed heads almost commonplace. Let’s face it, they don’t carry the frisson that they used to.

But we are not concerned here with the films of Tim Burton, with his mile-wide macabre streak, nor of horror specialists such as Dario Argento or George Romero or Sam Raimi, or in films detailing the exploits of serial-killers such as Freddy Krueger or Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers. After all, you’d be entitled to be disappointed if these guys didn’t rip a few heads off every once in a while. What we’re concerned with here are the severed heads that are all the more shocking for popping up where they’re least expected…

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10 In a Fishtank – THE SILENT PARTNER (1978) directed by Daryl Duke.

It’s not so much the severed head per se that’s shocking in this underrated little Canadian thriller with a smart screenplay by Curtis Hanson – the severed-head-in-the-fishtank is a popular slasher convention that also crops up in, for example, He Knows You’re Alone and Eyes of a Stranger. It’s the identity of the actor playing the psychopath who leaves it there which will make your jaw drop. Even by today’s standards, this is an extraordinarily vicious and terrifying sadist, as mild-mannered bank clerk Elliott Gould finds out to his cost. Put it this way: The Sound of Music will never seem the same again.

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9 In a box delivered by an express parcel service – SEVEN (1995) directed by David Fincher.

‘What’s in the box? What’s in the fucking bohhhx?’ whines Brad Pitt. One of the best touches in this twisted serial killer thriller is the way that Fincher doesn’t actually show the severed head so much as suggest it, which, after a filmful of in-your-face atrocity, only makes it all the more disturbing. But canny, because however realistic the severed head might have been, I for one would have been unable to suppress a chuckle as it was revealed. For more head-in-box fun, see the Coen brothers’ Barton Fink.

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8 Scuttling across the floor – THE THING (1982) directed by John Carpenter.

Admittedly, it’s not so surprising to find a severed head in a science-fiction movie directed by John Carpenter. But in terms of the sort of ickily baroque special effects, this one takes the biscuit: the head drags itself free from the neck, hauls itself across the floor by wrapping its tongue around the furniture and then, as a pièce de resistance, sprouts spider-legs and scuttles towards the door. One of the onlookers expresses what we’ve all been thinking: ‘You gotta be fucking kidding.’

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7 In Piccadilly Circus – AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON (1981) directed by John Landis.

If you were ever in any doubt that Landis’ horror-comedy is as much horror as it is comedy, the climax will set you straight, with a vengeance. The werewolf bursts out of a Piccadilly Circus porn cinema, bites the head off a policeman and proceeds to cause non-comic multi-vehicle carnage in the heart of London. The head, meanwhile, bounces off the bonnet of a car.

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6 In bed with Joan Hickson – THEATRE OF BLOOD (1973) directed by Douglas Hickox.

The future Miss Marple doesn’t even wake up as her husband (played by Arthur Lowe from Dad’s Army, no less) gets his head sawn off by Vincent Price, dressed as a surgeon and paying hammy homage to the decapitation of Cloten in Shakespeare’s Cymbeline. Lowe’s head later turns up on Ian Hendry’s milk bottle – another place you wouldn’t expect to find it – though we never do find out how it gets there, a cloudy plot point I fretted over endlessly when the film came out.

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5 On a dog’s body – MARS ATTACKS! (1996) directed by Tim Burton.

Heads are forever ending up on other people’s shoulders: The Thing with Two Heads, The Incredible Two-Headed Transplant, Flesh for Frankenstein (in 3-D!) and so on. But in Mars Attacks! it’s Sarah Jessica Parker’s head! On a chihuahua’s body! This is maybe not as horrible as the homeless guy who ends up merged with his dog in the 1978 Invasion of the Body Snatchers remake, but it’s just as grotesque, and a lot funnier. And oddly enough, no-one ever queries the discrepancy in scale. Though since the Martians use a shrinking ray on Rod Steiger, getting SJP’s head similarly reduced shouldn’t pose much of a problem.

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4 In someone’s lap – RE-ANIMATOR (1985) directed by Stuart Gordon.

There are more severed heads in crotches than you might think. Frederic Forrest in Martin Sheen’s lap in Apocalypse Now, for example, or Vincent Perez in Isabelle Adjani’s in La reine Margot. But it’s the overtly sexual ones we’re talking about here: the French slasher movie Haute tension (aka Switchblade Romance) spins a nasty visual gag out of it, but the classic example, the one that goes all the way and then some, is Re-animator. The heroine is strapped naked to an operating table and the severed head of Dr Hill (David Gale) puts its tongue in her ear, slobbers over her breasts and is just preparing to give head, literally, before it’s rudely interrupted. If you’ve only ever watched the British version, by the way, you won’t have seen any of this because it was cut by the BBFC.

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3 In a film starring Shirley MacLaine – THE POSSESSION OF JOEL DELANEY (1971) directed by Waris Hussein.

Yes, it’s true. Miss Kook plays a wealthy New Yorker whose brother is possessed by the spirit of a Puerto Rican serial killer with a penchant for decapitation in this psychothriller with an unpleasant children-in-jeopardy ending. Psycho-bro chops his girlfriend’s head off and leaves it hanging by the hair from a large houseplant, but the best bit is when Shirl flees to her isolated beach house (as you do) where she finds her best friend’s severed head sitting on top of her fridge.

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2 In a film by Eric Rohmer – L’ANGLAISE ET LE DUC (2001) directed by Eric Rohmer.

Of all the film directors in the world, Eric Rohmer – auteur of tasteful films full of droopy young French people who talk a lot – is probably the last in whose oeuvre you would expect to find a severed head. And yet here it is, on a pike. Admittedly the entire film is something of a change of pace for the veteran film-maker; a heavily stylised period piece set during the French Revolution and, by Rohmer standards, action-packed. The head is that of that well-known victim of the Revolution – the Princesse de Lamballe, who was butchered by a mob and whose pubic hair was rumoured to have been worn afterwards by one of her murderers, as a moustache. Needless to say, Rohmer hasn’t included this last detail in the film. There are limits.

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1 In the title – BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA (1974) directed by Sam Peckinpah.

And not just in the title, but also in the passenger seat of a car, in a picnic hamper belonging to Warren Oates’ girlfriend, and cooling off under a motel shower. Seldom has a severed head played such a central role in a movie, and yet we never see the face: just a coil of hair poking out of a dirty cheesecloth bag surrounded by flies. If, as is often proposed, the severed head is a castration symbol, then maybe one could look on Peckinpah’s Gothic Mex-western as a gesture of atonement for the shoddy treatment meted out to the female characters in his films. On the other hand, Bring Me the Head features one of Peckinpah’s strongest, most sympathetic female characters, even if she is a prostitute with a typically Peckinpah ambiguous attitude towards rape. (Hey, it’s not as bad as all that – in fact, some girls even like it.) It all ends in tears, of course, and Oates saying to the bad guy, “Sixteen people are dead because of you, and one was a damn good friend of mine.”

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For more about severed heads, here’s an excellent piece on Movie Morlocks by Richard Harland Smith, who mentions many of the films I left out.

Ten Places You Wouldn’t Expect to Find a Severed Head originally appeared in Ten Bad Dates with De Niro, A Book of Alternative Movie Lists (Faber and Faber, 2007) edited by Richard T Kelly. Please click on the image below for more information from amazon.co.uk and amazon.com.

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THE SUICIDE SHOP

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JODOROWSKY: THE 1990 INTERVIEW

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ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE! FIGHTBACK

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PETER CUSHING: THE 1986 INTERVIEW

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SCARY BITS: PART ONE – FILMS THAT HAVE TERRIFIED ME

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SOME REASONS WHY THE WOMAN IN BLACK WASN’T SCARY

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7 thoughts on “TEN PLACES YOU WOULDN’T EXPECT TO FIND A SEVERED HEAD

  1. I immediately added that book to my ehm… ‘to buy’ book list!

    This subject made me think of two films: ‘Khartoum’, which I saw as a kid. Can’t remember ANYTHING from it – apart from the severed head on a pole at the end… And of course ‘Apocalypse Now’. Wasn’t there a rumour they uses real corpses as props?

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