The Man with the Severed Head
Spain has had (and continues to have) some terrific cinematic exports such as Luis Buñuel, Jess Franco and Pedro Almodóvar. Among some horror fans, one of the finest and most popular actors to have ever come from the Iberian Peninsula is Paul Naschy. A hugely prolific actor, the King of Spanish Horror, who is probably best known for playing werewolves, Naschy had a career spanning 50 years from his first credited roles in 1967/68 to those released in 2010, a year after his death. I only came across his work fairly recently but am busy checking out his back catalogue and seeing why he is so highly regarded. Fortunately, one of the first two releases (along with McBain) from the new ArrowDrome label is his 1976 film The Man with the Severed Head, so some of the searching has been done for me.
With the original title Las ratas no duermen de noche (literally The Rats do Not Sleep at Night), the film begins with a criminal gang breaking into a jeweller's late at night in order to gain access to the safe and make off with the goods on display. Unfortunately, when one of them, Karl, takes a necklace and triggers the alarm, they have to abandon the robbery and flee from the police. During their escape, they drive through a police roadblock where the gang leader, Jack Surnett, is shot in the head but, as he isn't dead, he is taken to a safe house, where the brains behind the operation, Henry and his girlfriend Ingrid, are so they can call a doctor, whilst Henry tries to figure out what went wrong at the jeweller's.
Their bad luck continues as Dr Ritter, the gang's trusted physician, is asleep on his bed, having drunk too much and passed out and it takes a while to bring him round because the vase of flowers doesn't contain any water and he doesn't respond well to being slapped around the face. Eventually, he regains consciousness but, realising the injury is beyond his skills, recommends a friend of his, a renegade surgeon who has been experimenting on animals, hoping to be able to transplant a brain from one to another. Misfortune continued to dog the gang as Professor Teets has damaged his hands, but agrees to help as he has been training his wife, Ana, who he hopes will be able to perform life-saving surgery.
As Jack's brain is too badly damaged to repair, Prof Teets says he requires a donor brain, fresh and with blood still circulating, so two of the gangsters, Paul and Karl, are sent to find such a brain. Dr Ritter consults his notes and discovers the only man with the right blood group and brain size is Surnett's sworn enemy, The Sadist. Happy to kill two birds with one stone when finding their 'willing donor', they track down The Sadist and set up an ambush. As they aren't medically trained, finding and killing The Sadist is one thing, but removing his head is quite another but, after putting his body across some train tracks, they arrive back at the professor's house with a head and a brain suitable for transplant.
There can't be too many horror films in which there is a 'mad scientist' with ambitions of becoming a respected version of Victor Frankenstein, rival gangs, a gangster in need of a brain transplant and a corpse beheaded by a train, but The Man with the Severed Head contains all these elements. For good measure, once they've used parts of The Sadist's brain, the gangsters then mail his severed head to his widow! I have no idea whether Juan Fortuny (along with the other writers, Marius Lesoeur (who was also the executive producer) and H.L. Rostaine) intended the film to be quite so funny or whether they genuinely wanted it to be a horror film to be taken seriously by audiences, but it has plenty of funny lines, situations and characters. There is one sequence when the men go to a Cabaret strip club and the film suddenly cuts to a scene with some contemporary ballet and, for a while, I thought it had switched to a different film!
Unlike some of his more famous films, Paul Naschy doesn't have a great deal to do in this as he spends most of the film in a comatose state and only really comes to life as the heavily bandaged transplant patient who is having trouble coming to terms with his repaired brain. Naschy doesn't become a werewolf, a monster or someone bringing the dead to life, but his brief appearance here is fairly well played even though it's really a supporting role.
Juan Fortuny doesn't come across as the most skilled director, but he manages to hold the film together with the many different plot threads all making sense and the tensions between the characters (and between the two gangs) never seeming particularly silly even though there are several scenes when it almost descends into farce. This isn't the best introduction to Paul Naschy films, but is extremely watchable due to the quite ludicrous situation and the performances, which vary from accomplished and plausible to almost over the top and caricatured, are always entertaining.
As ArrowDrome is almost the 'bargain' range of titles and releases from Arrow, they say the discs will have extra features and the DVDs will come with a reversible sleeve and new booklet. I've only been provided with the disc for review, so haven't had a chance to read the booklet or look at the sleeve, but the disc contains the following:
Paul Naschy Featurette (23:35) begins with former Fangoria editor Tony Timpone talking about when Naschy came to the US for the very first time to attend a horror convention, completely unaware of his fan base outside Spain. Timpone then goes on to talk about why Naschy played such a good werewolf, how he first saw a Paul Naschy film and his legacy. Next up is Fred Olen Ray, who recounts how he ended up working with Naschy on Tomb of the Werewolf (2004) with Naschy speaking only one word of English ('Hello') and Ray speaking no Spanish! Whatever you may think of his films, Fred Olen Ray seems genuinely fond of his working with Paul Naschy and his interview is followed by one with Michelle Bauer, who starred with him in Tomb of the Werewolf and then with Caroline Munro, who acted with him in 1987 on The Whole of the Devil and, like everyone else seems very fond of him and his family and sad that he's no longer around as a person and filmmaker and director. There are also similar interview clips with Brian Yuzna (who directed him in Rottweiler, 2004) and Mick Garris, who hosted and narrated a documentary on Paul Naschy and Use It as an opportunity to watch many more of his films.
The featurette is very well put together by Calum Waddell and Naomi Holwell at High Rising Productions with plenty of clips from Paul Naschy's films and posters from his films and others mentioned during the course of the documentary.
Additional Erotic Scenes (6:34) is a selection of scenes with plenty of naked female flesh which weren't included in this version of the film and, though the scenes are good to watch, I can't say they would have improved the film and may have made it slightly disjointed.
Finally, there is the French trailer for the film under its French title: L'homme à la tête coupée.
Presented in the correct aspect ratio of 1.78:1, the anamorphic picture is surprisingly good with reasonably deep contrast levels and bright colours. Some of the scenes, particularly the opening credits, look a little washed out but, for the most part, the film looks as good as I could hope for. It is generally a film with quite muted colours but then there are scenes with quite bright costumes, such as Ingrid's bright pink lounge suit.
The direction, cinematography and editing are all functional, without being exceptional or overly clumsy. Everything is composed and photographed very well and edited in such a way that the film flows well with one scene leading naturally into another so the pacing doesn't drag or otherwise waste time on unnecessary subplots.
There are a few scenes with a vertical white line about a third of the way across the frame but, due to the age of the film and the likelihood the negatives weren't stored in the best possible fashion, this really isn't a problem and I have seen films like this in much worse condition.
As The Man with the Severed Head had an international cast and, like many films from this era made on continental Europe, it's likely there was little or no direct sound so the disc offers both English and French soundtracks, both Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo. They are both very clear with well presented dialogue.
The subtitles seem to follow the original script rather than the English dub and they rarely, if ever, follow the English dialogue with some quite startling differences: 'the back seat is riddled with bullets' is how the subtitles appear for 'the back of the car is covered in blood'.
Daniel White's score fits the locations, characters and period extremely well with some strange musical choices, most of them involving keyboards, saxophone and other jazz instruments, which don't really do much to compliment the visuals – most scenes and exchanges have no scored music at all – but it still does a reasonable job.
As someone who is trying to work his way through the backlog of Paul Naschy films, this release is extremely welcome and, if you have heard the name and wonder what the fuss is about, this isn't one of the best films to introduce you to the Spanish horror icon. However, it is a pretty good film with decent, though not spectacular, writing, direction and acting.
The disc is much better than I expected with much better AV quality than other moderately budgeted Spanish films from the mid-1970s. Furthermore, the Paul Naschy featurette is a fine tribute and one which will provide a shopping list to his other, more well-known films. As the first ArrowDrome released in the red colour scheme, The Man with the Severed Head is a strange horror to kick things off, but an extremely welcome DVD release in the UK.