The poverty row production house Eurociné is a name perhaps best known to fans of vintage European exploitation and horror through its owner Mario Lesoeur and his long term association with cinema’s prince of perverts, Jess Franco. In its dubious heyday, Eurociné specialised in backing low budget flicks that were brewed from a zany mix of singular pulp materials and leavened with oodles of soft-core erotica – a type of cinema that today is often termed eurobis by its aficionados -- which they stewed up quickly on minimal budgets, for the clientele of the seedy backstreet porn emporiums and grotty grindhouse theatres which flourished across Europe throughout the sixties and seventies. Their product scraped the dregs at the bottom of the barrel of genre films for simplistic plots and ropy dialogue, but in the hands of a genius obsessive such as Franco, the Eurociné formula occasionally produced weird gems: perfect monochrome mash-ups of classic Universal horror tropes and French psycho-noir like “The Awful Dr Orloff” (1962), or the languid nightmare porno dreams of “The Female Vampire” (1973). But Lesoeur cast far and wide in his constant quest to fill fetid fleapit cinemas across Europe with his mildly titillating, frequently bad taste hash of spy films, monster flicks, women behind bars prison fantasies and crime movies; he frequently cooked up co-productions with equivalent Italian or Spanish rivals to produce low budget euro puddings, often directed by skilled technicians who could only find promotion by taking the helm of such z-grade enterprises, with their rushed shooting schedules, recurring mixed nationality cast lists, and dodgy appearances from ‘erotic performers’ who are usually included for those all-important, foreign sales-determining erotic inserts.
“The Man with the Severed Head”/”Las ratas no duermen de noche” is one such movie: it’s a co-production with a Spanish producer called Antonio Liza, who brings with him veteran Spanish director Juan Fortuny and a cast which includes Spain’s biggest genre movie star at the time, Jacinto Molina Alvarez, aka Paul Naschy (but credited as Paul Nash in the title credits on this print, which also feature the film’s bland English-language title “Crimson”), who, along with the rest of the cast, is badly dubbed into either French or English according to one’s taste (both tracks are included here with subtitles, so take your pick!).
While Eurociné films frequently take basic, well-worn and familiar story outlines and combine them with supposedly titillating nudity, “The Man with the Severed Head” is interesting in that it attempts the marriage of two wildly differing pulp genres, and shoehorns them together in the slipshod, haphazard and rushed-looking manner only a Eurociné film can truly manage. Like anything from this production stable no matter who may be directing or scripting any particular project, it shares some quintessential defining Eurociné traits, which are often seen again and again across a raft of their product: dodgy stilted dubbed performances with oddball English language script translation choices; groovy, lounge-core, Bossa nova-tinged jazz scores (this particular one, a Hammond organ-lashed oddity, comes courtesy of long-time Jess Franco collaborator Daniel White); competent but frequently awkward-looking direction; silly nonsensical storylines; meandering lulls in pace which make the film feel twice as long as it actually is; and amateurish foley work that leaves everyone sounding curiously like they’re speaking from the depths of an echoing dungeon … even when, as is the case in this film, the action is frequently supposed to be taking place outside, in the calm of the French countryside.
The film is ostensibly a crime flick, feeding off the basic clichés of French noir, gangster and heist movies and then melding them with recognisable trace elements from some of the pulpy Boris Karloff mad scientist genre movies of the ‘30s and ‘40s. The result is an uneven mishmash that suffers all the flaws and faults that, frankly, could be seen to equally afflict almost any Eurociné backed project you could care to mention. Yet for all that, if you’re finely attuned enough to the cheesy, grindingly clunky ways of such cinema, this film has a certain charm: the almost guerrilla-like shooting style captures the streets of 1970s Paris in all their shabby glory and the classical heist plot meets a Hands of Orlac -referencing genre rip-off is eased on its way by some amusingly florid ‘70s costumes: the fashion-conscious gang of diamond thieves seen bungling their way through the opening safe cracking raid on a Parisian jewellery store (it all goes wrong when one of the look-outs greedily jumps the gun and pockets a necklace in a shop window display case and sets off an alarm) all sport a pleasing array of extravagant facial hair stylings offset with garish flouncy wide-lapel shirts, louder-than-loud kipper ties and blindingly colourful trouser suits.
The gang make their getaway, streaking through the byroads of the French countryside, hotly pursued by a Gendarmerie that’s pretty efficiently tooled up with machine guns and aren’t averse to using them. Paul Naschy’s character, the leader of the criminal outfit, Paul Surnett, takes an almost fatal hit to the head during the initial gun battle, and looks certain to die if his remaining gang members -- Henry (Olivier Mathot), Karl (Victor Israel) and Paul (Claude Boission) -- can’t evade the police roadblocks and get him to their man Doctor Ritter (Carlos Otero): a washed-up, drink-sozzled medical practitioner who turned to alcohol after the death of his wife and is now forced to work for the criminal underworld in order to support himself. Ritter is rousted from a drunken stupor and brought to the gang’s country cottage hideout to tend to the rapidly declining crime lord. He claims that there is only one man who still might be able to help save Surnett: a former student colleague of Ritter’s who’s been doing secret research into the possibility of brain transplantation for years. The gang turn up at the isolated countryside chateau of turtleneck-clad Professot Teets (Ricardo Palmerola), who conducts his outlandish experiments on the brain with the help of his beautiful, platinum blonde wife Ana (Silvia Solar). She performs all his operations in their home laboratory, working according to his instruction and guidance because the professor’s hands had previously been horribly mutilated in a surgical accident, some years earlier, which has left them virtually useless. Henry has his two henchmen kidnap the couple’s little daughter -- holing her up with Surnett’s moll, Ingrid (Gilda Anderson) -- in order to ensure their co-operatation in carrying out the only procedure Teets claims can possibly save the life of their ailing crime boss: a transplant of the affected areas of his cerebellum!
There’s just one problem: the professor needs a fresh brain to use as a replacement for Surnett’s damaged cortex! If the idea of ‘saving’ somebody’s life by transplanting a great big lump of someone else’s brain into the afflicted patient’s head wasn’t crazy enough, Henry decides to use the brain of Surnett’s greatest enemy and rival, who is also the ex-boyfriend of Surnett’s current beau, Ingrid: a man known to all, friend and foe alike, only as ‘the Sadist’ (Roberto Mauri) because of his ‘perverse’ desires.
Great idea! That’s gonna work out just fine then, surely?
Using Ingrid as bait, the gang lure the Sadist into a trap and machine gun him to death. There’s an amusingly ridiculous scene afterwards, in which henchmen Karl and Paul hit on the perfect means of separating the Sadist’s head from his shoulders without having to unduly exert themselves: they place the corpse’s neck across a railway track and wait for the next express to come trundling past! Triumphant at being rid of their greatest gang rival, Henry then has a great idea and posts the Sadist’s head to his girlfriend, gift-wrapped in a box with a ribbon around it, as a jape!
Naturally, the transplant turns out to have unwanted (but thoroughly predictable) side effects. Naschy fans will be disappointed that the great man spends two thirds of the movie on his back without uttering a word, but post-operation he finally gets some action when the transplanted bits of brain start taking control (never saw that one coming did you!) of his addled mind and the thick-set Surnett, head heavily bandaged, starts roaming the French countryside in a passible imitation of Frankenstein’s monster, looking for female flesh to ravage while uttering fantastic lines such as ‘My brain is torturing me … I can’t seem to control it!’
It seems Surnett has inherited elements of the Sadist’s demented personality, including his violent sexual predilections. If that isn’t bad enough, the Sadist’s own henchmen hear that some of Surnett’s gang were last seen in the area just before their boss’s disappearance, and after kidnapping the unfortunate Doctor Ritter and torturing Ingrid (by stubbing out their cigarettes on her exposed breasts!) they manage to learn the location of the professor’s château, setting the scene for an armed gangland showdown with a super-strong sexual somnambulist still on the rampage.
“The Man with the Severed Head” consists of infrequent bouts of deliriously insane and endearingly camp moments of exploitation fun that are, unfortunately, also punctuated by lengthy, muddled sections of tiresome padding. An interminable middle sequence in which some of the Sadist’s men watch a dance-cum-swordplay demonstration performance piece in a sleazy nightclub setting for ages and ages (it’s almost certainly cribbed from another film or else is stock footage, since it seems to have little to do with the rest of the action) is a bewildering way to fill out an extra ten minutes of running time. The production design is passible, sometimes evocative of its era like the garish street clothes of the heist gang: trendy ‘70s Parisian pads with flowery wallpaper for the women in the gang leaders’ lives, and gentrified wood panelled interiors with 19th century furnishings for the professor’s country chateau – and is that the same four poster Lina Romay made such indecent use of in “The Female Vampire” I spied at one point? It crops up when Paul Naschy is seen stretched out on it with a bloodied bandage around his head post-op, and when the Spanish horror icon’s rampant molestation of minor euro starlets gets going full swing it soon gets put to good use!
Actually, this print is the milder International one, which is lacking almost all nudity. The love scenes almost always break off just before they get too fruity, and blouses and bras remain resolutely buttoned up and in place. There was a French language erotic variant made at the time in which the Sadist’s seduction by Ingrid gets much racier than it does in this version, and there are alternative versions of some sequences with extra unclothed scenes, such as the one in which Surnett’s attack on the professor’s statuesque blonde wife is played out as a full soft-core erotic set-piece instead. All of these sequences, plus other sex scenes that aren’t included in the International cut at all, come as a separate ten minute show reel on this UK DVD release from Arrow’s latest imprint, ArrowDrome – a label dedicated to films that come from the sleazier end of the grindhouse/drive-in market. Apparently, Paul Naschy had a buttock double during one particularly juicy alternative sequence that can be seen in this extra footage. It’s interesting how these so-called erotic inserts (ahem!) are played in a completely different style to the rest of the film and are aimed at the requirements of the dirty mac brigade; what was once a tender love scene can suddenly be transformed into all manner of urgent, fleshy gropings designed to showcase a preponderance of gyrating cellulite and sweaty, frantic rutting. A faded-looking French trailer is also included here which consists of a string of the film’s best bits accompanied by a serious sounding French voice-over. Best of all though is another featurette from High Rising Productions, which turns out to be a twenty minute tribute and swan-song for the late Paul Naschy who died in 2009, in which a selection of the actor's co-stars, producers, directors, and fans such as ex Fangoria editor Tony Timpone, director Fred Olen Ray, actresses Michelle Bauer and Caroline Munroe, producer Brian Yuzna and director-producer-writer Mick Garris, all line up to pay loving tribute to the talents of the most ferocious screen wolf man that ever bestrode the screen, with numerous clips and trailers interspersed with plenty of great anecdotes and memories from the contributors.
ArrowDrome looks set to continue in the fine tradition of its sister label, Arrow Video, including with the release a glossy free booklet that includes an interview with distributor Sam Sherman. The print used here may not be a major restoration job, but it actually presents a pretty obscure film with a fine anamorphic transfer struck from a mostly crisp and well balanced print with decent colour, and looks tenfold better than most of the Eurociné films do on DVD. Viewers have the option of watching it with the cheesy default English language dub or with the slightly more credible sounding French language track, which comes with nice, clear removable English language subtitles.