I didn't have access to a lot of cinema where I grew up, in Lakeview, Oregon in the '60s and '70s. We had one indoor theater, the Alger, run by the late Donald R. "Bob" Alger, which operated from early September through May, and one drive-in theater, the Circle JM, also operated by Mr. Alger, in the summer months of May through early September. Show days for the indoor theater were Wednesday through Sunday, and the drive-in added Tuesday to that schedule, so in the summer the only day there wasn't a movie available was Monday.
In those days, before the home video revolution, it wasn't unusual for Mr. Alger to be as much as a year behind the release patterns of major movies. If one waited to see, say, Jaws at one of Lakeview's two venues, one would have seen it in the summer of 1976, a full year after it first appeared in theaters and set box-office records. So there was always an element of frustration for anyone who lived in my hometown, paid any attention at all to what was in theaters and had any desire to see the latest movies when they were in first-run release (My buddies and I were definitely part of this group, if not its sole members).
However, where Mr. Alger excelled as a timely film programmer was in his willingness to book one-night-only horror shows composed of fairly recent releases (within, say, six months or so)-- his (and, of course, our) special nights were Halloween, any and all Friday the 13ths, and New Year's Eve. It was because of his enthusiasm for these (undoubtedly less expensive) specialty engagements that my buddies and I stayed very much up-to-date on just about every significant horror film of the period, and were very lucky indeed to be exposed to a large portion of the offerings from American International Pictures, Amicus Productions and, of course, the Hammer Studios. Under Mr. Alger's popcorn tutelage we saw everything he brought in-house-- to have missed an Alger Theater horror night was inexcusable. Some of the titles we gorged on included The Dunwich Horror, The Crimson Cult, Dracula Has Risen From The Grave, Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, Asylum, The House That Dripped Blood, The Green Slime, The Fearless Vampire Killers (or Pardon Me, But Your Teeth Are In My Neck), Count Yorga, Vampire, Cry of the Banshee, The Return of Count Yorga, The Abominable Dr. Phibes, Dr. Phibes Rises Again, Whatever Happened to Jack and Jill?, The House That Screamed, Trog, Willard, Taste the Blood of Dracula, Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter, Tales from the Crypt, The Incredible Two-Headed Transplant, Rasputin the Mad Monk, The Evil of Frankenstein, Scream and Scream Again and probably 40 or 50 others that I can't remember off the top of my head. (I have a feeling that I'll be returning to this general subject in a bit more detail sometime in the near future on this very site).
I'm mindful of the wonderful times I had screaming and being genuinely scared by most, if not all of the movies cited above, because it's now about 15 minutes before midnight, New Year's Eve, 2004, and 25-30 years ago on this night I might well have been feasting on one of the above titles while silently fretting about the terrifying mile-long walk home once the featured horror was finished. Also, it turns out the last film I will have seen in this calendar year is one from that select group that Mr. Alger failed to bring to town, one that I caught up with thanks to my best friend Bruce, who gave it to me for Christmas, one that was far more enjoyable than I would have ever guessed: Ray Milland and Rosey Grier in The Thing With Two Heads (1972), on DVD as part of MGM Home Video's indescribably wonderful "Midnite Movies" series.
This wacky sci-fi comedy is essentially a bigger (but not much bigger) budgeted version of AIP's earlier, and far tackier, The Incredible Two-Headed Transplant. In fact, the two movies comprise the double feature MGM has made available on its disc (At a Best Buy price of $9.99, just about any MGM Midnite Movies double feature is well worth the meager price, but this one is one of the best). Ray Milland is a bigoted transplant surgeon who is nearing death and wishes to find a suitable body onto which to graft his own head, expecting after a month or so to decapitate the original head and take over the new frame as his own. Through a complicated series of events that are thankfully taken less than seriously, the donor ends up being Mr. Grier, and when he overrides Milland's wishes and stages an escape from the transplant hospital the whole middle of the movie is given over to a wacky (and overlong) chase-- it's AIP's goofball answer to the question probably nobody ever asked: What would the The Defiant Ones be like if the white guy's head was stitched onto the black guy's body, so instead of being chained together, they had to inhabit the same body? Lots of police cars are wrecked, and lots of time is given over to the pained look on Milland's face as Grier forces him to escape on a speeding motocross bike through a race in progress. And I take that pained look to be acting, by the way. Milland seems to know exactly what he's into here and he's an awfully good sport about it (one would have to be, if one were a veteran of Hollywood films who found himself, in the waning days of his career, going through the length of half a film strapped to the back of an ex-football player). But then, so is Grier, who gets off some pretty funny lines at the expense of Milland and his frequently racist exasperation-- his "Now you got to go," directed to Milland's head after being rebuffed in the bedroom by a girlfriend who understandably hesitates at the thought of having sex with her suddenly two-headed boyfriend, is priceless.
In fact, the whole enterprise is jauntier and more freewheeling than I would have guessed, thanks in part to its appearance during the first beats of the blaxploitation movement-- and on that note, there's plenty of funky music to be enjoyed during the lengthy chase sequence too. And you've got to see the little impromptu musical number that plays under the closing credits-- it's not exactly Takeshi Kitano's Zatoichi taking unexpected musical flight, but it's guaranteed to make you laugh out loud and wonder what the hell the filmmakers thought they were doing.
I'm sure there's far better films with which to spend the waning hours of 2004, but considering the year that just passed, with its bizarre politics, horrible worldwide disasters and moments of personal unease and uncertainty, something as unpretentious, silly, yet essentially sincere as The Thing With Two Heads seems strangely to be the right choice after all. I promise to start 2005 off on the right foot with House of Flying Daggers... but then again, there is The Incredible Two-Headed Transplant still be to seen...