Giving Heads

Quick, cool decapitations are emerging as the chic way to off bad guys on the big screen. Here, our connoisseur of head-lopping cinema, Joe Queenan, discusses which films feature the most fearless head cuts and suggests a few flicks that could have benefited from a noggin chop.

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IN THE OPENING SEQUENCE OF ANTONIO BANDERAS'S CRAZY IN ALABAMA, MELANIE GRIFFITH TELLS HER SWAMP-TRASH MAMA THAT WHEN A DOMESTIC DISPUTE WITH HER HUSBAND COULD NOT BE RESOLVED, SHE HAD NO CHOICE BUT TO CUT OFF HIS HEAD. Her mother reacts with horror and disbelief, not so much because her abusive son-in-law has been slain but because of the grotesque fashion in which he has been dispatched from this Vale of Tears. That, plus the fact that Griffith is still tooling around Dixie with his head on the back seat. It is yet another of those classic instances where the people inside a movie never seem to go to the movies themselves, and are thus shocked and scandalized at things that movie audiences take for granted.

In the past couple of years, cinematic decapitation has become so commonplace that it barely raises an eyebrow anymore. Just this past summer, a head went flying off a soldier's shoulders in The Patriot, a severed noggin got chucked into the mud in Gladiator (with a second coconut getting spliced off in a coliseum later), the obligatory cerebellar skullduggery took place in Highlander: Endgame (the latest in a series devoted almost entirely to the joys of decapitation) and a fatally perky Jennifer Love Hewitt clone got her thinking cap eighty-sixed in Scary Movie.

Not long before these films were released, heads of all sizes and descriptions were separated from their shoulders in Sleepy Hollow, a head was eaten al dente by a giant crocodile in Lake Placid and a head was devoured by a mutant sea bass in the first Austin Powers. And that's not even mentioning the memorable decapitations in Braveheart, The Mask of Zorro and Se7en.

Why has head-hunting become such a popular plot device in contemporary movies? In large part because the psychological groundwork for this on-screen mayhem was laid carefully some time ago. Back in 1994, I wrote an article for this magazine drawing attention to the amazing number of ears that had been sliced off actors' heads in recent years. At the time, the powers-that-be in Hollywood seemed to believe that the general viewing public would probably accept an ear being chopped off or shot off or gnawed off here and there (Reservoir Dogs, Vincent & Theo, The Godfather: Part III, The Last Temptation of Christ, Blue Velvet, Hard Target) but was not yet ready to see the entire head untethered. But since that time, decapitation has steadily become more popular in motion pictures, while auricular trauma has virtually disappeared. In a way, it's amazing that this evolutionary leap from partial cranial mutilation to full medullary trauma didn't occur sooner. Look at it from the point of view of the person wielding the ax, sword or carving knife. While it is true that cutting off a person's ear sends a powerful message to the victim that the perpetrator of the atrocity is not to be trifled with, ear mutilation is of dubious value as an intimidation technique because it leaves the victim fully capable of retaliation. Decapitation, by contrast, closes the books once and for all. Moreover, cutting off somebody's head does not carry the odious stigma that chopping off his ear or tearing off his nose or ripping out his tongue or slicing off his penis often does. Nobody going to see Gladiator thinks any less of Russell Crowe just because he hacks off a fellow combatant's skull, whereas if he'd cut off his rivals ears or hacked off his nuts or detached his nostrils or ripped out his heart, people might have found such actions a tad dysfunctional.

Decapitation in movies is nothing new, of course. As a plot device, it has been a staple of motion pictures almost from the beginning, with movies about the French Revolution and St. John the Baptist furnishing innumerable opportunities for heads to go flying. Yet in most of these films, because of the relatively primitive technology available at the time, the cerebral cleaving is seen from a distance or not at all. I can well recall as a child being terribly disappointed by the shoddy head-loosening work in A Tale of Two Cities, a failure I attribute to the fact that the movie was made by English people rather than the French, who really know their way around a guillotine. (For some genuinely superb decapitation footage, check out Danton and Queen Margot.) I was also very upset as a child when I did not get to see John the Baptist's head on a silver platter in King of Kings. Though raised a devout Catholic, I was anxious to see the great Evangelist pay the ultimate price for his impertinence, in part because the actor playing John the Baptist (Robert Ryan) was such a know-it-all, but also because I was quite impressed by the young woman playing Salome and felt that her memorably lascivious Trans-Galilean can-can earned her more of a reward than the usual 12 sesterces and a pat on the ass.

The first time I saw a decapitation movie that really delivered the goods was in 1961, when a horror film called The Head was released. In this super-low-budget affair, a scientist who has developed a non-FDA-approved technique for keeping the head of a dog alive is himself decapitated by his untrustworthy colleague. Because the scientists brain is bristling with brilliant ideas, his colleague decides to keep it alive by connecting the severed head to a bunch of down-market electrodes. The unfortunate genius then spends the remainder of the movie complaining about how horrible it is to be decapitated. Although the film is unbelievably cheap-looking and the "severed" head is not at all realistic-looking, The Head is important for two reasons. One, as opposed to earlier films I had seen in which the removal of the protagonist's noodle invariably signals his departure from the film, The Head broke entirely new ground by placing a talking, albeit detached, head squarely at the center of the dramatic action. Second, the film introduced me to the concept of the chatty decapitatee, a character who will be seen again in films as varied as _Highlander--_The Final Dimension, Scary Movie and Crazy in Alabama. So effective is this plot device that I am firmly convinced we will one day see a remake of The Head in which a fiendish scientist grafts the head of Barbra Streisand onto the body of Bette Midler--or vice versa--just to see how much of this crap the public can take.

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