The Gist (The Thing that Couldn't Die)
As far as living head movies go, The Thing That Couldn't Die (1958) possesses surprisingly long legs. Cranked out at Universal-International towards the end of the studio's run of atomic age horror and sci-fi films - post-Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), post-Tarantula (1955), post-Monster on the Campus (1958) and long after the abdication of series frontmen Richard Carlson and John Agar, as U-I was divesting itself of its contract players and stable of writers - the feature was intended as fodder for drive-in double bills and second run cinemas. Made for a miserly $150,000, The Thing That Couldn't Die has never appeared on a legitimate VHS tape or DVD but remains a fan favorite, engendering warm memories and kind words from those who saw it originally via late night television or as a Saturday afternoon spookshow. The project originated with David Duncan (a writer with credits ranging from The Monster That Challenged the World and The Black Scorpion (both 1957) to Monster on the Campus and the American edit of Ishiro Honda's Rodan, 1956), who sold his original story "The Water Witch" to U-I and was retained to write the screenplay.

Principal photography on The Water Witch (as the project was known early into production) began in late January 1958, on the Universal backlot, making use of a standing farmhouse set left over from the studio's Ma and Pa Kettle comedies. Tinkering with historical fact, The Thing That Couldn't Die spins a tale of the collision of science and superstition at the burial site of one Gideon Drew, "the foulest and wickedest man to ever set feet upon the earth." A member of privateer Sir Francis Drake's expedition to the Americas in the late 16th Century, Drew had been branded a Satanist (an allusion to Drake's real life execution of co-commander Thomas Doughty, whom he accused of witchcraft and executed on July 2, 1758) and beheaded at an unmarked spot on the California coastline, with head and body buried apart to curse the blighter with everlasting torment. The search for water in present day Southern California leads to the discovery of Drew's undying noggin and its deleterious effect on a handful of contemporary folk, among them a handsome young scientist (William Reynolds) and a beautiful girl (Carolyn Kearney) endowed with second sight.

One of only two features helmed by short subject director Will Cowan, The Thing That Couldn't Die suffers from early inertia aggravated by Russell Metty's flat camerawork (Metty was jobbing here between Magnificent Obsession [1954] for Douglas Sirk and Touch of Evil [1958] for Orson Welles) as the protagonists discover the strong box buried in canyon country and attempt to make sense of its cautionary inscription ("If ye valuest thy immortal soul, open not this accursed chest..."). Already borrowing from The Mummy (1932), the script folds in John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men when roughneck ranch hand (To Kill a Mockingbird's [1962] James Anderson) and his simpleton friend (Charles Horvath) appropriate the box for personal gain, only to have Horvath possessed by the living head, murder Anderson, and set off to bond Drew to his lower corporeality. The villain takes a long time to come together, the interim filled with additional possessions (when Horvath is gunned down, Andra Martin's artist's model assumes the dogsbody, porting Drew's head around in a hatbox) and a spooky flashback detailing Drew's execution, which plays like a dry run for the entombment of Barbara Steele in Mario Bava's Black Sunday (1960).

The fright factor of The Thing That Couldn't Die is keyed to the viewer's anxiety as to where Gideon Drew's head might bob up next. George Méliés' The Triple Conjurer and the Living Head (1900) may have been the first film to make cinematic hay out of a head living without a body and Tod Browning's silent The Show (1927) and Melville Shyer's Poverty Row whodunit Murder in the Museum (1934) both presented the phenomenon as sideshow legerdemain. W. Lee Wilder's The Man Without a Body (1957) worked the surviving head of Nostradamus into its plot mechanics but The Thing That Couldn't Die seems to have inspired a proper subgenre, followed as it was by Bert I. Gordon's Tormented (1960), Joseph Green's The Brain That Wouldn't Die (1962), Chano Urueta's The Living Head (1963), David Bradley's Madman of Mandoras (aka, They Saved Hitler's Brain, 1963), and Herbert J. Leder's The Frozen Dead (1966), and pointing the way to the ne plus ultra of Stuart Gordon's Re-Animator (1985). The Thing That Couldn't Die also anticipates Disney's Blackbeard's Ghost (1968) and Jack Woods' back country spooker Equinox (1970), which in turn inspired Sam Raimi's The Evil Dead (1981).

However undervalued they might have been at their home studio, the cast of The Thing That Couldn't Die was of interesting pedigree. Surviving a studio cut that had sent both Clint Eastwood and Burt Reynolds packing, William Reynolds had a brooding Johnny Depp quality that served him well in such programmers as Cult of the Cobra (1955) and Douglas Sirk's All That Heaven Allows (1955) and would earn him starring roles on a number of weekly TV series, most memorably ABC's long-running procedural The FBI (1965-1974). Playing the baby of the cast but older than most of her costars, Carolyn Kearney (in a role turned down by Jill St. John) enjoyed a fifteen year career, mostly in episodic television, guesting on such series as Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Route 66, and The Twilight Zone. Third-billed Jeffrey Stone had been the reference model for Prince Charming in Disney's Cinderella (1950) and provided the original story for the British sci-fi thriller Unearthly Stranger (1964). If the actor playing Gideon Drew looks deucedly familiar, you may remember the Argentina-born Robin Hughes as The Twilight Zone's eponymous "Howling Man" but previously he had been on the side of the angels, providing the voice of Jesus Christ in Mervyn LeRoy's Quo Vadis (1951).

By Richard Harland Smith

Sources:

Disaster and Memory: Celebrity Culture and the Crisis of Hollywood Cinema by Wheeler Winston Dixon (Columbia University Press, 1999)

Keep Watching the Skies! American Science Fiction Movies of the Fifties - 21st Century Edition by Bill Warren (McFarland and Company, 2009)

William Reynolds interview by Tom Weaver, I Talked With a Zombie: Interviews with 23 Veterans of Horror and Sci-Fi Films and Television (McFarland and Company, 2008)