DVD Review: Trail of the Screaming Forehead

Sheila and the creeping forehead

Trail of the screaming forehead.
What can a body do?
‘Cause when your forehead’s screaming,
It isn’t really you…

 

First, a few words about the films of Larry Blamire.

I discovered The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra when I purchased the DVD second-hand a few years after its 2001 release and thought it was clever and cute. The film was made on a pocket-change budget in the style of the even more low-budget sci-fi films of the 1950s and early ’60s which it lovingly parodies. Much of it was filmed in Bronson Canyon and features that same cave in which Ro-Man made his lair in Robot Monster, the giant space-brain Gor hid in Brain from Planet Arous, and Roger Corman used in a half-dozen other movies of the era.

What impressed me most was Blamire’s talent as a writer for mimicking the stilted, overblown, and frequently inane dialog of such movies. You have only to watch The Lost Skeleton in conjunction with Plan 9 from Outer Space to appreciate it.

The Lost Skeleton was eventually followed by a jungle-adventure sequel, The Lost Skeleton Returns Again and Dark and Stormy Night, the latter of which has become one of my favorite films; it started me off on a search for the Old Dark House movies it parodies and eventually led to my addiction to Dark Shadows.

But something was missing.

Coming Soon,,, Trail of the Screaming Forehead At the end of The Lost Skeleton is the promise of the next film, Trail of the Screaming Forehead; in the DVD commentary, Blamire assured the viewer that this wasn’t a joke, but a real movie he planned to make.

I learned later that it had indeed been made, but that there was trouble with its distribution; a cut version had been shown, but no DVD released in the United States. Only in this past year, I found that a director’s cut was available from the UK and pounced on it. (It’s also available in several places online if you care to search.)

So here we are at last!

Trail of the Screaming Forehead begins in the sleepy little town of Longhead Bay. Amos, the jovial proprietor of the local inn, exchanges a few lame comedy quips with his wife Sarah and before leaving their home. Walking through the nearby woods, he encounters some unseen but peculiar object in the underbrush and, peering more closely at it in puzzlement, is attacked by it.

Cue the animated credits and the theme song, quoted above, sung by The Manhattan Transfer.

The cast is mostly the same people who’ve worked with Blamire for years, plus James Karen and Betty Garrett (Andrew Parks’s mom), who would later appear in Dark and Stormy Night–and hey, there’s Dick Miller!

I was surprised to see that the film is in color. Since it’s a parody of alien invasion films like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, I always imagined that it would be in black in white. The bright colors and tacky early ’60s decor put me more in mind of the lurid gore films of Herschell Gordon Lewis–only with much better actors, a more coherent plot, and mercifully no sheep guts.

At the Institute for Brain Studying, we meet about-to-be-mad scientist Dr. Sheila Bexter (Fay Masterson, whom I have long adored as Betty Armstrong in the Lost Skeleton movies) as she presents her controversial theory that the source of human intellect isn’t the brain, but the forehead. The head of the Institute, Dr. Applethorpe, calls her ideas “insane and wrong” and is ready to cut off her funding, but one of her colleagues, Dr. Philip Latham (Andrew Parks) is eager to help her in any way he can since his own line of research into the connection between the human brain and lips is foundering. “It just seems that the damned things move all by themselves!”

Phillip is already half-smitten with Sheila, and the lure of aiding her in her forehead research is too much for him to resist.

Doctors Philip Latham and Sheila Bexter

“Who knows what secrets we’ll find locked in that flat, flesh-colored carapace?”

And what of Phillip’s wife, the pearl-wearing homemaker Mary? “How can she understand that we are joined at the forehead, you and I?” Sheila tells him.

After some lab work, Sheila extracts a secretion of the foreheadial lobe, or gland, whatever, and calls the resulting chemical foreheadazine. Phillip agrees to serve as her guinea pig and take the stuff. “It’s a risk, but I don’t mind being smarter.” But they’re going to need a lot more foreheads to extract sufficient quantities of foreheadazine for their experiment to proceed.

As luck would have it, a shipload of 500 frozen medical cadavers is forced to dock at Longhead Bay when its refrigeration unit breaks down. The bodies are warehoused and the ship’s skipper and first mate, Big Dan and Dutch, seek lodgings for a few days while repairs are being made. The two men, not surprisingly, end up getting rooms at the inn, where Sarah is wondering why her husband Amos hasn’t come home yet.

The other residents of the inn are Dr. Applethorpe, whom we’ve already met at the Brain Institute, and local librarian, Millie Healey. Once this group settles down for a lunch of soup (Amos was supposed to bring home bread for sandwiches), Amos returns with no bread, a conspicuously large and lumpy forehead, and no sense of humor. Dr. Applethorpe likes him better that way.

Amos and his forehead That evening, Amos takes his wife to the toolshed out back to show her something in a shoe box: another unattached, free-ranging forehead. “Don’t you want to try it on?”

The next day, the couple adds Dr. Applethorpe to the forehead-possessed group.

Dutch sees Amos and the doctor pressing their foreheads together, which baffles him. (“They don’t even like each other.”) He, Big Dan, and Millie have all noticed the pulsing brows on their household companions. When Dutch visits Millie at the library, she tells him that a number of books on the forehead have been checked out lately–the public library has an astonishingly extensive collection of forehead-related books.

These clues are enough to tell the trio that something strange is going on in Longhead Bay, but it isn’t until they see one of those free-ranging foreheads for themselves that they begin to understand the danger.

They go to the police. But since they’ve neglected to bring the forehead with them, Police Chief Bartnett isn’t impressed with their story. He’s especially scornful that it comes from a couple of strangers. “I don’t know who you are, coming into town and filling our town librarian with foreheads.”

Meanwhile, Dr. Sheila Bexter, in her quest to obtain more foreheads for her research, enters a bar on the seedy side of town, the hangout of an oily drifter named Nick Vasadine and his bimbo girlfriend Droxy Chappell (Writer/director/producer Larry Blamire and his wife Jennifer Blaire). Nick is just the sort of man it’s understood will be able to obtain illicit foreheads for cash, no questions asked. Since Nick has already heard Big Dan talking about his frozen cadaver cargo, it’s no trouble for him to provide all the foreheads the mad-scientist lady needs; he only has to have Droxy flirt with Big Dan the next time the sailor visits the bar (“Frozen dead people must be so fascinating…”) and follows the pair to the warehouse where the cadavers are stored.

How Nick gets so many foreheads off so many dead bodies in such a short period of time is left to the viewer’s imagination.

Sheila’s foreheadazine experiments on Phillip produce impressive results in the form of an enlarged forehead. He explains this to his wife by telling her that he’s been stung by a huge bee.

Comparing foreheadsPhillip’s new forehead looks similar to the foreheads of the possessed townsfolk–so similar, in fact, that when Dr. Applethorpe sees him, the elder doctor naturally assumes that Phillip is “one of us.” Phillip assumes that Applethorpe and the other swollen-foreheaded people are also participating in foreheadazine experiments.

Thus our hero inadvertently stumbles on the aliens’ plans for global invasion when they invite him to one of their secret meetings (He brings a box of donuts).

Phillip doesn’t tell Sheila about any of this, since it would crush her to learn that someone else is conducting forehead research like her own, but he does worry that their experiment will affect him adversely and give him “delusions of global domination” like the others at the meeting. He insists the experiment continue, however, in hopes that his increased intellect will enable him to stand up against the evil foreheaders.

Forehead, forehead, forehead. You type the same word enough times, it starts looking really weird.

Unknown to Nick or anybody else, Droxy has contaminated the last batch of purloined cadaver foreheads before they are delivered to Sheila. It’s unclear to me whether she does it to try and destroy the evidence when Chief Bartnett comes poking around, or out of jealousy because Nick is attracted to Sheila, but she dumps several bottles of brightly colored liquids into the container. This will of course have an effect on Phillip’s final foreheadazine treatment.

While pouring over the remaining books about foreheads at the library, Dutch, Millie, and Big Dan are attacked by one of the alien foreheads. They subdue and capture it by smacking it repeatedly with a big book and taping it down on a table.

The captive forehead speaks to them, explaining what it is and what it and the other roaming foreheads want:

Forehead taped down

“We are a dying race from a planet many light years away, very similar to yours, but different. We were once like you–strong, proud, shouldered. Then came nuclear war. We destroyed ourselves, much as mankind could destroy itself if it destroys itself with nuclear war–so watch out, okay? After the war, we found we could only survive as God’s simplest of creatures, the forehead… but foreheads alone cannot survive. We need your bodies to live.”

They take their captive to the police, but Chief Bartnett has already met up with another forehead in an alleyway and been taken over.

Little black pillbox hatMost of the town has been foreheaded by this time. They meet at the inn, where they sing a secret song to identify each other, discuss their problems in coping with having human bodies, and decide to wear a common type of Earth headgear to conceal their bulgy foreheads from anyone who hasn’t been possessed yet: chic little black pillbox hats with lacy veils.

Phillip’s wife Mary, who is one of the few remaining people in town who hasn’t been foreheaded, goes to the lab to confront Sheila about what that mad-scientist vixen is up to with her husband. Sheila has just given Phillip his last dose of foreheadazine and he’s gone into the back room to lie down while it takes effect. He emerges while the two women are arguing, and we see that his forehead has become incredibly huge, consuming his whole head. He looks like the Sphinx.

Mary screams and flees. Sheila screams and declares that no one could love a freak with a forehead like that. Phillip looks at himself in a mirror and screams, and runs away too.

The pillbox-hatted alien-possessed townsfolk leave the inn and boldly set out to take over Longhead Bay… and then the world!

There are just a few more people for the aliens to get. After Phillip runs away, Sheila is left in despair alone in the lab. A forehead comes creeping up on her.

Nick and the speaking foreheadDroxy is in the darkened bar, calling out for Nick and making drunken jokes, when he steps out of the shadows with a speaking forehead.

“You’re like Modern Art!” she cries out before he gets her too.

Phillip has in the meantime been running and running, screaming all the way, until he’s far out of town. He finally collapses exhausted under a tree and delivers a soliloquy on his condition that is Shakespearean in style and utterly, delightfully absurd:

Phillip and his forehead

“I am too much fore- head and too little else. Why is this contemplation so heavy? I could run faster if I had not its weight. Yet the greatest forehead could never more contain my pain than a thimble, or an backpack…”

Then he notices one of the foreheads creeping toward him and realizes that it’s some kind of alien parasite. He understands at last what’s happening in the town, and sees that he alone has the vast, foreheadial powers necessary to combat the invasion.

Dutch, Millie, and Big Dan have finally found a book that provides them with the helpful information that foreheads are adverse to certain sounds, like ringing bells. Armed with every bell they can get hold of, they make a stand against the alien invaders, but are overwhelmed by the foreheaders superior numbers and use of earplugs. Can Phillip arrive in time to save the day?

“If I saw me with my big fat foreheady face, I’d run from me too. In fact, I did run from me, screaming. Like a screaming forehead. It’d be pathetically funny if it weren’t so cruel. Here, alien parasites have given people foreheads that can scream while I, through entirely different means–thanks a lot, Sheila!–have become one huge, screaming forehead. I’m through running and screaming.”

–Phillip’s final speech

This is distinctly a middle work. In production values, it’s a couple of steps up from the zero-budget delights of The Lost Skeleton. The stop-motion foreheads are nicely done in an old-fashioned tribute-to-Ray-Harryhausen kind of way (he is mentioned in the opening credits), while at the same time being completely bizarre in concept. I mean, crawling, talking, independently sentient alien foreheads? Phillip’s fully developed Sphinx-like forehead is simultaneously disturbing and ridiculous.

On the other hand, it’s not up to Larry Blamire’s later films. The silly dialog, which I enjoy so much when it’s done right and I’ve quoted so much of above, isn’t as brilliantly polished to a glossy state of inanity here as it will be in The Lost Skeleton Returns Again or Dark and Stormy Night. Oh, there’s plenty of funny stuff. I love the scenes with Sheila and Phillip, as well as Nick and Droxy in the bar, and the alien foreheads’ secret meetings are truly wonderful in their absurdities, but some of the conversations between the secondary heroes, Millie, Dutch, and Big Dan, strike me as trying too hard to be funny and instead end up strained and tedious rather than amusing.

Oh, well. Three out of four plot elements ain’t bad.

But the thing I miss most on this UK DVD is the cast commentary. When I first watched The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra, I kind of liked it, but the commentary made me love it. The commentary on the other two later films is great too. The people who make these films so obviously love the work and enjoy working with each other. I would really have liked hearing them talk about making this movie.

The Forehead InvasionBy the way, what happens to all the people at the very end? In the final long shot before the credits, the street is empty apart from our heroes. Did all the townsfolk die when the forehead aliens were vanquished, or did they just wander off home once they were free of evil foreheadial influences?

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Author: Kathryn L Ramage

Kathryn L. Ramage has a B.A. and M.A. in English lit and has been writing for as long as she can remember. She lives in Maryland with three calico cats named after the Brontë sisters. In addition to being the author of numerous short stories, reviews, essays, and period mystery novellas, she is also the author of a series of fantasy novels set in a dukedom called the Northlands on an alternate Earth whose history has diverged from ours somewhere during the medieval period.