A Severed Head (1971)

severedSo this is some kind of shocking Horror film, right? Er, well its certainly shocking. Seriously, I came into this (I’d never heard of it before, which in hindsight is not surprising) expecting a horror film or murder mystery, maybe something like a Hammer or Amicus film. Its actually a British comedy film, something to do with sexual politics, social etiquette… it was possibly one of the most bizarre things I have ever seen, utterly crazy and strange and…utterly impossible to sum up, really. Some kind of horror, certainly. Very British, back when that meant something, although quite what I’m not entirely sure. 

So whats it about, then? Well its set in the ‘present’ of 1971 but it seems wholly of the 1920s, something from that era. I’m sure even in 1971 it must have seemed terribly anachronistic, totally self-absorbed. In 2020? Crikey. The great Ian Holm, who sadly passed away not so long ago, stars in this looking very young with his film career long ahead of him, playing Martin Lynch-Gibbon, a wine merchant who is enjoying an affair with a mistress, Georgie (Jennie Linden), until his wife Antonia (Lee Remick), ignorant of Martins infidelity,  announces she is having an affair with Martins’ best friend, psychiatrist Palmer Anderson (Richard Attenborough) and that she wants a divorce. Palmer and Antonia’s biggest concern is that Martin doesn’t feel guilty about their affair, they must all stay good freinds. It seems everyone can behave like utter bastards, but the important thing is to be civil about it and don’t cause a fuss. I think Billy Wlder would have had a ball making a film like this, but er, it definitely is not the film Billy Wilder would have made.

severed2Well, what about the severed head, then? I really don’t know. Honor Klein (Claire Bloom) the enigmatic half-sister of Palmer (who Martin at one point finds in bed with Palmer, this is so messed up) makes some kind of speech quoting something about severed heads but it was lost on me. By the time she says it, Martin’s mistress is off with Martins brother Alexander (Clive Revell) and Martin is chasing after Honor despite her tryst with her half-brother whilst Palmer of course is supposedly living with Antonia. Utter cads, the lot of them, but at least they are polite. So very 1920s. Maybe its a study in self-obsessed people who are overwhelmed with self-gratification at the expense of all others, who think they can get away with being complete bastards as long as they are pleasant and civil about it. But how is that supposed to be laugh-out-loud funny in any sane world?

Er… Yes, exactly, Somehow its supposed to be funny, wildly sophisticated, maybe. The biggest shock is the cast- as you may have noted from my notes above, its a brilliant cast so badly wasted its almost criminal. Some of them seem to know they are in a farce, but perhaps director Dick Clement (yeah, he that wrote Auf Wiedersehen, Pet) hadn’t been told. Certainly I’m not so sure some of the cast were in on the joke.

Bet you came close to pressing the ‘Abort’ button. Yeah, oh boy so awfully close. Sometimes horrible calamities like this can be morbidly fascinating though, like you can’t quite believe what your eyes are seeing. 

Anything good about it? Well I did quite like the music score by Stanley Myers (who would later work on The Deer Hunter, of all things), an orchestral score which seemed to have a gentle, sweet, almost timeless life of its own within the film. It was the best thing about the film, for me. That music, and the frankly bizarre alien-world London of so long ago proved quite entertaining, but the latter’s true of any film of that era, its like some other world now, and quite oddly mesmerising. 

A Severed Head is on the Talking Pictures schedules should you feel the urge to hunt it down.