DSQ > Winter/Spring 2007, Volume 27, No.1-2

The film adaptation of Brian Aldiss's novel Brothers of the Head is a tragic pseudo-documentary about the short lives of conjoined twins Barry and Tom Howe (played by nondisabled twins Harry and Luke Treadaway.) While still in their teens, the boys are sold by their father to music mogul Zak Bedderwick, who introduces them to the turbulent 1970s British punk rock scene. Through their combined talents (Tom composes the band's songs, Barry becomes the fiery lead singer), the twins rise above their status as a novelty act to become notorious rock stars with a cult following. Their triumph over the expectations of the nondisabled society around them is symbolized through their venomously punk rendition of the ditty "Every Little Moment," a song given to them by Bedderwick as an appropriate Christmas gift, because it was the signature tune of another successful "Siamese act," the Hilton Sisters. As the boys trash the song onstage, one gets a sense that these twins may in some sense be "inspirational," but they will define the concept in their own terms.


The film walks a tightrope between reinforcing ableist myths and destabilizing them. The nondisabled characters' obvious discomfort when talking about what finally happens to the twins, combined with frequent past-tense references to the pair generates uncertainty about whether these punk rockers finally descend into madness and violence. To the degree this idea is exploited for the sake of suspense, the film treads the familiar ground of other twin-based horror films like Brian DePalma's Sisters, Frank Hennenlotter's Basket Case, and David Cronenberg's Dead Ringers. Furthermore, the boys' prosthetic deformity seems clearly constructed to justify homoerotic titillation as the handsome twin Barry is frequently forced to embrace the equally handsome Tom as the pair walks from place to place. The homoerotic tension is increased by the use of camera angles that blur the distance between the two young men and often make it seem as if they are fondling or kissing each other during conversations.

The film's "documentary" structure, however, lets it rise above such lurid elements to become (perhaps unintentionally) a more realistic disability narrative, one that forces a nondisabled audience to question what they really know (or can know) about people with profound physical impairments. One significant result of the cinema verite style is the elimination of a stereotypically monstrous character from Aldiss's novel: a third head that starts as a tumor on one of the boys' shoulders and becomes malevolently sentient by the end of the book. This character is summarily dismissed as a myth by a sympathetic doctor in the film.

Aside from forcing viewers to continually question what is "really" going on in the twins' lives, the focus on behind-the scenes experiences of these rock stars allows for the incorporation of moments that critique the "medical gaze" and highlight the unacknowledged vulnerability of people with nonstandard bodies. The "director" of the documentary, for instance, asks the boys' former manager why he found it necessary to beat Barry Howe; the man can only reply that Barry performed better "under the cosh." This statement is immediately undercut with close-up flashbacks of a sullen and bruised Barry performing at rehearsals. There are also scenes where an unidentified presence with a hand-held camera tries to spy on the brothers while they are bathing. This is one assault Barry will not allow: he throws a towel and tells the intruder to "F*** off!" The presence triumphs later in the film, however, to gaze at the boys while they sleep. By not identifying who is "behind" the camera during these violations of privacy, the film indicts as voyeurs all the nondisabled people who want to stare at the twins and use them as fodder for personal fantasies: the film-makers, the doctors, and finally, the audience itself.

Copyright (c) 2007 Dana Fore

Beginning with Volume 36, Issue No. 4 (2016), Disability Studies Quarterly is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives license unless otherwise indicated. 

Disability Studies Quarterly is published by The Ohio State University Libraries in partnership with the Society for Disability Studies.

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