The Block Beheading is a decapitation illusion performed by some magicians, and is a variation on the Head Chopper illusion.
The illusion was pioneered by Peruvian magician Richiardi Jr in the 1970s, and first performed widely by him on his TV show Chamber of Horror and Illusion in 1979. Since then, it has been refined and improved by various magicians.
This is an especially effective illusion as, like the French Guillotine, the simple design of it shows that there is no possibility of any kind of substitution. As a result, it leaves the audience in no doubt at all that the assistant/victim actually has been decapitated.
Performance (Original version)In Richiardi Jr's original version, the illusion uses a large wooden block resembling a tree stump and a rectangular metal blade. Attached to the upper surface of the block are two vertical metal guides for the blade, making it similar to the conventional Head Chopper illusion, but without the associated stocks.
The illusion begins with the assistant who has been selected as the victim being made to kneel down in front of the block. They then bend forward and place their head on the block with their neck between the metal guides. The magician then stands over them, straddling their upper body. Taking the metal blade, he places it between the metal guides and rests the sharpened cutting edge on the assistant's neck. With the blade in position, the magician then drives it downward through the assistant's neck, visibly beheading them. As the assistant's severed head rolls forward on the block, their now-headless body collapses down on the floor on the other side of the blade. The magician then takes their head and displays it to the audience. As with many of Richiardi Jr's illusions, the assistant is not restored at the end of the illusion.
Since Richiardi Jr's original performance, other magicians have improved the illusion, although it is rarely performed due to its extreme shock value. The main improvement has been to re-style the illusion along the lines of a traditional British-style block-and-axe execution. In this version, the block resembles a traditional execution block with cut-outs for the victim's head and shoulders to leave their neck exposed to the axe, which also resembles a traditional headsman's axe.
When this version is performed, the assistant kneels down behind the block and bends forward over it, placing their chin in the head cut-out and resting their shoulders in the corresponding cut-out on the other side of the block. The magician then takes the axe, stands at the side of the block, and raises the axe. Bringing the axe down on the block, he cuts through the assistant's neck, visibly beheading them. The assistant's severed head then falls into the wicker basket in front of the block, while their headless body collapses behind it. The magician then reaches into the basket to retrieve the assistant's severed head, which he then displays to the audience. As with Richiardi Jr's version of the illusion, the assistant is not usually restored at the end of the illusion. Because the victim's head is never obscured from view at any time, the audience is left in no doubt whatsoever that the assistant really has been beheaded.
As no special abilities are required from the victim, other than the obvious courage required to place their head on the block and allow themselves to be decapitated, this version is sometimes used as a "special effect" in movies and TV shows where a character is to be executed by beheading.
Another variation on the original illusion completely does away with the block. Instead, the magician uses a sword or a large knife to behead a kneeling or seated victim. In most stage performances, the victim's head is first covered with a cloth before they are beheaded, and their head is usually then transferred to a table, where it is uncovered and shown to still be alive.
As with the block-and-axe version, this is sometimes used as a "special effect" in movies and TV shows. When used in this way, the victim's head is usually left uncovered.
Due to its extreme shock value, this illusion is only rarely performed by magicians.
- In 2003, during an appearance on Dutch TV, magician Hans Klok performed the block-and-axe version on actress Leelee Sobieski, who was in Europe to promote her TV mini-series Dangerous Liaisons.
- While acting as a guest assistant to a magician she is friends with, actress Mischa Barton took part in a performance of the block-and-axe version.
- At Magic Con 2016 in Las Vegas, magician John Spencer performed the block-and-axe version on his guest assistant, singer Taylor Swift.
Use in popular culture
Although only rarely performed by magicians as part of their normal shows, both the improved block-and-axe version and the sword beheading have often been used in movies and TV shows as a "special effect" when a character is to be beheaded.
- In 1986, the block-and-axe version was used for the final execution scene in the movie Lady Jane, where Lady Jane Grey, played by Helena Bonham Carter, is being beheaded.
- In the 1990 French TV movie Les 1001 nuits (aka 1001 Arabian Nights), it was used for the scene in which Sheherazade, played by a 21-year-old Catherine Zeta Jones in her feature film debut, is beheaded.
- The 2003 TV mini-series Henry VIII used the block-and-axe version several times, including for the execution of Catherine Howard, played by Emily Blunt.
- In the 2004 French movie Luisa Sanfelice, the block-and-axe version was used for the execution of the title character, played by model and actress Laetitia Casta.
- In the 2010 TV series The Tudors, it was used twice in the same scene for the twin executions of Catherine Howard and her lady-in-waiting Lady Rochford. When the scene was shot, Joanne King, who played Lady Rochford, insisted on the use of a stand-in which forced the director to shoot her beheading from behind. However, Tamzin Merchant, playing Catherine Howard, agreed to take part in the illusion, allowing her beheading to be shot from the front and show her head tumbling into the basket.
- In 1997, the sword beheading was used in the WW2 movie Paradise Road for the scene where Australian nurse Susan Macarthy, played by Cate Blanchett, is executed for being insolent to the Japanese guards at the POW camp where the movie is set. The moment of her beheading was shot in close-up, and clearly shows the sword passing through her neck and her head beginning to fall to the ground.
- The 2008 movie The Other Boleyn Girl used the sword beheading for historical accuracy in the scene where Anne Boleyn, played by Natalie Portman is executed.
- Also in 2008, it was used for the scene in The Tudors where Anne Boleyn, this time played by Natalie Dormer is executed.
- In 2010, it was used for the scene in Machete where Machete's wife, played by Nina Leon, is decapitated by Steven Seagal using a katana.
- An adaption of the original Richiardi Jr version was used in the 2016 movie Now You See Me 2 for the scene in which the character of Lula, played by Lizzy Caplan, is beheaded by an improvised decapitation machine.
- In Saw V (2008), another variation on the illusion was used for the scene where Ashley, played by Laura Gordon, is decapitated by being pulled backwards into a set of wall-mounted blades.