The Human Centipede (First Session)
Dieter Laser, Ashley C. Williams, Ashlynn Yennie
(IFC FIlms; US theatrical: 28 Apr 2010; 2010)
It has a premise so repugnant that it’s hard to fathom a reason for it to exist. Yet it’s filmed in such a way as to give the disgusting idea of patina of fright film respectability. The acting is impeccable, the direction clean, crisp, and assured. Yet there’s no escaping the core concept - a mad surgeon, known for his skill at separating conjoined twins, so hates the human race that he’s out to reconnect a few unfortunate tourists. His plan? Medically sew their mouths to each other’s anuses, connecting their gastric systems into one long entrail and create…a human centipede. His methodology? Practiced, precise, and wholly perverse. The results? Devastating.
Ever since it hit the festival circuit last year, Tom Six’s The Human Centipede has been the stuff of heated discussion and dismissive scandal. It’s been called everything from a “masterpiece” to a “miscreant pile of self-indulgent garbage.” If it’s art, it’s the kind without any real redeeming social or political value (though a certain subtext can be read into it) and if its exploitation, it often fails to deliver the debauchery one expects from the genre. Landing somewhere solidly in the middle, this is an unforgettable cinematic experience that’s also unforgiveable, unfathomable, and unseemly as Hell. Movies aren’t supposed to make you feel this dirty, this polluted, this…disturbed.
Like Eli Roth’s Hostel, The Human Centipede follows two Americans - fun gals Lindsay (Ashley C. Williams) and Jenny (Ashlynn Yennie) - as they travel across Europe. Hoping to meet a recent acquaintance at a local club, they head out into the night, not fully sure where they are going. When their car gets a flat, they wander the German countryside looking for help. They wind up at the home of Dr. Heiter (Dieter Laser), a severe, unsympathetic man. He drugs them with Ruffies, locks them in his basement lab, and prepares them for his unspeakable experiments. All he needs is another “match” (the truck driver he kidnapped before being “unsuitable”) and it comes in the person of Japanese citizen Katsuro (Akihiro Kitamura). With his horrific creation in place, Heiter feels just like God - that is, until the police come knocking at his door.
Upfront, The Human Centipede is not the most nauseating, nasty, or noxious film ever made. That award still goes to Jörg Buttgereit and his sex with the dead epic Nekromantik. While proficient in creeping you out, director Tom Six is after a more subtle sickening sensation. Equally, there have been many gorier and grosser films, including the fabulous French slasher Inside and Peter Jackson’s brilliant zombie comedy Dead Alive. What little blood flows here falls right in line with the film’s thriller dynamic. What it lacks in all time toxicity, however, The Human Centipede makes up for in flustering skin crawling substance. This is a movie that doesn’t shy away from visualizing the geek show components of its vision.
For many Six will be seen as simply out to shock, to take a crazy idea and run with it to unfiltered and foul ends. While the set-up resembles a dozen of typical terror takes (the lost individuals in a driving rain storm), where he takes the story from that point is prophetic. Six allows his main villain to vocalize his wants over and over again, to the point of making them compulsive and corrupt. When our doctor describes the procedure to his victims, he does so in a manner that makes perfect sense - for an insane idea. All throughout The Human Centipede, Six strikes a serious pose, never going for something satiric or, pardon the pun, tongue in cheek. Since the crime is committed early on, we then have to spend agonizing minutes watching the painful results of his madness.
Six also offers a sly bit of social commentary into the mix by making Heiter a cold-hearted German autocrat, and purposefully using Americans and a Japanese man as his main players. All we’d need is a Brit, a Russian, and an Italian and some kind of World War II allegory could be imagined. Still, even with the missing nationalities, there is definitely a potential political message buried somewhere in the sluice. By using the Neo-Nazi Heiter as our horrid anti-hero, and by fusing the West to the East in such a disgusting if doggerel manner, Six sets up the view from his native Netherlands. While it’s definitely a reach, one can easily envision a scenario in which the struggling superpower and its economic superior are overpowered - and physically fused - by a country continuing its centuries old grasp for control. The whole ass to mouth thing is just the sledgehammer icing on the metaphor.
With Heiter’s star-making turn as one of the great baddies of all time and the movie’s concentrated ability to give you goosebumps, this is the kind of horror film that doesn’t scare as much as it simmers. It settles in the back of your brain and bewilders you with questions about motive, meaning, and place within the medium. Six is surely out to provoke, and it’s worked. While making a name for itself among the horror faithful at many genre-oriented events, it took IFC to go out on a limb and rescue the movie from distribution limbo. Of course, no one is expecting Avatar like results for a work in which half-naked people are surgically connected in such a profane manner, but there seems to be a concerted effort (by critics and blogtalk pundits, mostly) to keep the movie from being seen. The main complaint - like pornography, the film has no real intrinsic value outside of a baser prurient interest level.
True, The Human Centipede does cater to a considerably questionable niche, one with the stomach to tolerate its twisted, uncompromising brutality. But its not just some pseudo-snuff film gussied up with gallons of grue or smut disguised as some insight into the haunted human psyche. While definitely not for everyone, it is also an arresting and imminently watchable work of jaundiced genius. It takes a certain crackpot mentality to come up with an idea as unhinged as this and to offer it in such a concise, clinic manner speaks volumes about Six’s skill.
When you consider the source, this could have been a much more degenerate and wanton and experience, and for many unfamiliar with the weird worlds within international horror, The Human Centipede will be viewed as a pathetic plague. Instead of being eradicated, however, it should be embraced for what it is: fearless, adamant, and completely of its own design. You make not like the experience, but you will never forget it.