[4 October 2010]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
(Special thanks goes to fellow critic and Village Voice contributor Lance Goldenberg for the premise of this piece).
At some point, The Human Centipede (new to DVD and Blu-ray from IFC Films) will be made into an opera. Not in the non-traditional sense, meaning someone will come along and covert the sadistically sick foreign horror film into some manner of mainstream US morality play. No, what we are talking about is a literal musicale, with acts and solos and a score (perhaps penned by someone like Philip Glass) which captures all the clinic cruelty of Tom Six’s sensational shock fest in all its harrowingly heightened dramatics. Imagine the singular moments: Dr. Heiter singing for his beloved 3-Hund; an American girls duet as they are lost in the woods. Another fabulous passage as our mad scientist explains the medical procedure; Katsuro’s glorification of the Asian male, and his shame when - as the lead in the centipede - he must defecate. Characters dying. The police arriving.
Ever since it hit the festival circuit last year, Six’s experiment in repugnance 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.
Narratively, 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 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.
All lack of memorable arias aside, The Human Centipede is truly not the most nauseating, nasty, or noxious films ever made. That award still goes to Jörg Buttgereit and his sex with the dead epic Nekromantik (another worthy candidate for theatrical adaptation). While proficient in creeping you out, director Six is after a more subtle stomach-turningensation. 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 (and this was done on purpose, according to the commentary on the home video release), 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. On the Blu-ray release, he mentions the country of origin and the casting choices, but only goes so far as to imply a needed language barrier between victim and villain.
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. The commentary also addresses the Third Reich angle, arguing that the doctor was inspired by famous Hitler henchmen and their medical atrocities during the Final Solution. 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. While the availability of the digital domain makes access even greater, there does seem 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 creative constitution to tolerate its twisted, uncompromising brutality. But it’s 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.
So one day, in the not too distant future, some far thinking artistic director of a previously unknown (or even better, highly prestigious) theatrical company will commission a contemporary composer to crack the code in bringing the story of three people bond together, oral to anal, to the stage. They will bristle at any aesthetic challenge and cheer when the intelligentia celebrate their unusual accomplishment. Until then, we have the actual Human Centipede to consider. While far from the typical, its bizarre uniqueness makes it a true must-see.